It had long been apparent to me that Bobby Cox was one tough customer.
From his handshake, akin to thick-fingered rawhide back when he was still hitting fungoes. The way he bolted out of the dugout to protect his players and chew out umpires. The way he shuffled pigeon-toed down hallways and stairs on two artificial knees while wearing metal spikes, the kind players wear but that only two managers – Cox and Jim Leyland – wore in the past decade or more after the others decided they just weren’t comfortable or necessary for managers.
But I had a new appreciation for his brand of old-school toughness on the night of Oct. 7, 2010, about 45 minutes after the Braves lost 1-0 to the Giants in San Francisco in a Division Series opener, the last postseason series that Cox would manage.
He was 69, had announced 13 months earlier that he would retire after the 2010 season and now was clack-scrape-clacking his way back to the visitors clubhouse at AT&T Park, the sound of those spikes drawing interesting looks from Giants fans using the same crowded hallway. I was walking about 10 feet behind Cox.
Then it happened. Some dude, who appeared to be in his late 20s or early 30s and three sheets to the wind, shouted something to Cox about the manager’s age and the fact that his team had just lost, suggesting the “old man” and his team would soon be done — the Braves for the year and Cox forever. This was not good.
No sooner had the words left the guy’s mouth did Cox stop abruptly and turn toward him, with a stare on his tired, seen-it-all-a-thousand-times face that said, “Do you really want me to walk over there and embarrass you more than you already have embarrassed yourself?” The stare, to me, seemed like it might cause the younger man to quake.
Before the situation could escalate, a security person walking near Cox said something along the lines of, let it go, it’s not worth it. And in a split second, Cox made a decision to end the drama and keep walking back to his clubhouse and a room full of players and coaches who wanted badly to win that series for their skipper, the baseball lifer who came to be more closely identified with his team than was any other manager. Or perhaps any coach in pro sports.
To many people around the country, Cox was the Braves.
In 20 years of covering baseball, I’ve only seen two managers smart and aware enough to know virtually everything of consequence happening in their clubhouse and to know how to handle every clubhouse situation quickly, doing so quietly in such a manner that the team continued to support the authority figure. It was surely just a coincidence that both of those managers wore metal spikes long after all the other managers had stopped.
And I’ve also known only one manager who would almost never criticize players publicly, who refused to blame a player in the media, even after a bad loss caused by that player’s mistake.
On Sunday, I watched that manager be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame along with two of his Big Three starting pitchers from the Braves’ heyday, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Coincidentally, Leyland was seated about five feet away from me.
It was a glorious day for the Braves franchise, to have three individuals from their team enshrined on the same day. And those two pitchers, like every other pitcher and position player from the Braves’ 14 consecutive division titles whom I’ve ever asked about it, would tell you that Cox was the single most important figure in that run.
Cox always chose to deflect blame, which in turn led to fans or scribes directing questions and criticism at him. However, you’d better have a leg to stand on and be prepared if you were going to question his strategy after a game. Because while he never threw his players under the bus, he also didn’t suffer fools and/or critics lightly.
Only one manager have I known to develop and maintain such universal respect from players across the spectrum, from Justice to Lemke, from Maddux to Pena(s), Sheffield to DeRosa, Smoltz to Renteria, McCann to Conrad, Jones to Jones to Jones.
“Everybody wants to play hard for him, because he’s always there for you,” said former Braves catcher Eddie Perez, who became Cox’s bullpen coach. “He was always encouraging. ‘Good swing!’ Even if you don’t swing at all, he’d say, ‘You took that ball good.’ He would always want to make you feel good. Always.”
“He will fight for his players,” Perez said and then repeated that sentence for emphasis.
Tough. That’s one thing he had in common with Maddux, Glavine and John Smoltz. The first two were inducted with him Sunday. Smoltz will likely be elected as soon as he’s eligible next year, if not within a year or two.
There was Glavine, the lefty who never went on the disabled list until near the end of his career, the guy who frequently pitched through varying degrees of pain in his elbow, shoulder and who knows where else. And Maddux, who did the same, whose tenacity and fearlessness earned him the nickname Mad Dog, despite the glasses.
Last week I called Hall of Famer Andre Dawson, whom I’ve known since he played for the Marlins at the end of his career, to ask about Maddux, his former Cubs teammate. In addition to telling me a hilarious story about Maddux’s notoriously raunchy sense of humor, Dawson, now 60, described what made him one of the greatest pitchers and teammates he’d ever known.
“I saw it for six years in Chicago,” said Dawson, who had 49 homers and 137 RBIs in 1987, when he was the National League MVP in Maddux’s rookie year. “It was still very early in his career, but I just saw the gamesmanship, the competitiveness with him, the smarts, how he studied the hitters, how he didn’t give in, how he attacked their weaknesses. And he was a good athlete. He could swing the bat, he could bunt, of course, and he fielded his position.
“He was one of my favorite teammates and a guy that you loved to play behind.”
And Maddux was tough too. Dawson and teammates saw that in 1987, when Maddux was a 21-year-old rookie with a 6-14 record and 5.61 ERA. Over the next two seasons, he would have 37 wins and an ERA a little over 3.00. But not in ’87. He was struggling, which made what he did for Dawson in an early July game all the more admirable in the view of “Hawk.”
“I was in the league 10 years already and he earned my respect because he was the guy on the mound when I got beaned by Eric Show at Wrigley,” Dawson said, referring to a frightening incident in when the Padres’ Show hit Dawson in the face with a pitch in the bottom of the third inning. Dawson had hit one of the Cubs’ two first-inning homers off Show.
It set off a benches-clearing brawl, but Cubs teammates told Maddux not to retaliate until after the fifth inning, so that he could still get a win if he got ejected. He ignored their advice and hit Benito Santiago in the top of the fourth, earning an ejection.
“It was early in (Maddux’s) career and early in a game when he was trying to get his feet under him,” Dawson said. “And he retaliated early in the game. It cost him a win and he didn’t care. I was pretty impressed from this rookie.”
Toughness. Team ahead of self. Cox, Maddux and Glavine absolutely had that stuff in common. And now they’re in the Hall of Fame.