Dad, I beg you to reconsider! Tractor pulls! Atlanta Braves baseball! Joe Franklin!
—Bart Simpson, imploring father to continue to steal cable, “Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment,” February 7, 1991
The most comforting thing about watching Bobby Cox’s tenure as Braves manager end — besides knowing the Braves had lost, I suppose — was where I was watching it: on TBS.
It was lovely and all that Cox could go out in front of the home crowd at Turner Field Monday night (though 8,752 fewer fannypackers showed up than had Sunday), but the real sentimental touch, however unintended, was that it aired where Braves games always used to air. It aired where Bobby Cox became a living room presence via the outlet that allowed Atlanta to become a regional team.
That region was America.
The TBS through which Ted Turner shared the Braves until they became — with only mild exaggeration — America’s Team isn’t exactly the same one it was when the concept of a “superstation” was something of a phenomenon. That TBS was WTBS of Atlanta, formerly WTCG, the Turner-owned independent channel that aired Braves games locally. Ted got himself a satellite in the 1970s and suddenly he was a genuine programming provider.
The Braves were the programming; that and a flood of old sitcoms, none more repeated than The Andy Griffith Show. If you tuned into TBS to see baseball and you were thwarted by rain, that was OK, because the superstation would entertain you with an endless supply of Andy Griffiths. Rain being as common as it is down south come summertime, you were as likely to see Barney Fife in Mayberry talking wistfully about a weekend in Mount Pilot as you were to watch a tarp being pulled in Atlanta.
Manager Bobby Cox filled the role of beloved Sheriff Andy Taylor in the Brave dugout quite amiably unless you were a short-fused umpire or a frustrated fan of a divisional foe. Cox became that kind of Griffithesque staple on TBS, same as Brave wins. Just ask a San Francisco Giants enthusiast with a long memory to recall tuning in the Superstation down the stretch in 1993. If you lived on the West Coast on the final day of that season’s scorching pennant race, you could tune in the Rockies and Braves live from Fulton County Stadium at 9:05 AM (TBS broadcasts always started five minutes later than every other frequency’s) and find out very early what kind of day you were going to have. Atlanta beat Colorado 5-3 to notch their 104th win of the year and take a half-game lead over San Francisco in the last divisional duel guaranteed to leave the second-place team emptyhanded. The Giants took on the Dodgers after the Brave result went final and got whupped badly at L.A., 12-1. The Giants wound up going 103-59…and home for the winter.
Giants fans might be feeling a measure of latent redemption for 1993 after taking this NLDS against the Wild Card Braves, a designation that was not available to their club seventeen years ago. They can be proud of their team for winning a taut — if not defensively tight — series of four one-run games and maybe more proud for the way their team took a moment from hugging and dogpiling to turn toward the Brave dugout and applaud the departing pilot of their vanquished opponents.
Twenty-nine seasons of managing were technically over for Bobby Cox once Melky Cabrera grounded to third with two out in the bottom of the ninth (and Juan Uribe didn’t throw the ball past Travis Ishikawa), yet he couldn’t disappear from view the way managers of losing playoff teams generally do. The TBS cameras caught him ducking into the runway, but the Braves fans called him back out, even as the Giants players were still on the field celebrating their victory.
Cox had to return and acknowledge that he was being acknowledged. The Giants then had the good taste to momentarily halt their obligatory orgy of self-congratulation to turn and face the Brave dugout. Suddenly the NLDS winners were applauding the man they beat. It was appropriate and it was beautiful. Cox didn’t milk it for long and the Giants soon enough beat a retreat to their clubhouse to give each other alcohol baths. In an instant, the only people you noticed wearing uniforms were members of the Turner Field grounds crew, tending to the area around home plate (what’s the rush, fellas?). The image of the 25-man cap tip in Cox’s direction, however, left everybody watching on TBS a perfect grace note to take from this postseason round and perhaps cherish during the five-day interregnum now ensuing in advance of the next postseason round.
Baseball, Keith Olbermann reflected at the outset of Ken Burns’s The Tenth Inning, is “the only sport that goes forward and backwards.” Other sports have histories, but only baseball’s is an ever present past. Cox’s past was all over Game Four of this Division Series. You couldn’t help but watch this game wind down, once the Giants took a lead in the seventh, and not think about Cox finishing up.
It reminded me of when the Mets went to the bottom of the ninth on the last day at Shea — after all the talk about how the stadium would be closing at season’s end, and how unimaginable it felt to consider that it wouldn’t be there the following year. I’d thought and thought and thought throughout 2008 of facing a future without Shea Stadium, and now there were three outs separating me from that inevitability. Maybe the Mets could score a couple, could win in extras, could play a tiebreaker against Milwaukee, could go on a postseason run…but it probably wasn’t going to happen. The inevitable was becoming that reality.
I see Bobby Cox and, though I understand his record earns him a spot on managerial Mount Rushmore (or Mount Pilot, if you will), I don’t necessarily get all the fuss about what a sweetheart and humanitarian he is. It could be because I don’t necessarily see TBS Bobby Cox, where he was the home team sheriff (and Leo Mazzone was cast as his lovable deputy). I guess I see Prime Time Bobby Cox, from the 1999 NLCS and recall how the sight of him and his seemingly impenetrable Braves angered the blood beyond healthy levels. I’m not a Braves fan and I didn’t love Bobby Cox hovering in the other dugout all these years. I surely didn’t go for how most Mets-Braves games concluded when seasons hung in their balance.
But Cox was always there, continuously since 1990, intermittently since 1978. He was on TBS almost every night for six months and then, come October, took his act to CBS or ABC (The Baseball Network, anyone?) or NBC or ESPN or Fox. TBS rebranded itself a few years ago and stopped beaming Braves baseball into every cable home in America. It became the home of the Division Series in 2007, providing a platform to promote shows nobody would ever want any part of after being inundated by an endless loop of commercials for them — where have you gone, Frank Caliendo? — and enough videotaped rope with which clueless Chip Caray could hang himself. What TBS didn’t have once October got going in ’07 and ’08 and ’09 was the Braves of Bobby Cox, which was fine. For a few nights this month, however, they did. Just in time…and just like old times, if not always great times, depending on your rooting interest.
Bobby Cox taking his final bow on his old station was indeed comforting. Jarring, on the other hand, was watching his postgame press conference, which for losing playoff managers is usually quick and dirty business. We lost, they won, that’s it is usually the extent of the public reflection. But this wasn’t going to be an ordinary Q&A for Cox. No questions about strategy. Nothing about what next year looked like. Everybody knows next year will be different in Atlanta. All the inquiries were of the “how did you feel?” variety.
It was obvious how Cox felt when he couldn’t continue with one of his answers. The man who wouldn’t stop squawking at umpires all those years couldn’t spit anything out, not for a few very long seconds anyway. “A grown man shouldn’t do this,” he said as he stood on the brink of his own rain delay. Then Bobby Cox did what they sooner or later managed to do all those nights when the Braves starred on TBS.
He pulled back the tarp and got on with the baseball.
“I can’t say enough about Derek Lowe,” Cox saw fit to interject, even though nobody had asked him about Derek Lowe. “He’s going to be a 20-game winner next year, I think, if they get him any support at all.”
It wasn’t jarring that Bobby Cox nearly broke down while conducting his final media session as a major league manager. It wasn’t jarring that the assembled media members sent him off with an ovation, prohibition on press box cheering be damned. What jarred, in the end, was that Bobby Cox referred to the Atlanta Braves as “they”.
They, not we. Their team will go forward, but without their manager.
You’ve been watching Atlanta Braves baseball on Superstation TBS. Stay tuned for Andy Griffith.