LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As they were driving toward Florida on Sunday morning, Bobby Cox told Fredi Gonzalez that he was more nervous than he would have been when facing Barry Bonds with the bases loaded.
This year's annual Winter Meetings were going to be different than any of the countless others Cox had experienced during his distinguished career as a manager and general manager. Along with providing him a chance to reconnect with the many friends he has gained over the past six decades, this year's event was going to provide him the opportunity to gain baseball's ultimate honor.
All of the nervousness and excitement that Cox felt over the past few weeks was replaced with overwhelming joy on Monday morning, when he learned he will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in July.
"I haven't had goose bumps in a long time," Cox said. "I got them this morning when I got the call. I've still got them. It's a funny feeling. It's the greatest honor you can have in baseball."
Cox and two of this generation's other great managers -- Joe Torre and Tony La Russa -- were all unanimously selected by a 16-man Expansion Era Committee that included Braves Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. This great trio will be inducted during the July 27 Hall of Fame ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Along with sharing this honor with two of his distinguished peers, Cox could fittingly be inducted at the same time as Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, who will learn whether they have been elected as first-ballot Hall of Famers on Jan. 8. Maddux and Glavine combined to win five Cy Young Awards while playing for Cox in Atlanta.
"They're the guys that got me this far, that's for sure," Cox said. "It would be just unbelievably great. I've got my fingers crossed for both of them."
Maddux and Glavine were instrumental to the success achieved by Cox, who ranks fourth among all managers with 2,504 victories. Hall of Famers Joe McCarthy, John McGraw and Walter Alston are the only managers who compiled a better winning percentage than Cox (.556) while notching at least 2,000 wins.
"I couldn't be happier for anybody," said John Smoltz, who spent 20 of his 21 Major League seasons pitching for Cox in Atlanta. "I can't think of anybody who could be more deserving. I think he could have managed and succeeded in any era."
La Russa, who ranks third on the all-time managerial wins list, reminisced about the many battles he had against Cox dating back to when they first managed against each other during the early 1980s, while Cox was with the Blue Jays and La Russa with the White Sox.
"He's a ferocious competitor, in the highest-class way," La Russa said. "When you play against guys like that, it's a great competition. They really want to beat you. But you learn about winning and losing the right way. And from Bobby, I always thought, 'Great guy,' but whenever you start keeping score, he was there to beat you, and he tried everything he could in the right way to do it."
Cox learned of his induction while he was having coffee on Monday morning with Gonzalez, Royals manager Ned Yost and two of his former Atlanta coaches -- Pat Corrales and Jim Guadagno. He ignored the first call because caller ID showed it was coming from an Oneonta, N.Y., phone number. But he called the number back seconds later, when he realized the proximity of Oneonta and Cooperstown.
When the Hall's newest inductees were introduced to the Expansion Era Committee members on Monday morning, Cox had a chance to speak with longtime Major League Baseball executive Andy MacPhail, whose father, Lee MacPhail, was responsible for giving Cox his first job as a professional manager.
When Cox's aching knees prevented him from making the Yankees' big league roster out of Spring Training in 1970, he was thinking about becoming a high school football coach. But he opted not to do so when Lee MacPhail offered him a $2,000 raise to play one more year as a backup for Triple-A Syracuse. At the end of the 1970 season, Cox met with MacPhail and accepted an offer to manage the Yankees' Class A club in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"If it wasn't for Mr. MacPhail flying down there and having lunch, I never would have been sitting here today," Cox said.
Cox graciously reminisced about many of the individuals who aided him on his journey, which began when Red Adams and Al Campanis signed him to his first professional contract with the Dodgers in 1959.
Cox also recognized former Braves general manager Bill Lucas, who gave him his first big league managerial job in 1978, and his close friend Pat Gillick, who hired him to manage the Blue Jays after he was dismissed by the Braves after the 1981 season.
And Cox once again showered praise on Ralph Houk, the man who served as his manager when he made his Major League debut with the Yankees in 1968. Cox has always recognized Houk as the man who was most instrumental in the way he approached the managerial profession.
"You take a little bit from everybody that you ever played with," Cox said. "And I liked Ralph Houk's style quite a bit. I learned a lot from him and kind of changed my thinking around about the game of baseball."
After spending one year as the first-base coach for the 1977 World Series champion Yankees, Cox got his first big league managerial job in Atlanta. Four seasons later, while announcing Cox had been dismissed, former Braves owner Ted Turner said the best candidate for the job would be "someone like [Bobby Cox]."
Those words proved prophetic just a few years later. After leading the Blue Jays to the playoffs for the first time in 1985, Cox returned to his family in Atlanta to serve as the Braves' general manager. During his five seasons in that role, he rebuilt the organization's Minor League system and planted the seeds for the tremendous success the club would have after he returned to the bench midway through the 1990 season.
The Braves went from worst to first and were one win away from winning the World Series during their memorable 1991 season, which marked the start of the club's unprecedented run toward capturing 14 consecutive division titles.
Cox guided the Braves to the World Series five times during the 1990s and helped the city of Atlanta capture its first major sports championship with the 1995 World Series title. Fittingly, before he retired at the end of the 2010 season, he led the Braves back to the playoffs for the 15th time in a span of 20 seasons.
"Managers give their motivational speeches to their teams at the start of Spring Training every year, and I guarantee you at least 20 of those teams walk away from that thinking, 'Whatever,'" Smoltz said. "It never felt that way with Bobby. He felt what he believed and he believed what he felt. His players always knew he had their back."