It’s a reflex: Something happens with the Braves, you ask the man in charge. So I sought out Bobby Cox on Wednesday afternoon, and I said: “If Chipper does quit, what do you do for a third baseman next year?”
Cox smiled. Then he said: “Not my problem.”
And that’s when it hit. For all the changes undergone by this organization these past two decades, nothing has or could prepare us for what’s surely coming next spring. We’ve seen the Braves without Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux; without John Smoltz and David Justice; without Terry Pendleton at third base and without Andruw Jones in center field … and we’ve heard them without Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren … but we’ve never encountered anything like what’s apparently at hand.
No Bobby Cox in the dugout. No Chipper Jones batting third. No remaining touchstones to the era of baseball that made us care about the Braves in the first place.
Cox has announced his retirement. Chipper stands to announce his any day now. (After Wednesday’s game he said: “In good time.”) Yes, there’s symmetry there. As general manager, Cox drafted Jones No. 1 overall in June 1990, and since arriving in the big leagues to stay in September 1993 the great switch-hitter has known only one manager. And we on the periphery have come to regard them as a package deal.
We’re about to see the package unwrapped. We’re about to see the Braves work with two fewer numbers at their disposal. (Surely Nos. 6 and 10 will be retired along with their distinguished wearers.) We’re about to see the final holdovers from the run of excellence severed from the team they made great.
Think of it this way: Cox won division titles over 14 consecutive completed seasons managing the Braves, and if you credit Chipper as being part of the improbable 1993 NL West championship team — he was a September call-up — he was part of 12 first-place finishes. Only two other members of the 2010 club have been part of even one Atlanta division title: Tim Hudson and Brian McCann, each of whom arrived in 2005.
How would it feel, McCann was asked, to become the senior Brave among everyday players? Said McCann, who’s all of 26: “Until something happens [with Chipper], I don’t think that’s something I want to comment on.”
And what is there to say? We all knew the day was coming when the Braves would be without Cox and even without Chipper, but that won’t mean the day itself won’t hit us like a two-by-four upside the ol’ noggin.
Back to the original premise of today’s exercise: What might the Braves do for a third baseman? I asked the ascendant Troy Glaus if relocation to first base is a permanent career move. He said no. “In my heart I’ll always be a third baseman. Actually, I’ll always be a shortstop, but we know that’s not going to happen. I could play third.”
For the Braves? In 2011? “Maybe,” Glaus said.
We’ll have plenty of time to bat this around these next few months. (Glaus, as we know, is working on a one-year contract and might be slugging his way out of the Braves’ price range.) But the question itself gives us pause: We’ve never had to ask what the Braves would do for a third baseman because we’ve come to expect Chipper to be standing on the left side of the infield, same as we expect to see Cox at the near end of the dugout.
Next year we might not see either. No Chipper at the hot corner. No Cox grousing about balls and strikes. No “Crazy Train” when the No. 3 spot comes up. No Cox with his awful nicknames.
No Bobby Cox and no Chipper Jones. And what, Bill Acree was asked, would that mean?
Said Acree, the Braves’ director of travel/equipment manager and a team employee since 1966: “The world would come to an end.”
And it might. It just might.
With that, we’ll open the phone lines. (Which have been open all along, but bear with me.) I’ll be here to chat during tonight’s Braves-Rays games, and I’ll let you know if anyone retires. Unless I’m the retiree. In which case I’ll just close the computer and walk away.