Well, the story’s out now that Bobby Cox will be stepping down after next season. I’m pretty sure that everyone has given every sort of opinion under the sun regarding his legacy (or lack thereof) in the dugout so I might as well give you mine as well…
Let me preface this by saying that the Braves aren’t nearly the franchise they became in the 90’s without Bobby Cox being there. It was Cox who brought in the youngsters when the Braves were losing 95+ a year. He was the one who didn’t blink when the Red Sox offered him Mike Greenwell for a young Tom Glavine and also orchestrated the Alexander for Smoltz deal. If it wasn’t for Cox making way for them by jettisoning the past-their-prime (old Bob Watson, old Ted Simmons, old Ken Griffey Sr., old Jody Davis, old Craig Nettles, old Darrell Evans), ineffective (Oberkfell, Camp, Hubbard, Mahler, Benedict, Thomas, an aging Dale Murphy), oft-injured (Perry, Sutter, Esasky, Garcia, Horner), and the just plain horrible (insert any pitcher here) players, the Braves never get the level that they achieved. For that, he’ll always have my gratitude.
With that being said, I’ve never seen anyone accomplish less over an expanded period of time than he did once the team started winning. For Tony LaRussa to lose the World Series with the A’s against teams the ’27 Yankees would’ve had trouble beating because they were so red-hot going in is one thing. But for Bobby Cox to have three Hall of Fame pitchers and a murderers’ row lineup at times (Gant, Justice, McGriff, Gallaraga, Andrew and Chipper Jones, Sheffield, Lopez, Klesko, et al) at his disposal for over a decade, make the playoffs year after year, only to win it all only once isn’t just underachieving; it’s damn near criminal. With Cox not only being able to stick around without any fear of reprisal for failing when it matters most but call his own shot of when he can leave, it echoes the sentiment many in the national media already knew and I agree with completely; that Atlanta is a soft sports town when it comes to its pro teams. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s no shame in losing to better squads like the Yankees in ’99 or the Blue Jays in ’92; but to get swept away by the Cardinals at home? Name another major league city who would’ve kept him around another year after underdogs like the Marlins, Giants, Astros, Cubs, or Padres finished splashing champagne on each other in the middle of Turner Field. In Boston, the Red Sox sent Grady Little home for leaving Pedro in one batter too many in the ALCS; in NYC, the Yankees ran Joe Torre out of town after four world titles. Yet through it all, Bobby Cox was able to keep giving favorites like Keith Lockhart key at-bats with the season on the line.
Maybe it was because former-owner Ted Turner had such a genuine respect for Cox that the plug wasn’t pulled on him again (Turner has fired him before). Maybe it was AOL-Time Warner taking over and placing a much higher value on how many souvenirs, $7 hot dogs, and $5 sodas they sold in the Chop House over winning world titles. But maybe, just MAYBE, it was John Schoerholz and Stan Kasten never receiving the memo that few in Atlanta care for those division-winning banners they kept parading around the ballpark before every season opener. Perhaps we didn’t make ourselves clear when we stopped showing up for postseason games after watching the likes of Sterling Hitchcock and Russ Ortiz mow through the lineup like Steve Carlton and Bob Gibson. After all, if Florida and Georgia demonstrated the same lack of urgency the Braves did during their run, Urban Meyer would still be in Utah and Mark Richt would still be waiting from the coaches box in Tallahassee for Bobby Bowden to retire.
So if I had to grade this future Hall of Fame manager, I wouldn’t give him an ‘A’ or a ‘D’; I’d give him a ‘W’ for ‘What If’…
What if he didn’t insert Charlie Leibrandt to pitch to Kirby Puckett when Puckett only had a career batting of .792 against him?
What if he had waited until the 9th inning to put in Mark Wohlers in Game 4 of the ’96 Series? Would Wohlers had ever faced Jim Leyritz to begin with?
What if he had found a way for the Braves not to fall short so many times in the postseason? At home, no less? Would Atlanta be so jaded towards the franchise as it is right now?
What if he had won another title? Another two titles? Five more? Would folks care what side of town Turner Field was located on then?
Does he grab a bat and hit? Does he make the pitches or field? Of course not. But we all know that ultimately too much of the credit (and blame) always tend to fall on the coach or in this case, the manager.
So while there are so many today who will celebrate the many things that Bobby Cox accomplished in his career, there remains much more that he left on the table.