Cox's legacy unmatched in Braves history

Cox's legacy unmatched in Braves history

ATLANTA -- Bobby Cox believes those who consider him to be the most influential man in the long history of the Braves organization, "need to get their head examined."

Once the ever-humble Cox begins experiencing the exile of the retirement lifestyle that awaits him at the conclusion of this season, he might gain a better understanding of what he has truly brought to the City of Atlanta while serving as one of the Braves' primary leaders for the past 25 years.

"I don't think we realize it yet, but his leaving is not only going to affect the Atlanta Braves, but I think all of baseball will take a hit when Bobby Cox retires," Braves Major League consultant Bobby Dews said. "I've watched the reactions of the other teams and heard what the other players and coaches say to me. They are envious that we're beside him every day."

While difficult to fathom, there might once again be another manager who is able lead an organization to 14 consecutive division titles like Cox did with the Braves from 1991-2005. Remaining in the realm of the unthinkable, there might also one day be a manager who exceeds Cox's Major League record of 158 ejections.

But it's almost impossible to believe that anybody else within today's volatile baseball world will ever match the longevity Cox has experienced while spending the past quarter-century serving as either the Braves' general manager or manager.

"Bobby, thank you. You were truly the best ever, a gift and a blessing to all of us," Braves president John Schuerholz said while concluding his speech during Saturday's pregame ceremony honoring the legendary skipper.

When Cox became Braves GM at the end of the 1985 season, Brian McCann still hadn't celebrated his second birthday, and a couple of 300-game winners named Maddux and Glavine still hadn't made their Major League debuts.

When Cox began moving away from his administrative role and started his current tenure as the Braves' manager midway through the 1990 season, Jason Heyward still hadn't celebrated his first birthday, and some kid named David Justice was on his way to being named the National League's Rookie of the Year.

"The job security is never there in this game," Cox said. "It's just not there. Invariably, you're going to be fired, no matter what. I beat the odds. The odds of doing something like that are off the charts. It's one of those baseball things -- you just can't predict it."

Well, he didn't completely beat the odds. Ted Turner gave Cox his first Major League managerial job before the start of the 1978 season and then decided four seasons later, after watching the Braves finish no higher than fourth place in the National League West standings, that he needed somebody else leading his club.

Turner was no baseball genius, but the iconic media mogul seemed quite capable of identifying great leaders. When he announced that Cox had been fired at the end of the '81 season, Turner said that the perfect successor would be "somebody like Bobby Cox."

While the eccentric media mogul's statement might not have made sense to many, the belief was shared by Dews -- who had served each of the previous three years on Cox's coaching staff -- and others who had watched Cox point a perennial cellar dweller in the right direction. Joe Torre would reap the benefits the following season while leading the Braves to the 1982 National League West crown.

"If you had been in baseball all your life, you knew what he was going to do eventually," Dews said. "It was just like watching Jason Heyward play in the Minor Leagues. Watching Bobby Cox build himself and the organization, you just knew he was going to be successful."

Eight days after being fired in Atlanta, Cox began a four-year managerial stint in Toronto that would be capped with him leading the Blue Jays to the 1985 American League East crown. Most everything felt perfect in Toronto. He loved the fans, the city and the organization.

In fact, Cox loved everything about his Toronto experience except for the fact that it had left him nearly 1,000 miles from his suburban Atlanta home, where his wife, Pam, was raising their newborn daughter, Skyla.

Because Cox had just guided the Blue Jays to their first postseason berth, Turner and the Braves seemingly had no idea he wanted to return to Atlanta. Thus they hired Chuck Tanner as the club's manager on Oct. 7, 1985.

Less than three weeks later, Cox showed how much he wanted to be near his family by accepting the opportunity to serve as the Braves' general manager. Wearing business attire and talking to civic groups certainly wasn't the role desired by this man, who would much rather wear cleats and bark at umpires until the day he dies.

"Being a GM is like punching a clock," Cox said. "So is baseball in uniform, but it's a little more fun down here. It's a little too serious up there [in the front office]. I took it by the horns and did the best that I could. But there's nothing like the uniform, the dugout and the game itself."

At the time, Cox's selfless decision to walk away from what he had built in Toronto and the role he loved may not have seemed wise. Twenty-five years later, it was a move that proved to be far more influential than anybody could have fathomed at the time.

Had Cox remained in Toronto and continued to enjoy success, there's still a strong possibility he would have encountered one of those inevitable firings and spent these past 25 years, as he said, "in five different places trying to raise a family."

Had Cox not returned to Atlanta to serve as the general manager, he wouldn't have had the chance to plant the seeds and resurrect a Minor League system that proved to be so fruitful by the time he slowly stepped away from his administrative role and began his current managerial tenure with the Braves midway through the 1990 season.

"When Bobby took over as the general manager, everything changed in the Minor League system," said Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez, who began his professional career in the Atlanta organization in 1987. As a player, you didn't agree with some of the stuff. But eight years later, I said, 'Wow, I'm glad he did that.'

"I'm glad he did a lot of stuff that made me a better baseball player. We were taught how to wear the uniform, how to respect that game, how to do all of that stuff."

Raised by the Dodgers organization that signed him at 18, and enriched by a Yankees organization that provided him a chance to play two years at the big league level and then prove himself as a Minor League manager from 1971-76, Cox chose to attack the sorry state of the Braves' Minor League system by instilling a sense of professionalism and desire to succeed.

"The way he explained it to me was that he wanted every player from the organization, from the lowest rookie-level guy to the superstar in the big leagues, to be proud to be part of the Atlanta Braves," said Dews, who served as a roving Minor League instructor and director of player development during Cox's GM term. "We prepared ourselves for success by treating them like potential big league ballplayers and winners.

"It made a lot of difference. Bobby never preached, 'We're going to play .500 baseball.' He preached, 'We're going to win a World Series.' No matter how bad things got, we were geared for one thing -- to win the World Series. That's what we taught and what we believed. I guess you could say we developed a winning attitude as well as Major League players."

During his tenure as the Braves' GM, Atlanta drafted the likes of Steve Avery and Chipper Jones. They used aging pitcher Doyle Alexander to acquire a kid named John Smoltz from the Tigers near the end of the 1987 season. And they managed to develop both superstars, like Glavine, and gritty prospects, like Mark Lemke, who would personify the attitude of organization that rose from the depths of despair and became a blueprint for success.

Looking back on what was achieved during his tenure as GM, Cox gives all the credit to legendary scout Paul Snyder and guys like Dews, who worked tirelessly to develop talent. But history shows that Snyder and Dews had been with the Braves for a long time before their talents were truly realized under the direction of Cox's leadership.

"I just wanted to win and not step on anybody's feet doing it," Cox said. "I hope I treated everybody as fair as I possibly could in the game of baseball."

With the Minor League system now proving as fruitful as any in the game, Cox would lead the Braves to 14 consecutive division titles, five NL pennants and one World Series title from 1991-2005. This kind of success certainly strengthens job security. But as was evidenced during Torre's final days with the Yankees, it doesn't guarantee it.

Recognizing the potential that existed in Atlanta, Schuerholz left the Royals at the end of the 1990 season to become the Braves' general manager. For the next 17 years, Schuerholz and Cox would work together as harmoniously as Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammel did while serving as Detroit's double-play tandem.

Schuerholz proved to be a great listener, advisor and leader. As a loyal employee, Cox never attempted to leverage his success to gain greater wealth. In fact, he spent most of his current tenure working with one- or two-year contracts that were signed with the assumption that they'd be renewed when necessary.

"The personality mix worked," Schuerholz said. "We didn't always agree, but we found out how to disagree appropriately and, at the end of it, get the things done that the organization needed."

As Cox prepares to retire, the baseball world finds itself celebrating one of the greatest managerial careers ever constructed. But to recognize him simply as a man who has recorded the fourth-most managerial wins in Major League history would be like recognizing Red Auerbach simply as a man who coached the Boston Celtics to nine NBA titles.

Like Auerbach with the Celtics, Cox served the Braves as a chief architect, five-star general and patriarchal figure.

Hank Aaron might be the most recognizable player to ever wear a Braves uniform, but the 733 home runs he provided the franchise weren't as influential as the direction Cox provided over the past quarter of a century.

The Braves will never be the same without No. 6 showering daily support from their dugout. But as he heads out on his own terms, they can be thankful that things are much different than they were when he returned to Atlanta 25 years ago.

Humble to the bitter end, Cox has left himself opened to be second-guessed yet again by assessing his career by saying, "I got lucky."

"No, we're the ones that have been lucky to have had Bobby Cox in our lives for so long," Dews said.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.