As a fan of the Atlanta Braves, I was privileged to watch Bobby Cox lead the team for over twenty years. I knew that every time I turned on the Braves, no matter the lineup, Bobby Cox would be there leading the team, the one permanent fixture. Cox was the manager long before Chipper Jones ever made it to the big club, and Bobby Cox was there before and after the so-called "Steroid Era." The game changed over the course of Cox's career, but Bobby Cox did not.
It was with sadness that I watched on television as Cox managed his final game.
There will never be another Bobby Cox. Combine Cox's retirement with that of Lou Piniella, and you can almost feel a changing of the guard in big league managers. Rarely do you see the outbursts that Piniella provided, or see the looks of disbelief that Cox displayed in each of his record 158 ejections. There is a new breed of big league skippers, and there will never be another manager like Bobby Cox.
Enter Fredi Gonzalez.
The more the Braves organization presents Gonzalez as being from the same mold as Cox, the more it becomes clear that Cox cannot be replaced or replicated. By replacing a legend (and certain Hall of Famer), Fredi Gonzalez has found himself in a position that few coaches desire.
Give Gonzalez credit for embracing the challenges before him and doing an admirable job. However, it seems as though the players themselves have taken some time to adjust to their new manager.
If you're around someone for over twenty years, you begin to know how that person thinks, almost to the point of being able to finish their sentences. Although most of his moves worked in the Braves' favor, Cox's decisions became predictable. Players began thinking like Bobby Cox and preparing for games like Bobby Cox.
We're only two short months into the 2011 season, and Braves players are still trying to figure out the nuances of the Fredi Gonzalez regime. The coaching staff has been tweaked since Cox's departure, and the Braves are still adjusting to the other new coaches as well. Terry Pendleton served as hitting coach under Cox for years, but he was recently replaced by Larry Parrish.
Consistency reigned supreme under Cox's leadership, but Gonzalez's time as manager has so far been a time of change, with new philosophies and strategies being emphasized. Players are still "feeling out" their new coaching staff and building relationships with them, just as they did when Cox began his second tour of duty with the Braves years ago.
Many of the current Braves on the roster didn't have the chance to play for Cox for long, so this season has seen a blending of new players and new coaches.Only Chipper Jones and Brian McCann had extended experience playing under Cox.
Fans might think that it should be an easy transition for Gonzalez, since he spent so much time around Cox. However, Gonzalez wants to put his own stamp on the club, and will implement the changes he feels will best serve the team. One of the biggest differences under Gonzalez can be seen in the Braves' defensive improvement. Gonzalez has made it a point to increase the number of infield practices before games, and it's shown in the improvement of the Braves defensive ranking among National League teams.
While some players admitted a difference in spring training, no one can deny the results. Entering this week, the Braves were third in the Major League in team defense, a major contrast to last year, when the Braves found themselves in the bottom five at the season's end.
Offensively, players are finding themselves at new positions in the batting order. Jason Heyward hit in the number two spot for a good portion of the 2010 season, while for the 2011 season he has found himself in a variety of spots. Gonzalez is not afraid to put names at different places in the lineup than where players traditionally hit.
Cox rarely tinkered with the batting order. Any Braves fan knew Chipper Jones would be in the third spot, followed by Brian McCann, Fred McGriff, Andres Galarraga, or any of the other cleanup hitters that followed Jones over the years. Players are having to adjust their style because their location in the order now calls for more than just a "grip it and rip it" mentality. Couple that with learning a new hitting coach's style, and the Braves offense is guaranteed to struggle early in the season. A team this talented offensively will not stay stagnant for an entire season.
Atlanta has improved greatly since the beginning of May. They have crept up in the standings and have done well against better opponents. Gonzalez has kept a steady hand on the club, and they have adjusted to him and as he has adjusted to them. He knows the lights are brighter when you follow Bobby Cox, and the expectations remain the same. As the season progresses, I think you'll see that Fredi Gonzalez was the right choice for the Braves, and you might see a little more Bobby Cox in him than you might expect. How many more ejections does he need to catch Cox?