Best Braves’ memory at Turner Field: Cox’s final year

Sometimes great seasons don’t end with a World Series.

Sometimes, sports provides enough moments of drama, courage and resilience to send a team and its fans into the offseason feeling good, especially when a 69-year-old Buddha of a manager is lifted on his players’ shoulders and doused with champagne and beer for nothing more than a wild-card berth.

I’m not sure there are a lot of memories to hold onto from the Braves’ abbreviated tenure at Turner Field but the 2010 season was special. It was Bobby Cox’s final season as manager, they returned to the postseason for the first time in five years and it was one of those few Braves seasons that ended with everybody believing the team had overachieved against the backdrop of seeming limitations and expectations.

They won their 91st game on the regular season’s last day. Then they waited in the clubhouse for nearly three hours, watching San Francisco defeat San Diego, clinching the wild card for the Braves.

There was a sudden joy and eruption in the clubhouse that hadn’t been seen for years. In the middle of it was Cox. He said later that when he was watching the Giants-Padres on TV, “I was yelling at the umpire on every pitch.”

And he mused about being ejected from 2,500 miles away.

The Braves won in 2010 despite a series of injuries, losing at various points, Chipper Jones, Martin Prado, Kris Medlen, Jair Jurrjens and others.

They won with reclamation projects like Troy Glaus and Rick Ankiel.

Also Eric Hinske, Omar Infante, Nate McLouth, David Ross, Gregor Blanco.

Also … what exactly is a Brooks Conrad?

They looked like an old Chevy with scrap yard doors and fenders. Nothing matched. But the car kept running.

They won with Tim Hudson having a tremendous comeback season (17-9, 2.83) after Tommy John surgery.

They won with Derek Lowe, their highest-paid player, looking mediocre for most of the season, then suddenly going 5-0 with a 1.17 ERA in his last five starts.

They won despite Kenshin Kawakami (0-9 start), who was Frank Wren’s $23 million mistake.

They won with Wren actually making a number of key low-budget moves in low-budget times, when four players (Kawakami, Jones, McLouth, Derek Lowe) were sucking up nearly half ($41 million) of the total payroll ($85 million).

They won 25 game in their final at-bat.

They won 45 games with rallies.

They won with 93 defensive lineups and 109 batting orders. (Remember, this was in a 91-win season.)

They won, believe it or not, with Cox often playing “small ball,” which he sometimes was criticized for not doing enough of. But the Braves’ roster was free of pop so he had no choice.

“We even squeezed twice!” Eddie Perez said one day.

“This has been unlike any team I’ve ever been on,” Brian McCann said.

“We’ve taken on a different personality,” Hudson said.

“Dirtball.”

It probably was Cox’s best managing job since 1991, when the Braves went worst-to-first.

“He’s kind of like a mob boss, ” Hinske said. “Everybody brings him stuff — chairs, coffee, water. Then he makes the decision. He’s like our own Tony Soprano.”

Said Jones: “Ninety-five percent of the other clubs, if this happens to them, personnel-wise, they fold. Ninety-five percent of the other managers can’t bring it home.”

So many were caught up in the emotion of Cox’s final season, even politicians in Washington, D.C. Senator Johnny Isakson honored the manager during the season with a reception. Unfortunately, the caterer used for the event must have had no idea who this baseball person was because the sentiment on the cake’s frosting read, “Thanks for 50 great years, Bobby …”

Let’s just say they spelled Cox incorrectly.

E-baker.

The 2010 was a struggle for Jones. He was plagued by injuries, hit poorly and at one point said he phoned his mother, who offered advice on how to break out.

“She said, ‘You need to bite the head off of a chicken,’” he said.

He didn’t. Maybe he should have. He suffered a torn ACL in August. He had surgery and a few days later showed up at Turner Field and said that while he still believed the Braves could make the playoffs, he said, “We’re not going to blow anybody out 10-1.”

That night, the Braves blew out the Dodgers 13-1.

It was that kind of year.

They made it to the playoffs but lost the first-round series to the Giants 3-1.

The postseason was market correction time: The Braves’ lone win in Game 2 included closer Billy Wagner crumbling on the mound with a torn oblique. Done. In Game 3, Brooks Conrad, who replaced Prado (hip pointer, oblique), who replaced Jones, committed three errors.

That series ended with a 3-2 loss at Turner Field. The clubhouse doors remained closed for a while as Cox got emotional when he addressed his players. Players hung around long after the game ended until the early hours of the morning.

At one point, Lowe looked at me, smiled and said, “Well?”

I had been critical of him during the year.

“I thought you were dead. I was wrong,” I said. (I believe he then hugged me but I’ve tried not to hold onto that memory.)

I asked Hinske about so many players not going home.

“I think guys were just trying to figure out how to say goodbye, ” he said.

Nobody wanted to see the season end.

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