He announced his plans to retire more than a year ago, and he and I have talked about it a half-dozen times since. But it didn’t really hit me until after the third game in Philadelphia last week, when the Philly and national writers stopped to shake his hand as they were leaving. Bobby Cox really is going away.
Love him or lampoon him, he has become part of our lives. He has managed the Braves since June 22, 1990, and we pause here to note that Georgia’s football coach on that distant date was Ray Goff, that Georgia’s basketball coach was Hugh Durham and that Juan Antonio Samaranch had not yet announced that the 1996 Summer Olympics were coming to “the city of Atlanta.”
Twenty years in the same job. Fourteen first-place finishes. One World Series title. (And only one, as his critics constantly remind us.) That’s a Hall of Fame resume, but sometimes I wonder if anyone around here can cut through the blather to see it.
It has become locally convenient to credit Bobby Cox for none of the games the Braves win while debiting him for every single loss. Anyone could have managed Glavine and Maddux and Smoltz, goes the line of thinking, except that no team in the history of sports has ever managed itself. (The Cubs had Mark Prior and Kerry Wood a few years ago — how’d those prized young arms turn out?)
And now we hear that Cox is culpable for his final club’s September slide, which again makes me wonder if I’m seeing the same doings as everyone else. With Chipper Jones hurt and Troy Glaus used up and Jair Jurrjens and Kris Medlen hurt and essentially an empty chair playing center field, does this look like a first-place team?
It isn’t Cox who has dragged the Braves down, I submit, but Cox who propped them up — 99 days in first place — so long. A lesser manager wouldn’t have kept this team buoyant after a poor April, but this manager kept believing in guys and tinkering with his lineup until something finally worked, and suddenly it was Memorial Day and the Braves were in first place.
We can and will quibble over his in-game decisions. That’s part of baseball. (As the famous baseball man Rocky Bridges had it: “There are three things the average American male thinks he can do better than anyone else: Build a fire, run a hotel and manage a big-league baseball club.”) I wouldn’t suggest that Cox never errs when it comes to tactics. Every manager does.
But I would suggest a team of such modest means that has conjured up 24 victories in its final at-bat has overcome both credulity and its modest means. I would suggest that these Braves rose so high for so long — and could well make the playoffs even now — because they were managed by a true believer. Who else would have stuck with Glaus into May?
Maybe Cox shouldn’t have bunted with Martin Prado against the Nationals last month. (He got mad at me for asking.) Maybe he should have redone his rotation to match Philly’s Big Three last week. (Although a long post by Eric Seidman on the pay site Baseball Prospectus examined the decision after the fact and reached no conclusion.) Maybe he should have given up on Rick Ankiel sooner. (But didn’t Ankiel drive in both runs in Washington on Sunday?)
OK, enough. The point here isn’t to try to persuade any of the bashers. If the space that awaits Cox in Cooperstown isn’t evidence enough for those folks, nothing will be. Today’s intent is to say that we soon we will be taking our last look at the greatest manager we’ll ever see. And if you’re too busy griping to give him his due, you have my condolences.
With that, I’ll open the floor for questions, comments and the usual Cox counterarguments. It’s overcast at Turner Field at the moment, but I wouldn’t take that as an omen. I have a positive feeling about the Braves this week, and I’ll be obliged if you join me in keeping the good vibrations happenin’, as it were.