The Mets will honor Bobby Cox today, and that is right and proper. Cox, set to retire whenever the Braves stop playing in 2010, has more wins managed under his name, including those from which he was ejected before completion, than all but three men in major league history. Enough of them came at the expense of the Mets. As Mark Simon of ESPN New York outlined, nobody has managed more wins — 198 in the regular season and four in the 1999 National League Championship Series — at the Mets’ expense. Nobody else is close. Nobody else has managed long enough, often enough and successfully enough against the Mets to make it close. I’ve been grumbling at Bobby Cox for most of the past 15 years, but there are days when caps require tipping. This is one of those days.
Little bad is said of Cox in these closing weeks of his no-doubt Hall of Fame career. Why should there be? He took over a Braves club whose level of despair was de Rouletian in 1978 and steered it to the edge of respectability when he left in 1981; he boosted Toronto from stumbling toddlerhood in 1982 to A.L. East champs in 1985; and he drafted and traded devilishly well as Atlanta GM from 1986 to 1990.
Then his career really took off.
Bobby Cox has managed the Braves a second term since June 23, 1990. From 1991 to 2005, his club won every division title that was available to them, the last eleven of them in the National League East. It became such old hat after a while that every time Atlanta fizzled in the playoffs — which became a rite of autumn in the early 2000s — it was considered a glaring failure. Considering Cox had taken the Braves to five Fall Classics in the ’90s and led them to the world championship in 1995, it’s little wonder that standards shifted and bars rose.
But before Cox took over the Braves a second time, they were a glaring failure six months out of every year. There were no playoffs. There were 96 losses annually as a rule. The Braves were the Pirates as we’ve come to know the Pirates. Bobby Cox, more than anyone else, made the Braves the Braves as we’ve come to know them since 1991: perennial contenders, chronic winners, bad news for us.
While the Mets have been going through Bud Harrelson, Mike Cubbage, Jeff Torborg, Dallas Green, Bobby Valentine, Art Howe, Willie Randolph and Jerry Manuel, Bobby Cox has been a constant. His players swear by him, not at him. Former Brave Henry Blanco told the Daily News, “He is the best,” ignoring his current manager in his assessment. “He’s a great communicator, and you need communication.”
Anecdotes about Cox’s communications skills and what they have meant to his players keep coming as farewell hosannas are thrown his way. One is from Thomas Lake’s outstanding Sports Illustrated profile in July, harking back to his first stint managing the Braves, in 1979. It involved an infielder a the end of the line, Darrell Chaney. Cox hadn’t been playing him, and let him know the Braves wouldn’t be bringing him back the following season. But with two weeks remaining and the Braves going nowhere, Cox promised Chaney he’d play him daily to give him a chance to impress other teams. Thus inspired, Chaney, whose average had sunk to .111, went out and batted .333 the rest of the way. He then retired.
Chaney already loved Cox for beating up a toilet at Shea Stadium after he was ejected for arguing on the shortstop’s behalf. Writing him into the lineup every day was better. Players famous and forgotten always felt Bobby Cox was managing for them. Pitcher Tommy Boggs told SI in 2010: “I’ll be loyal to Bobby Cox for as long as I live.” Tommy Boggs last pitched for Bobby Cox in 1981.
Maybe the highest praise I’ve heard for Cox — the highest praise baseball men can give another baseball man, I imagine — may have come the last time the Mets were at Turner Field. It was a few minutes before gametime and Gary Cohen and Ron Darling were paying tribute to the home manager’s accomplishments and longevity, when they noted a special room had been built in the ballpark just for those occasions when Cox, the most ejected manager in baseball history, gets himself thrown out of games. Instead of making him stand in the tunnel to relay orders, Bobby gets to go to kind of a personal lounge where he can watch the game on TV in comfort and, presumably, dictate strategy with his feet up.
The room, just off the Brave dugout, also serves as something of a second office for Cox. You can go see him there before a game and, Gary explained, “he’ll talk baseball with anybody.”
I’m not sure what else you’d talk about with a baseball man at a baseball stadium, but I take it there’s something about routine and process that make this brand of putting others at ease unusual. There’s enormous pressure on a manager on a day-to-day basis. I suppose that’s why Jerry Manuel has one pregame gaggle for the media and then doesn’t want to be bothered with extraneous questions once BP begins. Every captain is entitled to steer his ship as he sees fit. Still, the way Gary put it — “He’ll talk baseball with anybody” — made the experience of chatting up Bobby Cox in his natural habitat sound absolutely transcendent.
Would I want to talk baseball with Bobby Cox? In theory, sure. Early this season, I met a retired player (not a Met) who went into television. It was a chance encounter and he was talking to somebody else, but I was on the scene and, quite frankly, I wanted in. Not because I had anything useful to say and not because I really wanted the ex-player’s insight. I just wanted to, you know, talk baseball with a real baseball man. When I sensed an opening in the conversation, I ducked in with a half-assed opinion. The retired player countered. I nodded.
And it was great!
Talking baseball with someone who actually knows baseball — who is in baseball — is an incredible sensation. Talking baseball with someone who’s been in baseball the way Bobby Cox has been, forever and brilliantly, must be as good as it gets. Yet what would I say to Bobby Cox if star-struck nervousness or reflexive ass-kissing didn’t kick in?
Probably something at odds with all the nice things everybody’s been saying about Bobby Cox all year, because the mere sight of him makes me sick.
Ohmigod, I can’t stand this guy. This guy beat us like a drum for most of two decades and he’s still doing it. I see Bobby Cox and I see this smug bastard who is pushing buttons and pulling motivational strings and irritating umpires and I see him winning. Him winning and us losing. I see him outmanaged by Bobby Valentine, our only manager who’s truly mattered since Cox has been ensconced in Atlanta, and he still wins. He wins when it matters deeply to both sides, as in 1999; he wins when it matters to us but not to him, as in 1998; he wins for the hell of it when it doesn’t matter to anybody. Needless to say, he wins yesterday when it matters to him and not to us.
And, at least until today is over, he’s omnipresent. He’s always managing the Braves. He’s managing them in 1990, in 2000, in 2010. He’s managing them from a little air-conditioned room after he’s told he can’t manage anymore. He’s managing to infiltrate Shea in 2007 when Atlanta is in Philadelphia because we’re having T#m Gl@v!ne Day in honor of the Manchurian Brave’s 300th win the week before. The Mets produce a video featuring all of the important baseball people in T#m’s life congratulating him on his milestone. Naturally just about all of those people are Braves.
I’m sitting at Shea and I’m watching the Mets project an image of smiling Bobby Cox telling T#m Gl@v!ne how wonderful it was to have him pitch for him and win for him and, if you listen between the lines, beat the Mets a lot.
When I see Bobby Cox’s face now, I see that. I see October 1999. I see September 1998. I see various and sundry outtakes from 198 regular-season losses dating back to the late ’70s. I’ve seen enough.
Tip your cap to Bobby Cox today. It’s right and proper. Then, for god’s sake, just once, send him out of here a loser. He’s been the other thing plenty.