After 25 seasons as Braves manager, Bobby Cox has pronounced 2010 his final campaign. In this, the fourth in a series of stories to appear throughout the course of Cox’s long goodbye, we look at how he has defined the term “players’ manager” and how that approach has, in turn, defined a Hall of Fame-worthy career.
The legacy of a baseball manager is the product of a million decisions, each one holding the promise of a piquant victory cigar ... or the powder burns from the novelty, exploding kind.
And you never know which, until you light it.
Bobby Cox is the man who sent out starter Charlie Leibrandt in relief to face Kirby Puckett in the 1991 World Series. Minnesotans are still hoarse from cheering that home run.
He tried to coax a two-inning save out of closer Mark Wohlers in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series and instead cleared a spot for Jim Leyritz in the crowded pantheon of famous Yankees.
And, bless his heart, didn’t Cox keep sending the .145-hitting Greg Norton in to pinch hit last season, despite the stiff breeze created by the deep, unanimous sigh across Braves Country.
But what Steve Avery remembers most is that Bobby Cox was the man who gave him the ball in Game 4 of the 1995 World Series when no one else wanted him to have it.
Here were the Braves with the perfect three-man postseason rotation — Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Avery had not been at his best — “I pretty much stunk all year” were his words. His National League Championship Series MVP award was five years old and gathering dust by then.
“[Cox] said, ‘Av, I got confidence in you,’ and that was it,” said Avery, now in retirement in Michigan.
Just 25 — and, unbeknown to him, making the last postseason start of his career — Avery beat Cleveland that night to give the Braves a 3-1 lead in the only Series they have won since coming to Atlanta.
The loyalty Cox shows his players has become a personal trademark and something of an irritant to the short-attention-span fandom that would treat lineups like a street juggler does dinner plates.
The proof that Cox’s methods of patience, consistency and fealty work is in the 14 straight postseason banners hanging in Turner Field. “Consistency wins,” said Charlie Manuel, manager of the Phillies, Cox’s chief divisional rival. “And you can’t get any more consistent than that.”
The proof is on display during this, his last season, in which the Braves lost nine straight in April but lead the division now. “That kind of thing doesn’t happen if you don’t have a man like Bobby in charge,” said Smoltz, now observing from the broadcast booth.
The season’s end also will require plenty of Cox’s managerial equilibrium. A difficult road trip last week ended with a grotesque loss in Colorado, in which the Braves gave up a 10-1 lead
Noted the newest observer of Cox’s style, recently acquired first baseman Derrek Lee, “He seemed pretty calm. He is not going to let one series set us back or let us linger on it.”
When he was a Yankee playing for the rock solid Ralph Houk, Cox learned the value of a steady, constant hand on the tiller. He saw through Houk’s example the value of a positive, upbeat approach with the players. And it wasn’t long after he began managing that he concluded that a fan, sportswriter, analyst or neighbor would win him exactly zero games.
There was no future in being the people’s manager.
But he’s cranked out more wins than all but three men in history by being the players’ manager.
The qualities that define a players’ manager are varied, and open to individual interpretation.
Cox supplies his own simple guideline for the breed, as well as the motivation for adopting a player-friendly pose.
“I treat the guys the way I’d want to be treated,” he said, imparting his version of baseball’s Golden Rule. “I played for a lot of different managers and been around all through the leagues, and some I didn’t care to play for at all. I didn’t want to be one of those guys.”
“When you get the reputation as a players’ manager, [players] have got to put out,” he said. “If I’m fair with them, they’ll give me everything they got.”
A vocal advocate
In the Cox version of being a players’ guy, he is an advocate every game, every inning. Thanks to today’s sensitive sound equipment, local television viewers are treated to his nonstop stream of support during each Braves at-bat.
It is a little bit of Little League in the Majors whenever he calls out, “Let’s go, Prad [Martin Prado],” or “Good cut, Mac [Brian McCann].”
And no matter how many years the injured Chipper Jones has played, his manager has insisted on yelling to him: “C’mon, kid!”
Cox confesses he was a serial chatterer as a player, driving some of his Yankees teammates to distraction. The habit carried over into the dugout, whereas other managers consider themselves far too cool for that sort of rah-rahing.
His, um, ageless enthusiasm has been visited often upon the umpiring crew, his record for ejections standing as testimony to a manager taking one for the team.
“So many times I’ve thrown a pitch this far outside or high,” said newcomer closer Billy Wagner, holding his hands about a foot apart, “and I’ll hear Bobby screaming, ‘That’s a good pitch, what are you doing?!’
“He wants every pitch he can get for us.”
“He always fights for you; he’s like a teammate of yours — a teammate that has authority and a voice,” said pitcher Tim Hudson.
Team comes first
TBS baseball analyst Buck Martinez was a catcher throughout Cox’s tenure in Toronto (1982-85) and he noticed right away that his manager’s chief concern was harmony in the clubhouse.
He had a way of making his guys feel better, always important, even at low points. After Martinez broke a leg, Cox told him he’d be in the lineup the next day if he could take the pain. “Not like it’s going to affect your speed,” Cox told him, and they both had a laugh.
He told another story of Cox going to the veterans for their approval before acquiring the potentially disruptive Cliff Johnson in 1983. He made everyone a stakeholder in that transaction, and it worked, Martinez said.
This is hardly a selfless trait. Cox is in this business to win ball games, not make a buddy movie. His thought is that, just as contented cows give better milk, relaxed ballplayers give better effort.
Said Braves President John Schuerholz, “He has a great deal of respect for those who play the game at this level and do it at a professional manner. The players are immersed by that respect they get from him in good times and bad. It’s easy for them to give that back to him.”
Don’t cross him
Of course, he doesn’t become professionally infatuated with every player in a Braves uniform. Some will get crossways with him on occasion, and it always ends with a view of the player’s backside as he is leaving town.
Yunel Escobar is the latest case study. The immensely talented shortstop was traded to Toronto this season, as he never quite conformed to the Coxian model.
“[Cox] was a guy who wanted to play so badly that, anytime he saw anyone wasting skills that he didn’t have, that really got to him,” Martinez said. Cox’s major league career lasted only two years.
Being a “players’ manager” doesn’t mean you are a floor mat. It doesn’t mean you run a party cruise or go clubbing with the guys.
Smoltz defines the main quality of a players’ manager as “instilling confidence in a player when he doesn’t have any.”
His case in point was 1991, when Smoltz was 2-11 at the All-Star break and “every coach and personnel person wanted to send me down [to the minors].”
“Bobby said, ‘No, I think this guy has it.’ His patience convinced me I could do what I always wanted — pitch when it mattered most,” Smoltz said. He went 12-2 the second half of that season and became one of the franchise’s great clutch pitchers.
“I would not have stayed as long [with the Braves] if not to play for Bobby,” he said.
It is simple, really. A players’ manager is someone a person in any profession can look at and say, “Wish he were my boss.”