The great manager said it after Game 3: “We’re not the best team in baseball, OK?” But you know what these Braves were?
Pound for pound, they were the most entertaining aggregation we’ve seen around here. And you know what the great manager also called this band of Braves? “The hardest-working team I’ve ever had.”
It ended for both parties Monday, for Bobby Cox and his final ballclub. It ended because these diminished Braves weren’t good enough to deliver big hits or field their positions in the crucible of October. It ended not because they didn’t give it the ol’ professional try after the abject disappointment of Sunday’s Game 3. On the contrary, it ended because a true professional pitcher talked the departing manager into letting him go a batter too far.
Seventh inning, one out. Working with a one-run lead, Derek Lowe walked Aubrey Huff, then yielded a swinging-bunt single to Buster Posey. It was just the second hit the Giants had mustered, a point Lowe surely made to Cox when the manager paid a visit. Indeed, Lowe had begun lobbying when Cox was still on the infield grass. After a short dialogue, the manager patted his pitcher on the flank and let him stay.
And Lowe walked Pat Burrell on five pitches to load the bases.
That was it for Lowe, and that one final walk was enough to lose the game. Such was this team’s margin for error. Speaking of which …
Alex Gonzalez threw high to second on Juan Uribe’s RBI grounder, enabling the bases to stay loaded with the game tied. And then, after Jonny Venters struck out Aaron Rowand, the No. 8 hitter Cody Ross — considered a target of interest for the Braves back in July — drove the go-ahead single into left field.
Being the Braves, they tried to give us a finish, as Ernie Johnson Sr. would say. Rick Ankiel walked with one out in the ninth. Then Eric Hinske, who was very nearly the hero of Game 3, walked. The winning run was aboard. But Omar Infante struck out, and it was down to Melky Cabrera, which tells us something about this season and this roster. Cabrera grounded to Juan Uribe at third, and this fighting club was finally finished.
And then something wonderful happened. Even as the Giants were celebrating at the center of Turner Field, the crowd started chanting, “Bobby! Bobby!” And the great manager, his heart surely breaking, emerged from the dugout to tip his cap and acknowledge the cheers, and then you looked back at the happy Giants and you saw them …
Standing and applauding Bobby Cox.
Said Chipper Jones, who has seen many things: “That was classy.”
People on the outside don’t understand the reverence in which this manager was held in this game. His critics see him as the guy who only won one World Series, but there can be different levels of success — yes, even in professional sports. And Bobby Cox’s last act was his greatest.
He took a team that lost Chipper Jones, Martin Prado, Kris Medlen and Jair Jurrjens along the way and led the National League East for 99 improbable days. He squeezed 91 victories and a wild card out of one of the weakest rosters ever to grace a postseason diamond. And he made the Giants work like crazy to win three games by one skinny run apiece. If you don’t think that’s managing … well, I don’t know what to tell you.
But his team knew, and the winning team in this Division Series knew, too. These Braves weren’t the best team in baseball or even, in terms of aggregate talent, the 12th-best, but they got to October and they gave it a go, and they gave us 26 wins in the final at-bat along the way.
Afterward Cox addressed his final team, or he tried. Said Chipper: “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. Out of all the teams he’s had, he’s got a soft spot for this club.”
And what did Cox actually say? “Maybe 10 words. He couldn’t get it out. He started to break down.”
Before the game, I was talking with Reid Johnson, a fan from Smyrna, and he called this whole season “a great ride.” And that’s what it was, from Jason Heyward’s Opening Day home run to the final out of Game 4. It was a great ride, a wild ride, a sentimental journey with the best manager we’ll ever see. That it ended Monday night changes nothing. It was, and will forever be, a season to remember and cherish.
Thanks, guys. Thanks, Bobby. Go in peace.