Commentary

Bobby Cox is a 'one-of-a-kind' manager

Skipper will retire at season's end after spending the past 21 years in Atlanta's dugout

Originally Published: September 28, 2010
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

The Greatest Manager of His Generation was staring into his iPhone one day last week, hunting for that magic app that miraculously tells him the weather forecast.

"It's not gonna rain 'til 10 o'clock," Bobby Cox announced, finally, after this impressive little research project.

[+] EnlargeBobby Cox
AP Photo/Rob CarrUnder the guidance of Bobby Cox, the Braves won 14 straight division titles from 1991 to 2005.

"Well," said a visitor to the Braves manager's office, "as long as it doesn't rain while they're trying to honor you before the game."

"Oh, [fill in colorful word here]," Cox retorted with a laugh, as uncomfortable in that spotlight as ever.

Well, like it or not, many of those teams he has spent a lifetime outmanaging have been lining up to honor Cox for months now, as the end of his remarkable managerial era approached. The Greatest Manager of His Generation never did enjoy those ceremonies much, though. And, not surprisingly, that hasn't changed.

"But I'm always humbled by them," he said.

The Cubs gave him a No. 6 from the Wrigley Field scoreboard. The Astros presented him with a cowboy hat and boots. The Reds bestowed wineglasses with the insignia of every National League team. The Cardinals rounded up an autographed mural of Stan Musial. The Phillies' grounds crew slipped him a cigar box that used to belong to the late, great Harry Kalas.

A farmer in Georgia carved out a corn maze in Cox's honor. ("I haven't seen that yet," the manager reported. "We need to take a flight over it, I guess.") And Delta Air Lines even painted a giant No. 6 on the Braves' charter plane earlier this month. ("You know, I sat in the dugout at Citi Field and watched all the planes fly over," Cox quipped. "And not one of them had a '6' on it.")

But soon, Cox knows, there will be no more charters to catch, no more ceremonies at home plate, no more gifts to accept so humbly and, in a slightly more momentous development, no more games to manage.

Yep, it's true. That really is happening. The final game of Cox's 29th regular season in the dugout arrives Sunday. If the stars line up and the Braves win enough games this week, Cox's 16th trip to the postseason will follow several days thereafter.

But that, friends, will be that.

The Earth will keep spinning. The Braves will keep playing. The names will keep appearing on the lineup card.

Cox just won't be writing those names on that card anymore.

And that remains as hard to imagine now as it felt 12 months ago, when he and his bosses announced that this would be his final season managing the team he has come to personify for two historic, indelible decades.

"It's hard to even fathom," said Chipper Jones, who has known Cox since he was a hotshot high school phenom and has played for him for the past 18 seasons. "I couldn't begin to tell you what next spring training will feel like when I walk into that locker room because it's felt one way for my entire career. It's comfortable. It's home. And that's why I hope whatever decision the Braves make about the next manager, it's somebody who's familiar with the way things work, with what guys are used to around here, so it's not culture shock."

Uh, sorry to have to relay this news, Chipper, but this just in: It will be culture shock -- no matter who is hanging pictures in that manager's office next spring.

After all, how could it be anything but culture shock? Just try to digest what the next Braves manager has to follow:

• He has to follow a man who has won 2,501 games as a major league manager, the fourth most in history.

• He has to follow a man who is more than 500 games over .500 (2,501-1,999) in his managerial career -- a distinction shared by only John McGraw and Joe McCarthy.

• He has to follow a man who has finished in first place in 15 seasons, more than any other manager who ever lived.

• He has to follow one of the five men in history to manage the same team for 20 consecutive seasons. (The rest of that distinguished group: McGraw, Connie Mack, Walter Alston and Tom Lasorda.)

• And he has to follow a man who has done this job for so long that, just in the time Cox has managed the Braves, the 15 other National League teams have ripped through 106 managers. Yeah, 106.

But hey, other than that, it'll be no big deal.

"You know, I've played for other managers," outfielder Matt Diaz said. "And it's not something I look forward to at all."

Diaz is not what we would describe as alone in that sentiment, either. Pretty much everyone else who has managed a big league baseball team has left a trail of players who think that whatever bad stuff happened to them, it was at least partly the manager's fault.

Cox, on the other hand, has set a record that might never be broken: We've never heard a single player rip him. Not one. Not ever.

"If somebody has, I've never seen it. I've never heard it," said Braves president John Schuerholz, the man who teamed with Cox to form the longest-running manager/general manager tag team in history. "I never even heard it secondhand. I never even heard it fourth-hand."

"He makes you feel so special about what you do," backup catcher David Ross said. "Even if it's the smallest little thing you can do for your team, he notices it."

Want an example? Bullpen coach Eddie Perez, who had two stints catching for Cox, once told us a story about his final season as a player, in 2005. Early in the season, Perez hurt his shoulder and couldn't throw. So Cox called him into the office.

"I thought I was going to get released," Perez said. "Instead, he told me, 'Eddie, I need you now more than ever. I need you to teach these kids how to act and how to play in the big leagues.' I walked out of there, and I thought, 'He just made me feel like I was the most important guy on the team -- and I couldn't even play.'"

And those sorts of testimonials to Cox's leadership genius go on and on. If you typed them all up and printed them out, they'd stretch from Peachtree Street to Cox's birthplace in not-so-conveniently located Tulsa, Okla.

"I was a scrap-heap guy, and now I've been here five straight years," Diaz said. "And that's all because of Bobby. You know, I have a son on the way. I don't think we'll name him Bobby -- but it's in the mix."

Diaz has played for four big league managers. The first three never saw what he had to offer or didn't have the patience to let him grow into offering it. But Cox did. And because he did, Diaz can add his name to the lonnnnng list of Braves players who learned firsthand that not all managers handle their players, or their teams, the same.

He has lots of teammates who can relate to that. Ross, Derek Lowe and Eric Hinske have played for eight managers. Billy Wagner has played for 10. Alex Gonzalez has played for 11.

And then there's Chipper.

He has played for one.

"I can't imagine that," Ross said. "It would be like having your dad in the clubhouse."

But Jones knows no other life: "Bobby and I take it for granted," he said. "It's all we've ever known.

"When a manager takes a job, I'm sure he's not thinking, 'I'll only be here for two or three years.' You want the opportunity to manage your whole career in one spot, just like a player wants the opportunity to play his whole career in one spot. Somehow, for 20 years, Bobby and I have done that."

Except Cox is more than merely a guy who managed Jones. Two decades ago, when the Braves made Jones the first player chosen in the 1990 draft, the general manager who picked him was (yep) Bobby Cox.

"He and I have a relationship that goes beyond just manager and player -- to general manager and high school punk," Jones said, laughing. "I mean, how many guys drafted a player No. 1 overall and then got to manage him for the next 17-18 years? I would venture to guess that's probably never happened."

And we'd venture to guess he's correct. So nobody has had a better view of the Bobby Cox Show -- from the parade of first-place finishes to the tirades that made this otherwise-mild-mannered man the most ejected manager ever -- than Chipper Jones. And he wouldn't trade it for a seat on anybody else's bus.

"All the other managers, even the guys with 'the names' -- there's some kind of side effect," Jones said. "You know what I mean? It seems like it's always, 'He's a great manager, but …' You never hear that about Bobby. There are no 'buts' with Bobby. 'Bobby's awesome.' That's the comment I hear all the time.

"The people who come here for a little bit of time and have aspirations of going somewhere else -- or the guys who come up and have only known Bobby Cox and are about to become a free agent -- I always tell them, 'The grass is not greener.' And they find that out. It took Gary Sheffield literally three weeks of spring training. After he left here and went to the Yankees, we played them in spring training. And he walked up to me in batting practice and said, 'Man, did I screw up. I didn't know how good I had it.'"

Jones says Cox has softened slightly -- all right, make that very slightly -- throughout the years. He now allows his players to wear Oakley sunglasses, for instance -- but only if they never cover up the Braves logo on their cap.

"And he used to be all business all the time," Jones said. "But we've seen in the last couple of years that he's taken a step back and enjoyed the gratitude he's getting. And you know why? I think it's the realization that his days in a baseball uniform were coming to an end. We all, I think, at some point, wonder what the rest of the baseball world thinks of us. This is his chance to sit back and let everyone tell him."

Oh, they tell him, all right. But every time Cox hears another one of those accolades coming, he squirms like a guy being led to his next periodontist appointment.

So if you head for Cox's office in the next week, thinking you're going to find a man in his final days on the job, ready to reflect nostalgically on the many spectacular things he has done and seen, uhhh, good luck with that.

Ask him to think back on some of the biggest games he has managed, and he says: "I can't remember any. It's all kind of a blur."

Ask him to ponder what he has done and where he is going, and he says it's not time for that -- because "winning the game is more important than me or my future."

So apparently, we're going to have to ponder all that for him. Hey, no problem.

In the final season of "Lost," one of our favorite cool plotlines involved a surreal parallel-universe scenario. And the plot developments in that universe seemed to explore what might have happened to that cast of characters if their plane to Los Angeles had never crashed on the island that changed their lives.

So we asked some of the men who landed on Cox's island how life in the Braves' universe might have been different if everything about these past 20 years had been the same -- except the manager.

"We probably would have had 15 different managers here," Hinske said. "That's my guess."

"Well, John Schuerholz deserves some of the credit [for putting the players in place]," Diaz said. "So I think there would be one or two flags flying, or maybe three or four. But the consistency to win the division 14 straight times? I don't think so."

"It's hard to say about his first couple of years because we had deep pockets then," Jones said. "So I'm sure we would have had good players. But I will tell you how the last 10 or 12 years would have gone. We would have been having top-five picks in the draft year in and year out [from finishing in last place] because nobody else would have gotten what he got out of the players on the roster. And especially the last couple of years that we won the division. Those teams weren't supposed to win. There were a couple of teams in our division those years that were better. But the reason we brought it home was directly because of him."

We agree with all those assessments. But in fact, the real answer to that question -- How different would the Braves have been without Cox? -- is far more nuanced.

That, said Schuerholz, is because the question itself is more complicated than simply: Would they have won all those divisions without him? The question, really, is: Would they have done anything the same?

"So many of the dynamics would have been different," Schuerholz said. "When we talked about trades, I always took his input, his feelings and sometimes his preference. Some of my decisions were altered by how he felt. So I don't know how to quantify it."

"Just over my career, I've played for so many different managers," Lowe said. "And every manager has a different philosophy. So when you bring in a different manager, he brings in a different philosophy. So it seems like most teams are going through those philosophical changes every two or three years. Some guys like to play hit-and-run more. Some guys use the bullpen more. But here, they've never had that. You never had to worry when you came to the park how the manager was going to do things that night."

Oh, we know there's one more question that some of the cynics on the outside are asking right now. They're asking: Would another manager have won more than the one World Series that Cox won in all those trips to the dance floor?

OK, fair question. But if you're asking that one, you also have to wonder how many times the Braves would have visited that dance floor with somebody else in charge.

Remember, this wasn't the Yankees, where Joe Torre waved for the same closer (Mariano Something-or-other) in 10 consecutive postseasons. In the Braves' decade and a half of dominance, Cox just about joined the Closer of the Month Club. He had to turn to 42 different pitchers -- right, 42 -- to collect at least one save in that span. And nine different relievers led his teams in saves.

But that roulette wheel wasn't confined just to Cox's bullpen. His teams averaged 10 new players a year in that period. Eight different starters led his pitching staff in wins. Ten led in homers. Nine led those teams in RBIs.

And it's not as if Cox's teams all arrived in October and got swept in the first round every year. His teams did win 12 postseason series. And they did make it to five World Series -- the most reached by any National League manager since Walter Alston.

And Cox has won 66 postseason games, you know. That's six more than Tony La Russa and second all time behind Torre.

So how did all that happen, anyway? Does anybody seriously think those teams were able to navigate the marathon, win all those divisions and win all those October ballgames in spite of the guy who managed them and not because of him? Get real. If you actually think that, you've been listening to way too many talk shows.

"I know that pitching staff had a lot to do with it, but there are reasons some managers win year after year," Ross said. "Leaders are just leaders. You can't fake being a leader. A lot of guys try to be leaders. But either you're a leader or you're not … and he's the prime example of that."

We bet it won't surprise you, though, to learn that this is not a topic the Greatest Manager of His Generation is comfortable entertaining. Asked how he thought life would have been different on the Braves if someone else had managed them, Cox replied: "Oh, they probably would have had the same success. I really think so … because they had talent. I've been pretty lucky, you know. I'm always in the right spot."

Yeah, he's clearly been the luckiest man alive these past 20 years. Some people hit the Powerball. Cox just lucked into the right manager's office at the right time. Yeah, sure. That's the ticket.

But if there are still knuckleheads out there who really think that's how it worked, guess what? You're about to find out exactly what the home of the Braves will look like without Cox in the dugout.

By April, when somebody else is running this outfit, the lovely and charming Pam Cox will be dragging her husband off on a cruise as his 70th birthday approaches. And we're afraid it's already too late for him to talk her out of that voyage.

"It's prepaid, man," Cox grumbled, about three-quarters kiddingly. "So I guess I'm going or I'm screwed. I'd lose 2,000 bucks."

What the Braves are about to lose, on the other hand, will be slightly harder to compute.

"I guess it's like when [Tom] Glavine moved on or when [John Smoltz] retired," Jones said. "You wonder how you're going to get along without having those guys. [Greg Maddux] went somewhere else to play. So you think: How are you going to continue to win without those guys? But you know what? We still fielded a team. We've still been very competitive. It just takes getting used to."

And the Braves will get used to it. They just wish, as they contemplate Life After the Greatest Manager of His Generation, that they didn't have to get used to it.

"I wonder sometimes if some of the young guys in here know how good they've got it," Ross said. "Sometimes, when you don't know anything else, you think every manager's like that. And if you do, you're wrong. I've had some good ones. I've had some bad ones.

"And Bobby," Ross said, "he's one-of-a-kind."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com