LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – You see Bobby Cox moving about the Braves’ spring training complex with the same soft smile, the same bad-knees-gait and accommodating demeanor as in the past. It’s just that he is not in uniform.
If you were to turn up at the Los Angeles Dodger training facility at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., it would not come as a surprise to see Tommy Lasorda, former manager of the Dodgers, cavorting about in his familiar No. 2. Lasorda once said: “I love doubleheaders. That way I get to keep my uniform on longer.”
Bobby Cox, who is very careful that his shadow doesn’t create problems for his successor, Fredi Gonzalez, is finally where he prefers to be — out of the spotlight.
While he always enjoyed a nice rapport with the media, hang around Cox for any length of time and you conclude that he would never have been bothered if he had never been interviewed. “I enjoy the writers,” he said, however, here last spring. I don’t like to be talked about good or bad, but I’m one who doesn’t want to see my name in the paper.”
He will, however, sit down for interviews. He will reminisce about his days as a player with the Yankees where he observed the managerial style of the late Ralph Houk. “Ralph really knew how to handle players. He could communicate with them. He was fair with everybody, and I think I learned a lot from him. One thing that is a good virtue with a manager is patience. I know there were a lot of players who wouldn’t have made it to the big leagues if we hadn’t been patient with them.”
When he retired after last season, he held the major league record for getting the thumb — ejected 158 times during regular season play. He smiled at the notion that rather than ejections it was 158 times he stood up for his players. Even so, Cox has never held grudges or expressed antipathy for umpires.
“I respect those guys, I really do,” he said. “It’s funny. You can argue with them, they will call you names, you call them names and the next day, it’s over with. You know umpiring is tough. I did a little bit of umpiring when I was in high school. It is not an easy job and I can remember how hard it was. They really are good guys.”
As a player, Bobby’s high moment came when he won the starting third base job with the Yankees in 1968, but by 1970, he was back in Triple A ball at Syracuse. Lee MacPhail, the Yankee general manager came to see Cox and told him that he and Houk thought Cox would make a good manager. Cox had a good feeling about the opportunity and agreed to become the manager at Ft. Lauderdale.
At the end of the season Cox and the other minor league managers met with MacPhail for player evaluations. “I had all these cards on each player, and after about five players, MacPhail said, ‘Bobby I’m sensing a trend here. You’ve got every player as a major leaguer.’ I said, ‘Yeah. That’s what I believe.’ He laughed and said, ‘You’ll be lucky if one of them makes it.’ While he was right, if I were going to be a general manager again, I would want all my managers in the minor leagues to think the same way I thought.”
This positive attitude reflects why the players have always respected Cox so much. Cox had it figured out — patience, treat everybody the same, forgive the umpires and believe every kid who works hard enough and has the passion for playing the game might just make it to the big leagues.
All from a guy who never read the papers in season, listened to Hank Williams’ music, not talk shows, has no plaques on the wall and gave away the ball Mickey Mantle, his one-time teammate, signed for him.
There’s more good news in the Braves’ clubhouse. Opinions are universal that new manager Fredi Gonzalez is another Bobby Cox.
[For 36 years the sideline radio reporter for the Georgia Bulldogs, Loran Smith now covers a bigger sideline of sports personalities and everyday life in his weekly newspaper columns.]