The last option was to go downstairs himself.
Just as he had done two years before when he fired sunny Chuck Tanner — that had to feel like firing your uncle — Bobby Cox on June 22, 1990, fired Russ Nixon, Tanner’s successor who had grown so openly aggravated toward his 20-45 Braves that the organization had become worried about his health.
The Braves general manager hadn’t managed a game since 1985 in Toronto — that season had brought the first of his four manager-of-the-year awards — but at the behest of club president Stan Kasten, Cox agreed to replace Nixon. This was the most odious time to be a Brave. The franchise had six consecutive losing seasons and counting. The four Braves teams Cox constructed were an aggregate 131 games under .500.
Cox got into the elevator to the basement of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, took a right-hand turn toward the most pitiful clubhouse in the majors and anyone who said this was going to lead him straight to Cooperstown was lying.
But, of course, it’s true.
“Here’s the guy who was doing our contracts before the season started,” said John Smoltz, a 23-year-old waiting wide-eyed in the clubhouse, “and now he’s going to be managing?”
Sixteen months later, the Braves were in the World Series. Four years after that they won it all, the city’s first major professional sports title. For 14 consecutive seasons, they won their division, a feat that surely will never be duplicated. Twenty-four years later, the Baseball Hall of Fame called to inform Cox, the last option of 1990, that he had been a unanimous selection in his first year on the Expansion Era ballot.
“I was always kind of in the right place at the right time,” Cox said. “That’s some of the story I’m going to tell at Cooperstown, I think: how I got here.”
The right place, like Selma, Calif., where Cox grew up. Though a stand-out athlete at Selma High, Cox hurt his elbow so badly he required surgery and couldn’t play a single inning his senior year. In June 1959 while pondering where he might go to college, there was a knock on the door at the Cox home.
A stranger introduced himself as Red Adams and asked the kid if he wanted to try out for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Though Adams went on to become a famed scout and then a coach with the Dodgers, this occurred in his first few months on the job. He lived four miles away, knew about Cox only from being around the neighborhood and played a hunch to drop by his house.
Cox got his tryout, signed with the Dodgers for a $40,000 bonus and embarked on a career in professional baseball that continues today as a Braves special assistant. What if Adams had lived in Oregon?
The right time, like 1970. After two years with the Yankees — he made the all-rookie team in 1968 — Cox failed to make the 25-man roster and was sent down to Triple-A Syracuse, where he planned to play one more year and then get on with his life. Late in the season, when informed that Yankees GM Lee MacPhail was coming to town to have lunch with him, Cox assumed he had come to inform him he had been released.
Instead, MacPhail said the organization needed someone to manage a Single-A club in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Next spring, Cox was throwing three sessions of batting practice daily to a bunch of 19-year-olds in the low-rung Florida State League. In six years, he was in the first-base coach box for the Yankees when they won the 1977 World Series. Six days after winning the title, the Braves announced Cox would be their new manager.
What if Lee MacPhail wasn’t hiring in 1970? As Cox once said, “If he hadn’t showed up, I’d probably never wear a uniform again.”
“He’d played the game,” Smoltz said of that day Cox came downstairs. “He knew what was important, and he never sacrificed that for the sake of the game. He really did his best to give everyone the opportunity to get theirs. You have to have a long time in to be able to pull that off.”
Every year, Cox laid out his rules on the first day of spring training. It became a ritual.
1. No beards.
“I changed on that because of (pitcher) Gene Garber,” Cox said. “He said, ‘Give me a few days. My kids have never seen me without one.’ So I changed (in 1978). I said, ‘You know? This is ridiculous.’ Haircuts? Look good.”
2. No uniform pants covering the shoe tops.
“Ah, I didn’t like the pants pulled down underneath the spikes,” he said. “And then, that tradition is in. It’s all for the good. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
3. Dress code.
“I wanted them to dress, even in spring training, properly,” he said. “Collared shirts.”
4. Mind the curfew.
5. Be on time.
6. Play hard at all times.
That’s it. That’s it?
Who could not play for a guy who tailored his expectations to the now? That begins to address why Gary Sheffield referred to him as “Mr. Cox” when he hit town in 2002. Or why star players elsewhere began excluding the Braves from the “no trade” clause in their contracts. Or why Tom Glavine felt the worst part of losing was facing the manager afterward.
“Absolutely. You had the sense of disappointing your dad when you didn’t do well individually or collectively,” Glavine said. “When we didn’t do well as a team, we felt like we were letting him down.”
It also informs how Cox was able to transform the culture of a horse-whipped clubhouse into a year-in-year-out winner for nearly a decade and a half.
“You’ve got to forget about (last season) once you get to spring training,” Cox said. “You still want to have the confidence and a little bit of a swagger. That’s for sure. But the workload and what you did the year before, you’ve got to keep doing it. And you’ve got to be intense about it.
“I tried to carry over the intensity on to myself. You just can’t let things slide. I was always intense as a manager, and it rubs off on the players. Like, ‘This guy really does want to win. He’s got our backs. We’re getting paid to win and entertain fans. Let’s do it the right way.’”
On the best way to handle a 25-man roster, Casey Stengel always said, “The secret of successful managing is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the four guys who haven’t made up their minds.”
Cox went the other way. Touched by how Ralph Houk, his manager with the Yankees, handled his players with equanimity — Cox: “Treated you the same way he treated Mickey (Mantle),” — Cox determined to do the same. Additionally, his 1977 season in the Bronx also included some wicked infighting between Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and Gabe Paul, his team president, that played out nastily every week in the tabloids. Cox never forgot that either.
“I played for a lot of managers in the minor leagues, South America and you learn,” he said. “You learn something, you take that, put it in your back pocket. Throw away a lot of other stuff. There were some managers I played for, I really didn’t want to do it again. It was no fun. They made the game impossible. So you play it with intensity, you have fun while you’re doing it, too, and you smile occasionally.”
That creed reached throughout his teams down to the far end of the bench. In 2001, reserve player Mark DeRosa was pressed into daily service when shortstop Rafael Furcal injured his shoulder. And DeRosa held his own, or thought he did until he looked up at a clubhouse TV one July day and saw on the ticker that the Braves had traded for Rey Sanchez, a veteran shortstop.
Waved into Cox’s office, the manager brutally blunt. The organization didn’t view him as an everyday player yet and was wary about playing two young players — DeRosa was 26, second baseman Marcus Giles was 23 — in the middle of the infield in the postseason.
“I obviously disagreed and asked him where he saw my career going in this uniform,” said DeRosa, who just completed a 16-year career. “He gave me honest answers and basically the conversation ended with him asking, ‘Can I trust you?’ I asked what he meant by that and he said, ‘Well, mentally, are you prepared to handle going back to the bench, being a utility guy off the bench and being used as a pinch-hitter? Because if you’re not mentally wanting to do those things, then I don’t want you here.’
“I said, ‘Bobby, I got it. Of course I want to be here.’ He goes, ‘All right.’”
Whenever he opened his mouth, Cox’s Braves could do no wrong. His postgame assessments never found fault with any of his players, even if they had been horrible, often to the bewilderment of media, fans and even the Braves themselves.
“Oh, my God,” Glavine said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’d go out there and have one of those games where you just stunk and you’d be reading the paper the next day and you wondered ‘How did I lose?’ That’s how he was.”
The chirping from the dugout steps when the Braves were at bat? Sure, some of was theater, but not to everyone.
“He cared about every player, always cheering your name,” said bullpen coach Eddie Perez, who played for Cox for eight seasons. “Always going, ‘C’mon Eddie. You can do this.’ Even when you struck out, “Eddie, you’re OK, you’ll get ’em next time.’ That made you play even harder.
“That’s something I learned from him. He taught you a lot of things that made you a better person, not just a better player. That’s what I learned from him.”
Asked if he misses his old job, Cox, 73, said: “Oh, every day. I still watch it every night. As long as I come down (to Turner Field) and talk with Fredi (Gonzalez) and the coaches, see the players a little bit, I’m fine.”
Between traveling with wife, Pam, overseeing the family’s farm in Adairsville and working an ancillary role with the Braves as general manager Frank Wren’s special assistant, his seems like a fully booked retirement.
And there is Lakepoint Sporting Community, the sprawling sports complex in Emerson that Cox, Gonzalez and a host of businessmen have invested in. The facility has space for 14 baseball fields and some days, Cox drops by just to watch kids play.
“And all those kids know who I am,” he said, “believe it or not.”