The rest of the National League has had its turn honoring Braves manager Bobby Cox, showering him with an eclectic assortment of parting gifts.
He received fine cigars in Milwaukee and Chicago. Cowboy boots and a hat to match in Houston. A Stan Musial-autographed print in St. Louis. A dude ranch getaway, along with a fly rod and reel, in Colorado.
And, in New York, a case of Tom Seaver wine — after all, who did Ernest or Julio Gallo ever strike out?
Finally, on this, his last regular-season weekend of dugout duty after 29 years in a baseball bunker, comes Atlanta’s chance to pay tribute.
Now it’s the home team’s turn to recognize the man who, according to former Braves announcer Pete Van Wieren, “changed the culture of baseball in Atlanta forever.”
Van Wieren was on the scene when Cox returned to a woebegone franchise in late 1985 as general manager, rebuilt the scouting department and the farm system from the ashes up, then went downstairs as manager in 1990 to put his alterations in play.
What resulted was nothing less than a punchline of a team being born again as a proud champion. “After the 1991 [the first of 14 straight postseason appearances], the expectations became very high, and they have stayed high every year since. [Atlanta was] no longer Loserville,” Van Wieren said.
So, let the praise and presentations for Cox flow like warm honey.
Oh, for one more October
Even the hard-hearted media — whom the manager never favored with a juicy, controversial quote — chipped in. The local chapter of the Baseball Writers of America gave him an iPad during this last homestand, so that in semi-retirement, Cox may scan all those articles he insisted he never read while he managed.
But the only gift Cox really craved was one last October hurrah. These last months have been excruciating, with lost leads and lost players and a vast emptiness where his center fielder used to be.
Leo Durocher once said, “Nobody ever won a pennant without a star shortstop.”
Cox, however, has won pennants with shortstops named Rafael Belliard, Jeff Blauser and Walt Weiss — all good, serviceable fellows who never hit better than .265 in the Braves NLCS-winning seasons.
For his next trick, he would attempt to sneak into one last postseason given a lineup with all the punch of a Shirley Temple.
As runs became increasingly precious, his pitching staff was stressed to the point of breakdown. No one promised Cox a farewell tour that was all balloons and Carpenters’ melodies.
In turn, the players were challenged to not let Cox go into that great unknown of team consultancy without a stake in the playoffs for a fifth straight season. Such a fallow stretch would bookend his first four years in Atlanta (266-323 combined record), which got him fired by Ted Turner. Symmetry isn’t necessarily pretty.
Beyond ceremony, what this weekend represents for the Braves and their fans is a forced reckoning. A season that seemed eternal this spring in Orlando is breathing its last in fall. No more putting it off: Time to face the reality of Cox’s departure.
Two decades is forever in the shifting, impermanent world of sports — and yet that is how long Cox managed the Braves the second time ’round. Stand at the revolving door to Atlanta’s other pro franchises and count the number of head coaches since 1991. Bring your abacus. Falcons: 8. Hawks: 6. Thrashers: 5 (since 1999).
We are left to wonder, as the day nears when Cox is no longer in the Braves dugout, what other unthinkable changes are in store for Atlanta. Now, anything seems possible with our local institutions. The Varsity goes vegan. The Aquarium does jet ski rental. Stone Mountain is leveled to make way for a Walmart. Why not?
Familiar sight, sound
With Cox came a set of sensory experiences that were central to baseball in Atlanta.
The sound: that of clacking spikes against the concrete dugout floor. Cox was old school from the soles of his feet up, wearing metal spikes to the amusement of all those who never could figure just how much traction was needed to plot an eighth-inning double switch.
The sight: climbing up the dugout steps — granted with increasing effort as the years ticked by — to do battle with some nearsighted umpire. Cox was a cross between Stephen A. Douglas and a Teamster who just dropped a crate on his toe. As baseball’s great debater built his record for ejections, those in the audience with even rudimentary lip-reading skills were left to do their own censoring.
The pained feeling: whenever Cox unveiled one of his starting lineups that featured some regular mired in an apocalyptic slump. His loyalty to his guys was legend, and a source of constant chatter among the impatient masses.
A man given to few complicated metaphors, Cox never would describe his job as did a one-time rival in the NL West.
Tommy Lasorda once likened his job to holding a dove. “Squeeze too hard and you kill it; not hard enough and it flies away,” the former Los Angeles manager said. That deft touch was the enduring Cox trait.
With longevity comes the question of legacy. Because of Cox, Atlanta is allowed to debate the various shades of success. He is the manager who won 14 straight division titles. And yet, he always will be to some the manager who never won enough.
Where every other franchise in town would take out a variable rate mortgage with the devil for a single title, the Braves under Cox are saddled with the criticism of winning only one.
Since 1991, Cox and the Braves have nearly twice the number of postseason game victories (63, along with 62 losses) than the Hawks (28), Falcons (4) and Thrashers (0) combined. Where would Atlanta’s already battered sense of sports self-esteem have been without the Cox era?
Now we begin in earnest the process of speaking of that era in past tense. It will take some practice and no little amount of effort, as with breaking any other 20-year habit.
At least this difficult goodbye is a one-shot deal. The next 20 years are unlikely to produce another head man around here worth such a fuss.
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