Any visitor to the Atlanta Braves’ clubhouse might have been surprised this month. Instead of being somewhere on a beach enjoying his retirement, former manager Bobby Cox was right there. No longer in his cleats and uniform, Cox was usually in a polo shirt and slacks.
Having the former manager, who led the Braves for 20 years, hanging around might make the new man in charge uncomfortable. But Fredi Gonzalez spent four years as Cox’s third-base coach from 2003 through 2006, so having his former boss around was no problem.
“I think it’s been easy because he’s here,” Gonzalez said. “He’s here every morning, and we want him to be here every morning. He wants us to do well.”
The players agree.
“It’s only difficult if you’re threatened,” third baseman Chipper Jones said. “Bobby is Fredi’s mentor, so why would you not want him around. He’s a great baseball man, a great baseball mind. I’m certain that Fredi is sponging up everything he can off of him.”
Jones will play for a new manager for the first time in his career in Thursday’s season opener; every game for the past 16 years was with Cox. But Jones gave his stamp of approval on Gonzalez, and he believes the synergy between Gonzalez and his predecessor has been important this spring.
“There hasn’t been a time that I’ve walked into Fredi’s office that Bobby hasn’t been in there,” Jones said. “I think Bobby being here and being around is a tremendous influence on Fredi and the rest of the coaching staff. He’s a good man to have around.”
But make no mistake about it, Gonzalez has put his own mark on this team. For example, Gonzalez made the players stick around for at least the first five innings of each game. Previously under Cox, veterans who weren’t playing that day could leave early and hit the golf course. The team also spent more time on drills and fundamentals. The changes were minor, but they appear effective.
“We’ve paid a lot more attention to detail down here this spring than we ever have, which is a good thing especially having a bunch of young guys on the club,” Jones said.
Carlos Tosca will be Gonzalez’s bench coach. Tosca was actually Gonzalez’s manager from 1982 through 1984, in Gonzalez’s first three years as a pro player in the New York Yankees’ farm system.
“From day one he always had a tremendous attitude, very upbeat,” Tosca said. “He was a smart player -- the same thing he is as a manager. The one thing about Fredi is he is very consistent.”
Tosca is one of several former major league managers in camp, and they all saw a good baseball man who is ready for the challenge of replacing a legend.
“One thing about him, he’s a guy in the locker room,” said Lee Elia, who managed the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies in the 1980s and is an assistant to general manager Frank Wren this season. “There’s no distance between Fredi and the players. That’s so special when you play 162 ballgames -- the continual communication and understanding that there will be peaks and valleys in this business. I don’t think there will be anything that will overwhelm him.”
“It’s just been very comfortable. That’s the key word, ” said Dave Trembley, the Orioles‘ manager from 2007 through the middle of last season and Atlanta’s new minor league field coordinator. “It’s comfortable because of the people that are in place. Fredi’s all about the players. He wants things done right.”
Gonzalez’s first experience as a manager was with the Florida Marlins, who fired him last summer after three-and-a-half years on the job. He will build on that experience, as well as a talk he had with Ron Gardenhire, who also took over for a legend in Minnesota when he replaced Tom Kelly as the Minnesota Twins’ manager.
“If somebody else had come in and blown this thing up and done everything different, it wouldn’t have worked,” Gonzalez said.
And that’s why he got the job. The Braves wanted a seamless transition, and they can only hope Gonzalez will have half the success of the man he replaced.