The Atlanta Braves opened the 2005 season with 46-year-old Julio Franco subbing at first and a handful of rookies in the batting order. Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine had been gone a couple of seasons, Chipper Jones had dropped out of MVP voting in '04, and 38-year-old John Smoltz was attempting to return to the rotation after three years as the closer.
It wasn't supposed to be pretty.
And yet somehow the Braves finished 90-72, wrapping up their 14th consecutive division title. In all of his years at the helm, this was Bobby Cox's finest work and he deserved that NL Manager of the Year Award, his third (he also won the AL award once). At 2,503 W's and counting, Cox, who is retiring at season's end, will end his career sandwiched between contemporaries Tony La Russa (third all time with 2,635 wins) and Joe Torre (2,324).
Without question, Cox leaves the game as an all-time great.
And without question he leaves the game far from the greatest of all time conversation. That's the parting gift he receives for being in charge of a team widely considered to be underachievers.
In that 1991-2005 run of consecutive division titles (there was no division winner in the strike-shortened '94 season), Cox had seven Cy Young winners, six 100-win seasons, two MVPs and an army of All-Stars and soon-to-be Hall of Famers at his disposal. And yet, despite all of that talent, and the presence of Jane Fonda, he has just one ring to show for it.
It's kind of strange, isn't it? A career so decorated somehow feels so incomplete. It's not quite as bad as Marv Levy's leading the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl losses, but a shortage of titles is still bad enough to blemish the otherwise stellar record of the Cox-era Braves.
When you look at Torre, a guy who was fired by the Cardinals early in 1995 and came to the Yankees the following year having won only 47 percent of his games in 14 years as a manager, you have a better appreciation of the kind of consistency Cox brought to the franchise. But then you notice that Torre won four rings in the next five years with the same level of talent Cox had in Atlanta. La Russa has won two rings in 13 postseasons.
The Florida Marlins franchise has been in existence for only 18 years, and has more rings (two) than Cox's Braves. Beyond baseball, the Detroit Red Wings have appeared in the past 19 playoffs and have four Stanley Cups since 1990. The San Antonio Spurs have played in the past 13 playoffs and have four championships in that run.
In the foreword to John Schuerholz's book "Built to Win: Inside Stories and Leadership Strategies from Baseball's Winningest GM," Bob Costas said "only a short attention-span world -- dominated by SportsCenter highlights and instant analysis (or lack thereof) on sports talk radio -- would value [Florida's] achievements above Atlanta's."
The Marlins have never even won their division and have only two playoff appearances in franchise history. But it's what they were able to do in those two appearances that make the casual fan ask, "Why didn't the Braves of the 1990s do that?"
Why didn't Cox do that?
Costas was correct in suggesting sports culture has a terrible habit of overlooking the details tucked inside a regular season that contribute to the overall narrative of that season. But I would also argue that our judging an athlete's or coach's greatness by his ability to "win it all" started long before "SportsCenter" earned its place in pop culture.
Warren Buffett once said, "The first rule is to not lose. The second rule is to not forget the first rule." The great philosopher Vince Lombardi said, "There is only one place in my game and that is first place." And my personal favorite from Dale Earnhardt: "If you finish second, then you're the first loser."
Former Baseball Prospectus writer and famed baseball stat guy James Click, writing about whether Torre is a Hall of Famer in the book "Baseball Between the Numbers" said that "the manager's true influence on a team is revealed more by his ability to get the most out of his players than by his in-game decisions." Was there something in the way Cox dealt with the players in the postseason that hindered the team's ability to win more championships?
Questioning Cox's place in history isn't about second-guessing his rotation decisions or absentmindedly disregarding what he was able to accomplish during the long and grueling regular season year in and year out. The numbers speak for themselves. But in the argument about an athlete's or manager's place in history, looking at what he didn't do becomes as important as what he did. Besides, it is merely human nature to want to know the standings when the story, any story, ends. So while the countless battles all have their importance in history, ultimately what we really want to know is who wins the war.
Or who gets the girl.
Or in the case of baseball, with its 162 battles that stretch from spring to fall, who won the World Series. Only three managers can boast a career record of 500 games over .500: John McGraw, Joe McCarthy and Cox. McGraw won three Series, McCarthy seven. Cox still has a chance to add to his total, so his story is incomplete.
I'm not trying to kick a guy as he's on his way out. But having lived in Atlanta a few years, I know there are quite a few die-hard fans who would gladly exchange that historic streak of division titles for some missed postseasons, a few wild-card berths and a couple of more rings.
And I think if Cox were being honest, he would agree.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.