Last night, the Braves 2010 season came to an end, along with Bobby Cox’s managerial career. I was a good fan this year, living on the hope that good things can happen, even as the odds tilted more and more against the team. Around the seventh inning of last night’s game, I had a moment of clarity: this team has no shot and never did. Sure, the team could lucky-bounce its way into the NLCS and maybe even the World Series, but that was highly unlikely. And deep down, I’d known this team was dead the moment that Martin Prado went down. Even before then, this team wasn’t capable of playing like a 91-win team in the post-season. When Melky Cabrera mercifully ended the season, I was angry and disappointed, but strangely relieved. The 2010 Braves died slowly, but they gave it all they had—not for themselves, but for Bobby. This has been one of my absolute favorite seasons to watch Braves baseball, but it was time to go. Their work was done. In a season that I watched my father die a slow and predictable death, it was strange parallel path to recognize in the the late innings of last night’s game.
Why was Bobby Cox such a good manager? Bobby is not just intelligent, but he likes people and understands them. I can think of exactly three players who didn’t get along with Bobby: Kenny Lofton, Tim Spooneybarger, and Yunel Escobar. There were probably more, but Bobby made sure that such problems didn’t spill out into public. Bobby was once a player, and not a great one. I think one of the reasons he wore spikes was to remind players that he was once were they are: he had walked, and continued to walk, in their shoes. He gave it all he had on the field, and he had never liked being showed up for lacking ability he didn’t have. Bobby had a positive role model, and an anti-role model. He took after Ralph Houck and was careful to avoid doing anything like Billy Martin had done. Bobby understood that to win with the players he had, he had to get the most out of all of them. That meant not just having good players play well, but have the bad ones play as well as they could, too. If a star got an ego and started problems with lesser players in the clubhouse, Bobby didn’t see it as player versus player, but as all players getting worse. He treated all players equally. The rules applied to everyone, and the team would win and lose together. If you didn’t like it, you were going to have problems. Probably the greatest testament to Cox’s ability to handle people is the fact that Gary Sheffield played for the Braves for two seasons, and he didn’t have a single problem. Controversy followed Sheffield throughout his career, but there was none of it in Atlanta.
Bobby also had an eye for talent and was amazingly patient. He would allow young kids to play everyday, and early failures were tolerated as growing pains. Being a general manager helped his patience. He returned to the Braves dugout in 1990s, he would be managing teams that he had built. He watched for long-run success and wasn’t going make snap judgements based on small samples. Sometimes his fondness, or lack of fondness, for a player would get him into trouble. But, I’m a big believer that sometimes the overall qualities that give us our strengths and weaknesses aren’t easily modified. The same stubbornness that allowed him to write Jeff Francoeur in the lineup everyday for far too long was the same thing that allowed him to stick by John Smoltz in 1991 when every one was demanding he be sent back to the minors. You can’t have one without the other.
How good was he has a manager? I recently examined how his players performed with and without Bobby as their manager. I found that the hitters were no worse, and that pitchers were much better (decreased their ERAs by approximately 0.25) when they played for Bobby.
I also have a personal observation of Bobby that made a lasting impression. At SABR 40 this year in Atlanta, Bobby graciously agreed to appear on a morning panel on the Braves rise from worst to first. It was the first session of the day, I think it was at 8am. The night before, the Braves had played a game against the Giants in the sweltering August summer heat and humidity of Atlanta. Late that day he would participate in the festivities surrounding Tom Glavine‘s number retirement, and he had a night game to manage after that. Bobby could have bagged the event and no one would have complained. The panel still had several former players, and we all know Bobby had a lot going on. Not only did he show up, he was in a suit and tie. He was as professional and polite as anyone could be. He answered every question, he signed autographs, and he never looked at his watch. At that moment, I understood why Bobby’s players love him so much.
Bobby Cox is a class act, and I will miss him. Good luck in your retirement, Bobby, and thanks for everything.