Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bobby Cox & My Baseball Life

Last night epitomized what Bobby Cox has always been about--classic baseball. In the 8th inning, down by one run to the San Francisco Giants, the retiring manager of the Atlanta Braves put on the hit-and-run. Unfortunately, the Atlanta batter swatted the ball directly at the Giants' shortstop, ending the Braves' hopes for more postseason play right in that moment. It was more than that, though. It was the last time Bobby Cox would sit in a big league dugout, putting on the hit-and-run, hoping against all hope that his boys would win the game and force a fifth NLDS game in San Francisco. Last night was Bobby Cox's last game.

What Bobby Cox has meant to the city of Atlanta, to the fans and to baseball cannot be measured. After the Giants had won the game last night, while congratulating each other on the field, the Turner Field crowd began chanting "Bobby, Bobby." When a clearly emotional Bobby Cox stepped out of the dugout to tip his hat to the crowd, the entire Giants team stopped their celebration, turned toward the Braves' dugout and applauded Bobby Cox. Every person in that stadium, including all of his players and coaches, was on their feet applauding the amazing career of the Braves' manager.

As the postseason got closer this year, it was obvious that the Atlanta Braves wanted nothing more than to send their retiring manager to the playoffs one last time. He may be a world champion, a manager of the year numerous times, and the second most successful manager in postseason play (the first being Joe Torre), but for everyone that knows Bobby Cox, they also know he is a fierce competitor and wanted that last shot at a championship. That the Braves could even win the Wild Card and win a game in the postseason was nothing short of miraculous. Since the beginning of the season, the Braves have had injury after injury. A starting pitcher went down with a bad hamstring, the starting second baseman with the team's best batting average went down with a broken pinky and then went down just before the end of the season with a hip pointer injury that kept him out of the playoffs, their starting third baseman and arguably their most experienced player tore his ACL, and then, as if fate hadn't thrown enough of a hitch in their plans, the Braves' retiring closer ended his season and more than likely his career fielding a bunt and hurting an oblique in the process. The baseball gods didn't make it easy for Atlanta and didn't hand Bobby a real chance at one more championship.

If you listen to baseball people talk about Bobby Cox, you'll surely hear them refer to Bobby as a player's manager. What does this mean? Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune sort of sums up the sentiment:
"Winning with the Yankees is one thing. Winning with the Braves is another. Winning when players grumble about you is one thing. Winning when players universally respect -– and often genuinely love you -– is another."
Bobby was universally respected by every player that played for him. And his final press conference after last night's game showed the other side of the coin. As the press attempted to get him to talk about his feelings about this being the end of his career, Bobby kept saying how proud of his team he was. After choking up and admitting his belief that "a grown man shouldn't do this," he immediately went back to praising his team, specifically starting pitcher Derek Lowe. He respected his players as much as they respected him. When the team came off the field, Bobby Cox said he told his boys how proud he was of their effort. You have to think it was a highly emotional moment in the Braves' clubhouse. When the press conference wrapped up, something happened that rarely happens in these short, post-game pressers: The media stood and applauded as Bobby Cox left that room for the last time.

In the latest addition to the great series on the game by Ken Burns, Doris Kearns Goodwin talks about her "baseball life." I had never heard someone other than a player or coach, talk about the time in their life where they were both aware of and dedicated to the game of baseball the way she does in the segment. I found it odd. Until last night. Last night I realized that my entire "baseball life" Bobby Cox has been with the Braves, my Braves. In fact, Bobby has been with the Braves organization the entire time I've been alive. Just as I can't imagine Chipper Jones playing for any other manager, I can't imagine baseball without Bobby Cox. My generation of baseball fans has never known the game without Bobby Cox.

Bobby Cox has had a baseball life for fifty-one years. He really isn't going to put that uniform on again and finally he won't have to wear that pair of spikes. But just because Bobby is retiring doesn't mean he won't continue to be a huge part of the game. He'll easily go into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. His number will be retired in Atlanta. He'll hold onto his spot as the manager with the 4th most wins in baseball for some time. And, you better believe that the manager who always had his players' backs will retain the record for most career ejections for decades to come. Bobby's fifty-one year baseball life has left an impact on the game that will be around for a very long time.

It is more than okay for a grown man to cry about his last day in uniform and Bobby Cox more than earned that moment. Especially when his last day in uniform came after a fifty-one year career in a game as purely American as baseball. For this girl far from a major league ballpark, you will always represent the first 20+ years of my baseball life.
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Update (10.13.10): The Atlanta Braves have announced today that Fredi Gonzalez will take the helm of the team next season. Gonzalez, the name most often touted as a replacement for Bobby Cox, is the former manager of the Florida Marlins and came up as a coach through Atlanta's farm system, working directly under Bobby Cox prior to signing on with Florida.

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