Braves' Cox could finally get his due
by Jerry Crasnick
PHILADELPHIA—Braves manager Bobby Cox has a rule against rap music blaring over the clubhouse stereo. It might be problematic if he didn't also outlaw rock, classical, country, jazz, heavy metal, blues, hip-hop, disco or anything in the Hoobastank or Barry Manilow catalogues.
Under the Cox regime, the Atlanta players are free to discuss BALCO, religion or presidential politics. They can watch baseball on television, "Caddyshack" on video or play all the card games they desire.
But if they want to listen to music in the workplace, they better do it with headphones or not at all.
Cox has a rationale for the moratorium on tunes. It's hard to think when loud music is playing, he reasons, and unfair to reporters trying to do their jobs. A few years ago, Rangers teammates Chad Curtis and Royce Clayton feuded over the music playing in the clubhouse. Why court problems where none exist?
"It's every manager's preference," Cox said. "Some managers think it's great. Some of us don't. I don't like it personally, and if I'm running the clubhouse, I get the say-so."
Since Cox replaced Russ Nixon as Braves manager in 1990, the sounds of silence have been surpassed only by the incessant drone of excellence in Atlanta. The Braves win 90-105 games annually, and punctuate each victory with fist bumps and quiet reflection. Professionalism is considered part of the job, like playing hard or showing up on time.
Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine have come and gone, and the franchise has survived a John Rocker meltdown and a Fulton County Stadium implosion. Through it all, the biggest constants have been John Schuerholz, Leo Mazzone, John Smoltz and Cox, who might be better than ever in his 23rd season in the dugout.
In 1991, Cox took the Braves from worst to first and within a victory of a World Series ring. The baseball writers rewarded him as National League's manager of the year.
Atlanta has won a division title in every complete season since, but Cox is still stuck on one manager of the year award. He finished second to Jack McKeon in 1999 and Tony La Russa in 2002, and that was the closest he came.
"Unfortunately, Bobby never seems to get the credit he deserves," said Glavine, now with the Mets. "Most of the time, he gets beat out by somebody who came from nowhere and led their team to an unexpected finish and gets credit for being a great manager. Bobby never comes from anywhere other than first place."
This year could be different. After losing Maddux, Gary Sheffield and Javy Lopez to free agency and being declared DOA upon arrival at spring training, the Braves looked sadder than a punch-drunk boxer in May. In a forgettable three-day stretch, they whiffed 18 times in a loss to Ben Sheets and were the victims of a Randy Johnson perfect game. They were dinged up, demoralized and on the road to nowhere.
But with patience and time, things turned around. Just as Schuerholz predicted, Chipper Jones rebounded after the all-star break, Marcus Giles came off the disabled list to provide a boost, and the Braves ripped off 47 wins in a span of 63 games. With some help from the Phillies and Marlins, they pocketed the division title in late August.
Oddly enough, Cox is getting much of the credit. "I think this is the best managerial job he's done in his career," said former Braves manager Chuck Tanner, now an Indians scout.
Like most people, Tanner figures it will come down to Cox and La Russa, two time-tested standbys, for manager of the year this season.
Cox, of course, will forever have to fight the same stigma—that the Braves underachieved with only one World Series title in the 1990s. Media critics will dissect his October moves like overzealous biology students, pointing out that he brought in Mark Wohlers too early against the Yankees in 1996 and stuck with Glavine too long against New York in 1999.
Cox can't change history, but his overall body of work is impossible to ignore. Barring a mediocre finish this season, he'll become the ninth big league manager with 2,000 wins.
And his players, to a man, will share in the accomplishment.
"I guarantee you the guys who realize he's so close want to do everything they can to help him get to that plateau," righthander Russ Ortiz said.
Aside from La Russa and Sparky Anderson, the 2,000-win club members are all distant, Mount Rushmore-like figures from a bygone era. Connie Mack, John McGraw, Bucky Harris, Joe McCarthy, Walter Alston and Leo Durocher managed players who worked for slave wages and wouldn't know a steroid from an asteroid.
But the principles of running a successful clubhouse never change much. Cox's biggest strengths are his consistency, his willingness to laugh at himself and his absolute refusal to throw players under the team bus. If an Atlanta player misses a sign or has a brain cramp to cost the team a game, Cox never shares it with the papers.
"Bobby takes a lot of falls for no reason," Smoltz said. "I've seen it, when guys have messed up and he takes the hit for them. That's the kind of thing that makes guys go, 'Wow.' "
Cox is one of the biggest reasons Smoltz stayed in Atlanta when he could have signed with another team or succumbed to elbow pain and retired. And while Glavine has moved to New York, he still smiles at the endearing images of Cox that are seared into his brain.
Glavine will forever remember Cox, before he had his knees replaced, limping to the mound to make a pitching change, or rubbing a hand through his buzz cut in consternation over a questionable call.
"There were times when Bobby would sit there looking at the lineup card with his glasses hanging from his chin," Glavine said. "He wouldn't even be watching the game. But if somebody bitched about a pitch, he'd be the first one to yell, 'Where was that?' "
Cox doesn't miss much else. He still shows up at the park early each day and enjoys sitting in the dugout bantering with the scribes about ball. As Cox tells stories of the old days, he alternately sucks on a stogie and spits the juice on the dugout floor.
When he claims he couldn't care less about 2,000 victories, you can't help but believe him.
"It's just a number, really," Cox said. "The only thing it means is that you're getting old."
Bobby Cox turned 63 in May, and he loves the job as much as ever. Funny thing. Sometimes a guy can stick around so long, he's in danger of becoming fashionable.
Jerry Crasnick is a contributing baseball writer for ESPN.com. You can contact him by sending e-mail to [email protected].