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ChopTalk: Bobby was a team builder

ChopTalk: Cox was a team builder

Several weeks after the Yankees defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games to win the 1977 World Series, then-Yankees first-base coach Bobby Cox received the call he'd been waiting for. It was the Atlanta Braves' general manager, Bill Lucas, asking if he'd be interested in managing the team.

"I heard some rumors," said Cox. "A few clubs had called, but [Lucas] was the first one to interview me."

Cox got on a plane and flew south.

"Bill and I talked, and I met Ted Turner the next day," Cox recalled. "They made their offer, and I took it. I signed right then."

So began a relationship between Cox and the Braves that eventually spanned three decades, taking him from the field to the front office -- and finally back to the field again. Cox saw his share of painfully bad teams in those early years, but still kept a positive attitude.

"You don't care what the record is when you get a chance to manage, especially your first chance," he said. "The challenge is what you're there for. We didn't win that year, but it was fun."

No, the 1978 Braves didn't win much, finishing with a 69-93 record, but they contributed to baseball's highlight reel nonetheless -- with a rookie hitting a home run in his Major League debut, a triple play, and on July 31, veteran reliever Gene Garber ending Pete Rose's National League-record 44-game hitting streak.

But before Cox's first season began to unfold, he had to assemble a coaching staff.

Chris Cannizzaro had been with the Braves organization since 1976 and remained, serving as bench coach for Cox in 1978. Other coaches brought in were Tommy Burgess, third-base coach, Cloyd Boyer as pitching coach, and Pete Ward, who served as Cox's first-base coach.

Ward remembers getting Cox's call at his home in Portland, Ore.

"I had heard on the radio that Cox had gotten the job, and soon after, Bobby called," said Ward. "We chatted, I congratulated him on getting the job, and then he said, 'The reason I'm calling is, would you be interested in a coaching position?' and I said, 'Uh, yes.' And that was it."

Ward, runner-up for American League Rookie of the Year in 1963, played most of his career with the White Sox but was traded to the Yankees in 1970 -- just as Cox was ending his career at Triple-A Syracuse. He followed Cox through the Yankees' Minor League managing ranks. Ward saw, firsthand, Cox's transition from playing to managing -- first in the Minors and then in the big leagues.

"He played for [Yankees manager] Ralph Houk, and it showed," said Ward, who also lived in Cox's home for part of the season. "He did all he could with what he had. He put his players up, treated them well, and never tore them down. He's the same type of manager Houk was. Managers are really important to players. We look back on our careers, and sometimes you can name a manager you love. Bobby falls into that category."

Phil Niekro was a key player on Cox's first team in '78.

"Having a pitcher like Knucksie was a lot to have," said Cox. "He'd already had success before I came in. He knew how to win. Watching Knucksie pitch every game made everything worth it."

Niekro had immediate respect for his new manager.

"He expected you to come to the ballpark ready to play," said Niekro. "He had been part of a winning organization and knew what it was supposed to be like."

"I didn't come in with a different agenda or way of doing things," recalled Cox. "I had managed in the Minors. I just handled it the way I did there. I just wanted everyone to work hard and give 100 percent every day. When I was in the minors, my goal was to make all my players into Major Leaguers, but in the Major Leagues, the goal was to win and make them better. There's always a level of work or instruction."

Three young rookies -- third baseman Bob Horner, second baseman Glenn Hubbard and catcher Bruce Benedict -- made their debuts in 1978. Horner had just finished slugging his way through the College World Series for Arizona State when he was selected by the Braves in the first round of the Draft.

"I talked to Ted Turner and Bill Lucas and worked out a deal," said Horner. "Three or four days later, I was in the big leagues."

Horner described himself as a "20-year-old kid with a lot to learn."

The Braves were on the road when Horner got to Atlanta, so he didn't meet Cox until the night before his debut, June 16, when he memorably hit a home run in his third at-bat.

"Bobby was very good to me," Horner said. "He helped me when he could and told me the truth. He put me in a position to go out and perform. He taught me how to dress, where to go, and when to get there. We were expected to dress nicely on the road and to look like ballplayers. You know, this was 1978. But there weren't any warmup suits or blue jeans on the road, none of that. I expect if a guy's hair was too long, Bobby wouldn't hesitate to walk up to him and say, 'Hey pal...' I would have expected it out of him."

Horner went on to have an outstanding rookie season, hitting .266 with 23 homers and 63 RBIs in just 89 games (323 at-bats). He earned NL Rookie of the Year honors, the same season he also earned College Player of the Year.

Hubbard was a July callup in 1978.

"I was doing well [at Richmond], so I was fortunate that they noticed," Hubbard said. "Bobby put me at second and switched Jerry Royster to shortstop. I just remember getting there and seeing my name in the lineup. I was overjoyed to go out on that field with a Braves jersey on."

In his second start, July 15 against the Philadelphia Phillies, Hubbard was part of a triple play of some distinction. In the top of the seventh inning, Garber walked Greg Luzinski, then walked Richie Hebner. Jose Cardenal followed by hitting a shot to Horner at third, who fired the ball to Hubbard, also 20 years old, at second, who threw to 22-year-old Dale Murphy at first.

"We were the youngest triple play in Major League history," said Hubbard. "It was just my second game! Bobby was... you know, pats on the back and stuff, but not over the top. Same way he is now."

Hubbard also remembers a fiery manager.

"He was like a raging bull back then," said Hubbard. "He had a lot of [passion] for the game. That hasn't changed. If you listen to the broadcast, you'll hear him yelling from the first pitch of the game."

"The greatest compliment a manager can give a player is to put him in the starting lineup every day," said Benedict. "You don't need a guy to pump you up. You don't need some special friendship. You want to know that your manager trusts you enough to put you in a lineup and help you win a ballgame."

Benedict made his debut against the Cardinals on his 23rd birthday, Aug. 18, 1978.

"I had just gotten to Atlanta from Richmond, and he said to me, 'Be ready to play, every day. You're not here to sit,'" said Benedict. "And he was right."

With many of the young players from 1978 along with seasoned veterans, Cox began developing a nucleus of players. They came in sixth place in the NL West in '78 and '79 (66-94), climbing to fourth in '80 (81-80). The players strike in '81 played havoc with the standings. The Braves were in fourth place for the first half of the season and fifth place for the second half, finishing 50-56. Turner opted to fire Cox at the end of the season with his overall record 266-323 (.452).

"We were so close," said Cox. "We all knew it."

"We could sense we were on to something," said Benedict. "Many of us had played together in the Minor Leagues and had been successful. Bobby was the right manager for us at that time. When he was fired, at some level you felt as if you'd let him down. I felt bad for him and, not knowing the industry, I didn't really know what the organization was thinking. We were a team that was coming on."

The 1982 Braves did just that. With their new manager, Joe Torre, the team won its first 13 games and ended up winning the NL West. But, there was no doubt who built that team. Cox's fingerprints were all over the construction and character of the '82 Braves.

"No disrespect to Joe at all," said Murphy. "But Bobby Cox built that team."

After his firing, Cox took a break from the NL, heading north of the border to manage the Toronto Blue Jays. There was much more team building in his future.

Patty Rasmussen is a columnist for Chop Talk. This article appears in ChopTalk magazine. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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