The great manager went to the mound to discuss high-level strategy. It was a tense moment — runners on second and third, late innings, Braves ahead but not by much — and Bobby Cox said to his pitcher: “Tommy, I think we ought to walk this guy.”
Said Tom Glavine: “Where do you suggest we put him?”
The Braves’ infield had congregated on the mound. Every head turned toward first base. Where, lo and behold, there was an opposing runner. The great manager had gotten it wrong: The bases were loaded.
Thinking fast, the great manager told his players: “If this gets out, you’re all fined $1,000.”
That story was one of many recounted Friday at the luncheon where the great manager was inducted into the Braves’ Hall of Fame. (Later he would have his No. 6 retired in a pregame ceremony at Turner Field.) Significantly, the who’s-on-first bit of comic relief was offered by Cox himself. For all the winning the Braves did under this man, the man himself never gave the indication that the team was winning because of him. “We all have egos,” Cox would tell reporters Friday, but his always seemed the smallest in the famously serene clubhouse.
Which is why players loved him. Asked what Cox did for him, the incisive Greg Maddux said: “He relaxed me.” Then, a bit later: “He was the same whether it was Opening Day or Game No. 120. That consistency you saw in him day in and day out bled down to us.”
Said David Justice: “You never saw panic in him. You never saw fear. We always felt like we were going to win.”
This doesn’t mean the players thought their placid skipper was a pushover. Justice recounted the tale of Ryan Klesko throwing his helmet with such force the headgear skittered across Cox’s feet. “Bobby went to stomping on that helmet like he was trying to put out a fire,” Justice said. “That may be why he needed those knee replacements.”
Another: Maddux had come to Cox before a game, as was Maddux’s wont, to go over scenarios. On this night Maddux had said of a particular left-handed hitter: “If it’s the fifth inning, I want two pitches to try to get him out [before pitching around him].”
The lefty didn’t bat in the fifth inning, but he did in the sixth. Cox, who sometimes had trouble keeping up with Maddux’s three-dimensional chess, made a visit. “Is this where you want the two pitches?” he said.
Said Maddux, irked: “Don’t you remember?”
Cox: “Mad Dog, what are you trying to do?”
Maddux: “I’m going to get him to pop up in foul territory outside third base.”
Cox: “Go ahead and try — even though he’s hit 50 home runs and he’s hitting .450 against you.”
Cox returned to the dugout, whereupon pitching coach Leo Mazzone asked: “Aren’t we going to walk him?”
Said Cox: “No, we’re going to make him pop up in foul territory outside third base.”
Which is what happened. This was another look-at-dumb-old-me yarn Cox told on himself, but it’s worth noting that the savant Maddux couldn’t remember who the hitter was. Barry Bonds? No. “Some guy with happy feet. Played for the Reds.” Sean Casey? “No. This was before the guy got traded to the Yankees.” Paul O’Neill? “No. Maybe he didn’t get traded to the Yankees.”
So who was the lefty hitter? Said Cox: “Luis Gonzalez.”
(Let the record reflect that Gonzalez never played for the Yankees or the Reds. Sometimes even smart guys blank out.)
There has never been a better players’ manager than Bobby Cox, who had three rules: Be on time, play hard, and play the right way. There was, however, a seldom-mentioned fourth. Said Glavine: “You never asked Bobby what your role on the team was.”
In 1990, the year the then-GM Cox replaced Russ Nixon as field manager, the Braves were flying home from a lousy West Coast trip. A certain pitcher was complaining about how he was being used. Certain other pitchers, perhaps refreshed by an in-flight beverage, urged their teammate to confront the manager. The pitcher did — in the clubhouse at 4 a.m. Said Glavine: “It didn’t go very well.”
Some of those lurking outside the door remember hearing Cox tell the relief pitcher Rick Luecken in the wee hours of Sept. 13, 1990: “You know what that [bullpen] phone rings and I tell you to warm up? That’s your role.”
Coda: Luecken, who compiled an ERA of 5.77 as a Brave, was claimed off waivers by Toronto 11 days later.
That was Luecken’s role. He got to go pitch in Canada. Bobby Cox’s role was to stay here and win 14 consecutive division titles. One of them had his number retired Friday night.
By Mark Bradley