Little things mean so much in Cox's Hall of Fame career
Bobby Cox was so fascinating as a manager, and it all goes back to a bunch of little things that were huge things. Trust me, I know. Out of his 29 seasons running Major League teams from the dugout, I watched Cox up close and personal during the last 21 years of that stretch. By then, he was ignoring his historically gimpy knees as a player with the Yankees to sprint toward the National Baseball Hall of Fame during the second of his two stints with the Braves.
Cox also managed the Blue Jays, and he did so between those periods he called Atlanta home. Still, many forget his Toronto days, but not Jays fans, especially because he led their franchise to winning seasons during the last three of his four years in town. Before Cox took over the Blue Jays in 1982, they were an expansion team with zero winning seasons.
Such a miracle worker, this Robert Joseph Cox. The Braves also weren't much for the longest time before he came along in the 1990s, but here's the thing: The reason he was so fascinating as a manager wasn't just because he led his Atlanta and Toronto teams to more victories in baseball history than anybody not named Connie Mack, John McGraw or Tony La Russa. The reason also wasn't just because Cox took the Braves to a Major League-record 14 consecutive division titles, while collecting five National League pennants and a World Series championship along the way. If you include his last season with the Blue Jays, he actually has 15 consecutive division titles on his resume.
Cox was so fascinating as a manager because of those little things. Like operating as the definitive player's manager with an invisible iron fist. In fact, this now 73-year-old icon with the always upbeat personality was much tougher than you think. I'll give you an example, but I won't mention names. Even though Cox is four years past his retirement with the Braves, he still prefers to keep that invisible iron fist between himself and his former players.
That said, during Cox's second coming with the Braves, there was a veteran pitcher who kept verbally assaulting a young position player over what the pitcher perceived as a lack of hustle. The young position player eventually had enough, but just like his teammates, he had so much respect for Cox that he wasn't going to take matters into his own hands. He went to the manager's office for a closed-door session. After explaining the situation, the young position player asked for permission from Cox to handle things with the veteran pitcher in a more, ahem, physical way.
Permission was granted.
With Cox looking elsewhere, the young position player became Muhammad Ali to the veteran pitcher's Mister Rogers.
Problem solved, and get this: Not only did the battered and bruised veteran pitcher never bother the young position player again, but the veteran pitcher never complained to Cox about the matter. Which brings me to another little thing. During all of those decades I worked as a columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution following Cox's Braves teams, I never heard a negative syllable about the guy from one of his current or former players. They loved Cox as a strategist, and they hugged him even tighter as a person.
"You didn't want to do anything wrong with Bobby as your manager," Chipper Jones once told me, "because it would be like messing with your grandfather."
Whether Cox's unofficial grandchildren deserved it or not, he always pumped them up in public. He protected them, too, and that's why he holds the baseball record for getting tossed from games as a manager. So this might surprise you: Umpires also respected Cox as much as anybody in baseball. They knew there was a method to his dirt-kicking, profanity-flying madness. Which is to say they knew Cox's tirades mostly were contrived to keep his unofficial grandchildren from getting tossed, fined or both.
Well, forget all of that. My favorite little thing involving Cox was his impromptu office at Turner Field. His main one was in the home clubhouse, but the place he enjoyed the most at the ballpark was the large closet-sized room tucked around the corner from the stairs leading from the home clubhouse tunnel to the Braves' dugout. The room was big enough for a small television set attached high on a wall, a comfortable swivel chair for the cigar-smoking Cox, a tiny ledge for the manager to jot things down or lean against, and a handful of visitors who mostly had to stand near the doorway.
During the 3 percent of the time that Cox's TV wasn't on the Weather Channel or maps showing precipitation around the world, it was turned to a NASCAR race, Cox's sporting passion beyond baseball.
Before games, Cox stayed in that room forever, and he was riveting. He told stories about Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin. Cox discussed national politics, along with local news and world events. He asked you questions, then he would ask you a few more, always listening and watching intently for your answers. Then, between all of that, Cox discussed the weather. I mean, the maps usually were right there on his TV screen in living color.
Now, Cox is a Sunday away from induction into Cooperstown. I wonder if he'll wear his metal spikes, which was another little thing. He was the last uniformed person in baseball to do so.