ChopTalk: Cox positioned Braves' success

ChopTalk: Cox positioned Braves' success

In October 1985, Bobby Cox returned to the Braves after a successful stint managing the Blue Jays from last place in 1982 to an American League East title in 1985.

But Cox didn't come back to Atlanta to manage.

Team owner Ted Turner, the same man who fired him in 1981, hired him to be the Braves' general manager. The task at hand was no small order. The Braves were a floundering team -- without focus -- having just endured a 96-loss season in which they finished fifth and fired first-year manager Eddie Haas. Cox was brought in to turn it all around.

"I don't remember calling it a five-year plan," Cox said. "But I guess I knew it would take that long to turn this organization around, so that's what we had to do. We had to sign all the guys we could during the Drafts. We were trading for players. It wasn't just pitchers. And we had to get rid of some older players that had value in order to get younger players. We had to start over."

His first order of business was to restore the organization's player development and scouting departments and restock the Minor Leagues.

Fortunately, Cox had a group of trusted colleagues who were all on the same organizational page. Throughout Cox's tenure as GM, John Mullen served as his assistant, Hank Aaron was director of player development and Paul Snyder was scouting director. Rod Gilbreath served as an assistant to Snyder.

Longtime coach Bobby Dews rejoined the organization as Aaron's assistant, and in 1990, became the director of player development when Aaron became a special assistant to team president Stan Kasten. With this leadership team in place, the Braves were poised to make significant changes.

At the time, the Braves were relying on the Major League Scouting Bureau to find prospects. Cox got approval to hire the team's own full-time scouts and gave Snyder the go-ahead to hire them.

"Bobby and Paul went full bore into finding the best players wherever they could find them," recalled Dews, still a consultant with the team. "The goal was to have the strongest and best farm club in baseball, building the foundation for it through all these No. 1 Draft choices. The last-place finishes guaranteed that we'd have high Draft choices, but it didn't guarantee we'd get good players. We had Paul Snyder and his scouts to do that for us."

Cox was a hands-on GM.

"He didn't have to be everywhere, but he enjoyed doing those things -- scouting, watching players, spending three or four days at the farm clubs," Dews said. "It meant a lot to the people working down there to see him and to know he appreciated what they were doing."

And Cox was determined to make the best of his new job.

"I always preferred the field, but I dived into the job of GM as hard as I could," Cox said. "You do the best you can, and I had good people working with me."

Braves president John Schuerholz, who was GM with the Kansas City Royals at that time, remembered dealing with Cox as a fellow executive.

"It was easy for me to communicate with Bobby when we were general managers," Schuerholz said. "With some guys, it was an effort and a challenge. You had to play poker, do the interpretation of words and nuances. You didn't have to do that with Bobby."

But what impressed Schuerholz most was Cox's knowledge.

"He really knew players, his players and others, and he could evaluate players," Schuerholz said. "That's the most important evaluation you make, the evaluation of your own Major League and Minor League players. If you've evaluated them and you know them well, you'll make fewer mistakes."

Player knowledge helped Cox make decisions about some of the organization's most important Draft selections in the mid to late 1980s, including pitchers Kent Mercker ('86), Mike Stanton ('87), Steve Avery and Mark Wohlers ('88), as well as position players Brian Hunter, Javy Lopez ('87), Ryan Klesko ('89) and Chipper Jones ('90).

The organization also acquired several key players via deals, including pitchers John Smoltz and Charlie Leibrandt and first baseman Francisco Cabrera, all of whom made significant contributions to the Braves' success in the 1990s and, in the case of Smoltz, into the 2000s.

Tom Glavine, drafted in 1984 before Cox's return, also was being developed at the same time.

"We all believed so much in what Bobby was doing that he had us, just like he has his players, behind him 100 percent," Dews said. "There was so much harmony, and that's what he's all about."

Dews wrote a manual, "The Braves Way," used in the Braves' farm system at that time. It explained what was expected of managers and coaches in the Minor Leagues. It told how the fundamentals should be taught to Minor Leaguers.

"Every organization has a manual explaining how to do relays, rundowns and cutoffs. We just added a little more to it," Dews said. "Bobby wanted cohesiveness throughout the organization of how we do these things and why we do them that way. Our ultimate goal was to be a winning organization, the best farm system in baseball. We prepared ourselves for success, even though at the time it seemed ludicrous. We knew if we got the talent and we did it this way, we couldn't be stopped."

In 1987, Kasten came on board as president of the Braves. He also was the general manager of the Turner-owned Atlanta Hawks of the NBA and a rising star among sports executives.

"Bobby spent a lot of time rebuilding the Minor Leagues in that first year when I came over," Kasten recalled. "My orientation was building through youth, which was exactly what Bobby was doing. I had a little more 'juice' in terms of the ability to turn the dial all the way with regard to player development, adding more scouts, adding more coaches.

"Working along with Bobby, I think that helped speed things up."

Changing the expectations and culture of the organization was vital, but the results were far from immediate. In 1986, Cox's first team as GM came in sixth -- last -- in the division. The Braves improved to fifth place in '87, but in '88, they were back in last place with a dismal record of 54-106.

In 1989 and 1990, they posted two more last-place finishes, a three-year run during which they averaged 100 losses per season. It was a tough time to be a player and a Braves fan.

"We were suffering through losses," Kasten said. "We dipped into the free-agent pool. We signed [first baseman] Nick Esasky [for 1990], and after nine games Nick got hurt [vertigo], and that was a real setback. We endured a 106-loss season -- that was hard to do. We had to replace a guy we really liked in [manager, 1986-88] Chuck Tanner, and then we replaced another guy we liked, Russ Nixon [manager, 1988-90]."

It was clear to Kasten that the man who should be on the field was the man in the general manager's office. And despite being asked point blank if he wanted to be manager, Cox would not step out and request a transfer back to the field.

"Over the years, three to four years that he was the GM with me, I asked him many times, 'Would you ever be the manager?'" Kasten said. "And he never answered in any way other than, 'I'll do whatever you and Ted want me to do.'"

Finally, on June 22, 1990, with the Braves' record at 25-40, Kasten pulled the trigger. Nixon was fired, and Cox did double duty as GM and manager. Cox knew he would have only one job in 1991, but wasn't entirely sure which one it would be. That offseason, Kasten brought in the man who would replace Cox in the GM's office, Schuerholz.

Kasten said the mutual respect between Cox and Schuerholz made for an easy transition.

"It was a great day for all three of us when John came on board," Kasten said. "It was a combination that was rare, in terms of our ability to communicate and work together. You had three guys with egos who never let that get in the way. I can say this about the other two guys, and I think the same is true for me -- those guys really respect the other two jobs and understand the differences."

By 1991, the stage for success was set. For five years under Cox's leadership, Drafts and deals had been made that were about to transform the franchise. The farm system had been rebuilt. The scouting and player development departments had done their job. Schuerholz recognized this.

"I saw the pipeline of talent that was coming on," said Schuerholz, who shocked the baseball world when he left Kansas City to take on the biggest challenge in baseball.

"We would change our focus for a short while, because we needed some pieces."

The new GM picked up veteran players Sid Bream, Rafael Belliard and Terry Pendleton, giving the Braves' young pitching staff an outstanding infield to back them up.

Despite a slow start in April, the 1991 Braves turned it on in May, going 17-9 for the month. The scrappy team went up and down in the standings, battling it out with the Dodgers until the next-to-last day of the regular season.

After defeating the Astros, 5-2, the Braves gathered on the field at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to watch the last out of the game between the Dodgers and Giants on the stadium's center-field screen. As the Giants beat the Dodgers, the Braves celebrated their division triumph in front of thousands of fans that remained in the ballpark. The Braves had accomplished an amazing feat -- going from worst to first in the span of a year.

Cox was named National League Manager of the Year for guiding the 1991 Braves to the World Series, but it would not have happened without his exemplary work as a general manager during the five years that preceded that season.

"It was one of those fortuitous, serendipitous comings-together at a time when the team was ready to take off," Kasten said. "And with special ownership [Turner] who doesn't get enough credit for being really good at allowing people that he trusts to do their job. That's so important, and obviously it paid off."

The winning continued, year after year. Cox, Schuerholz, Kasten and the scouting department continued to find just the right players at just the right time. Greg Maddux joined the rotation in 1993 and worked his considerable pitching magic, winning 20 games and earning the Cy Young Award. The Braves became known for their outstanding starting pitching and developing young players like first baseman Ryan Klesko, center fielder Andruw Jones and third baseman Chipper Jones.

In 1995, the team returned to the World Series for the third time under Cox and defeated the Indians, 1-0, in a decisive Game 6 pitchers' duel.

The remarkable run finally ended in 2005, with an unprecedented 14 straight division titles that began in 1991, when the Braves turned the baseball world on its ear. Through it all, Cox served the organization well as field manager to teams that changed personnel frequently. Cox remained the constant.

"I don't think his teams underachieve, they always achieve their maximum," Kasten said. "You can win or lose a World Series by the bounce of a ball, and that certainly happened during our run, but it's hard to get to the postseason. We made it to eight NL Championship Series in a row. That might be harder than the 14 straight divisions, because you have to beat good teams to get there."

While he has every right to pat himself on the back, don't expect Cox to do so. When asked to reflect on his years as GM and his success managing the Braves, Cox shrugged and said, modestly, "You can lay the best plans out there and they can fail. We were lucky. In our case, it worked. We had great people in place."

What he failed to mention is that he put them there.

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