Braves brace for one more season with Cox at the helm

Monday afternoon in Atlanta, Bobby Cox will step onto Turner Field as manager for the final time on an opening day. This season, his 25th as a manager for the Braves, will be his final one.

Cox’s decision in September to retire after the 2010 season was not a surprise. He’s going to be 69 years old next month, and there are just not many big league managers pushing 70.

For many Braves fans, Cox has been the only manager they have ever known. He has had two stints as manager, first for four years starting in 1978. Then almost 20 years ago Cox came down from the front office to run the team he had built.

And he has been there ever since.

His career will land him in Baseball’s Hall of Fame one day. Not many people accomplish what Cox has done in baseball. A good season by his team this year will help him surpass 2,500 career wins. Only three managers in the history of the sport have more.

But as much as Cox has accomplished on the field, the respect he has gained from those around him is the bigger story.

The beginning

Cox was born May 21, 1941 in Tulsa, Okla. His family then moved to Selma, Calif., a small town of 800 people in the San Joaquin Valley, when he was a small boy.

“A good life,” Cox recalled. “It was a farming community. Everybody knew everybody. We played football on Friday night and hit baseballs on Saturday morning. It was that type of environment. Good people, good hard-working people.”

Cox played baseball, basketball and football. In football, he was a quarterback and even had a few scholarship offers to play in college. Baseball, however, was his first love. He didn’t even play baseball his senior year of high school because of an elbow operation, but that did not stop the Los Angeles Dodgers from having some interest.

“Out of the clear blue sky (Dodgers scout) Red Adams came down to the house and wanted to take me to Los Angeles for a workout at the Coliseum,” Cox said. “How he found me I don’t know. Somebody must have told him, ‘Hey there’s a kid over there that might make a ballplayer.’ He took me to the Coliseum and worked out at old Wrigley in L.A., and then they signed me.”

Even though a California team signed Cox, the Dodgers were not his favorite team growing up.

“I was a Cardinals’ fan when I was a kid,” he said. “The Fresno Cardinals were one of their affiliates, and that was only 15 or 20 miles away, so I listened to all of those games. I was never a Dodgers fan.”

Cox played in the Dodgers’ farm system for five years as a second baseman before the Chicago Cubs took him in a minor league draft. He was then traded to the Braves in 1966 (the Braves’ first season in Atlanta) and played in Triple-A Richmond. A year later, the Braves traded him to the New York Yankees, and that’s when he got his big break in 1968.

Cox hit .229 as a rookie that season with seven home runs and 41 RBI. But Bobby Murcer got out of the service and claimed the third base job in 1969, limiting Cox to a backup role.

When Cox didn’t make the Yankees’ roster in 1970, he thought about quitting baseball and going back to college to possibly become a high school football coach. The Yankees offered him an extra $1,000 to play one more season, and back then, that was enough money to make a difference for a young man with a family.

“Naturally I didn’t have a good year, and then my knee blew out,” Cox said. “I was packing it up at the end of the season, and Frank Verdi, the (Syracuse) manager, said that (Yankees general manager) Lee MacPhail was coming in and wanted to have lunch.”

Cox thought he was going to have to give that extra money back. But instead, the Yankees had something else in mind for his future.

“Lee said they had an opening next year (for a manager) at Fort Lauderdale,” Cox said. “He and Ralph (Houk, the Yankees’ manager) had been talking, and they thought I would do a good job down there. So I took that.”

Cox had thought about coaching or managing in the game after he was finished playing, but back then players would never broach the subject with a club.

“I didn’t want to leave baseball,” he said. “I wanted to (manage), but I wasn’t going to ask to do it.”

From that one lunch with MacPhail in the summer of 1970, another career was launched. Cox slowly moved up the minor league ladder, managing Triple-A in his young 30s for four seasons in a row until becoming Billy Martin’s first-base coach in New York in 1977.

On to Atlanta

The Braves struggled in 1977, losing 101 games. It was the worst season for the franchise in 42 years, when Boston lost 115 games in 1935.

They had fired Dave Bristol late in the season, and team owner Ted Turner even managed a game before the end of the season.

Bill Lucas, Atlanta’s general manager, set out to find a new skipper. Lucas had been the farm director back in 1967 when Cox was in the Atlanta organization as a player, and he had followed Cox’s managerial and coaching career with the Yankees.

“I hadn’t had contact with him in forever,” Cox said. “He just called and said, ‘We want to interview you.’ ”

Cox flew to Atlanta and had breakfast with Turner. Then he met with Lucas again and the job was offered. At 36 years old, Cox became the manager of the Atlanta Braves.

Cox was there as Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, Glenn Hubbard and Bruce Benedict came up to become the core of the Atlanta team. There wasn’t much pitching on the roster, mainly only Phil Niekro.

Even though the team improved under Cox, the Braves fired him after the strike-shortened 1981 season. Atlanta had actually been in the race in the second half that year, but when the Braves lost 11 of 14 games and fell out of contention, Cox lost his job.

When Turner made the move, Cox even showed up at the news conference, which is very unusual. Turner talked about how Cox was “one of my closest friends” and expressed his affection for the man he made a big league manager.

“If we hadn’t just fired him, Bobby Cox would be a candidate for the job,” Turner said. “I think he’s a terrific manager, and I think he’s a terrific person. Because of the record, sometimes you have to make a change.”

So Cox moved on to Toronto and managed the Blue Jays. But he maintained his home in the Atlanta area. With three young children, Cox was emotionally pulled back to Georgia.

“I loved Toronto,” Cox said. “I had the family with me as much as possible, but there was school involved, too, so that made it tough.”

When Turner called Cox back in October of 1985, Cox listened. But Turner had just hired former Pittsburgh manager Chuck Tanner to take over in the dugout. So Turner offered Cox a different position — general manager.

The man who loved the dugout started wearing a coat and tie. Cox was charged with the responsibility of turning the Braves around from the front office.

Cox made tremendous strides building the organization’s talent base. He worked hand-in-hand with Paul Snyder, the Braves’ scouting director, and team president Stan Kasten, who had been asked by Turner to run the Braves while still running the Atlanta Hawks.

But the results were not being seen on the field. Cox had fired Tanner in 1988, and when manager Russ Nixon was struggling two years later, Kasten told Cox he was needed back on the field.

So on June 22, 1990, Cox put on the No. 6 uniform once again.

The results since have been historic. The players Cox brought into the organization as the general manager helped him win championships as a manager. From 1991 through 2005, Atlanta won a record 14 division titles, while claiming five NL pennants and the World Series in 1995.

Big impact

There is no doubt the presence of future Hall of Fame players like Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux helped the Braves achieve tremendous success. But for a team to win, year after year, through constant roster changes, someone has to be in charge to make it happen.

How has Cox been so successful? What has he done so well to get the most out of his players each and every season?

Bobby Dews is one of Cox’s closest friends. He’s been on Cox’s staff as a coach for 13 of the 25 years Cox has been the Atlanta manager.

“I call it the three ‘R’s’ of Bobby Cox,” Dews explained. “He’s a remarkable talent. He’s relentless in his approach to winning. That’s what he thinks about, is winning the next ballgame. But he’s resilient enough that he can turn a devastating loss or series around and somehow get so many positives out of it that we’ll go on a winning streak.”

“He never panics,” said Hubbard, Cox’s first-base coach since 1999. “I remember maybe four or five years ago we were in Baltimore. We just got beat like 14-3. We made like five errors. I’m in my locker after the game, and I’m shaking my head. He said, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘Bobby our pitchers just gave up 14 runs. We made five errors. And we got like five hits.’ He looked at me and said, ‘We’ll be all right.’ ”

“We were playing horrible, but he never, ever panics. A lot of managers lose teams by the panic. They panic, so the team panics. But he knows it’s a marathon. It’s not a short spring. It’s a marathon. That’s been part of his success.”

Cox doesn’t have a lot of rules, only that players show up on time and play hard. But there’s an air of respect in the Atlanta clubhouse. People respect one another, and that goes right back to Cox.

“He’s just a wonderful person,” said Brian Snitker, Atlanta’s third-base coach and possibly a candidate to replace Cox next year. “I’ve learned a ton, but nothing more than treating people the right way and treating people the way you want to be treated. That’s just about being a genuine, honest, good man. That’s what he is.”

”Bobby treats everybody as if they are somebody,” Dews said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re the 25th man on a roster or the No. 1 guy or if you’re a coach or a clubhouse guy. He treats you with respect, and he makes you feel important.”

Players love playing for Cox because they know he’s on their side. You can hear that, even on television, when he’s vocally rooting for the players to do well with his pet nicknames.

“He’s always going to have your back and be behind you,” starting pitcher Tommy Hanson said. “Even when if you were to ever mess up on the field or make a mistake on the field, you’re never going to hear a bad word out of Bobby’s mouth.”

For a player like Hanson, who is 23 years old, it helps to feel comfortable around a manager who is three times older than him. It would be easy to be intimidated by Cox, but he makes even the young players feel important.

“It’s special,” Hanson said. “I grew up watching Braves games. I’ve seen him since I was a little kid. To be able to play for him, and especially his last year, it’s definitely an honor and something I’m very proud about.”

“Bobby’s a great manager. He’s definitely a player’s manager. He lets us do what we need to do to get ready for the season and the game every day. It’s been awesome playing for him.”

While it wasn’t talked about much in spring training, make no mistake about it — the Braves’ players want to win this year and send Cox out a winner. Some still wonder if he will change his mind and come back next season.

“The beauty of Bobby Cox is you don’t know that it’s his last year because nothing’s changed,” reliever Peter Moylan said. “He’s still the same guy, still as intense and as fired up as he usually is. I don’t think we’ll realize it’s his last year until he doesn’t show up for spring training next year. I don’t want to believe it until he doesn’t roll up here next year and park in his spot in right field.”

Cox always wants his team to play hard and play well, but the incentive for those around him is going to be there to make his final season very special.

“It’s not going to hit any of us that he’s leaving until the season is over,” Snitker said. “It’s going to be business as usual, and we’re going to go out and try to win every game we play.”

AL East champion - New York Yankees

AL Central champion - Detroit Tigers

AL West champion - Seattle Mariners

AL Wildcard - Boston Red Sox

NL East champion - Atlanta Braves

NL Central champion - St. Louis Cardinals

NL West champion - San Francisco Giants

NL Wildcard - Philadelphia Phillies

ALCS winner - New York Yankees

NLCS winner - Atlanta Braves

World Series winner - Atlanta Braves

AL MVP - Derek Jeter

NL MVP - Albert Pujols

AL Cy Young - Jon Lester

NL Cy Young - Adam Wainwright