It’s unfortunate the long and meritorious career of a Hall of Fame manager can, at least in the minds of many locals, be boiled down to one at-bat on Oct. 26, 1991. It’s unfortunate because the move that has come to be seen as wrong-headed was made for sound reasons.
Bobby Cox brought Charlie Leibrandt, a left-handed pitcher who’d been a starter all his career, in to face the righthander Kirby Puckett with the Braves and Twins tied in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 6 of the World Series. Puckett hit a home run. The Braves would lose the Series the next night, also in extra innings. Those looking to justify the oft-voiced claim — “Cox has always been a bad tactician” — start there.
But look close: Leibrandt had faced Puckett twice in that World Series, striking him out both times. In 1991, Leibrandt had retired righthanders at a higher rate than lefties. (Righties hit .237 off Leibrandt in 1991; lefties hit .274.) And when you’re tied as a visitor in extra innings, you know you have to get six outs to win, not just three. Why not summon a starting pitcher, a veteran of postseasons past who’d won 15 games that season, as opposed to a 21-year-old Mark Wohlers?
Because, you’re saying, it didn’t work. But wouldn’t that, on one side at least, invalidate every move made in every baseball game ever played? Was Tony La Russa wrong for letting Dennis Eckersley pitch to Kirk Gibson in 1988? Was Sparky Anderson wrong for having Pat Darcy work to Carlton Fisk in 1975?
The inconvenient truth is that most managers, given the same personnel, would make the same moves most of the time. As Greg Maddux would say, it then comes down to a pitcher making pitches and the hitter trying to trump him.
Can Cox be maddening in his seeming overuse of the bullpen (to say nothing of Greg Norton)? Sure. But even in a season that hasn’t seemed the esteemed manager’s finest, his team entered the final 10 days with a realistic chance to make the playoffs. And that body of work is a better measure of Cox than one swing by the Hall of Famer Puckett.
The hallmark of Cox’s teams is that they keep playing. They don’t implode from internal strife. That’s why his teams have finished first more times than any other manager’s in the history of the sport. (Cox has 15 first-place finishes; Joe Torre has 12; Casey Stengel had 10.) Cox’s men keep playing because they like playing for him. If they thought their manager was an in-game dunce, we’d have known it by now. We’d have known because they’d have quit on him.
It’s intriguing that Cox’s critics focus on the post season, which owing to the addition of the Division Series has been rendered almost a coin flip, and not the six-month regular season, which is the truer test of a manager and his team. It’s also fascinating that Cox is never given credit for any October move that worked. He began to use John Smoltz as a closer in the 1999 postseason, and he even used Maddux to finish Game 5 of the 1998 NLCS in San Diego. And the one Series his teams won turned on, of all things, a Cox choice.
Oct. 25, 1995: Wohlers had been touched for a home run and a double to begin the ninth. Cox summoned the lefthander Pedro Borbon Jr., who hadn’t pitched in nearly three weeks, to face Jim Thome, Sandy Alomar and Kenny Lofton. Borbon retired all three. The Braves took a 3-1 Series lead and would win the title three nights later. Should fairness not dictate that we hear as much about Borbon as Leibrandt?
Here’s hoping that, as Bobby Cox’s valedictory tour begins, we see him for what he truly has been. (And having Cox work one final more is Solomonic: It affords him a final go-around without leaving matters open-ended.) Even above John Schuerholz and Tom Glavine and Terry Pendleton and Smoltz and Chipper Jones, this manager is the reason the Braves became and remained the Braves.