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Starting Nine: A study in No. 6, Bobby Cox

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The Skipper, the ultimate players’ manager, left an undeniable legacy, and a record that may never be broken

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Atlanta Braves
Hall of Famer Bobby Cox won 2,149 games as the Braves manager, more than 1,100 more victories than anyone else to hold the job.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

For 25 years over two stints with the Braves, Bobby Cox was the very definition of the players’ manager. As John Smoltz, who spent 21 years playing for Cox put it ““There’s no other reason to go anywhere else when you have a manager that you can trust and love and want to play for.”

Cox left an undeniable legacy with the franchise, and as this space continues to be a showcase for stories, facts and stats about the Braves retired numbers, amid the uncertainty of the start of the 2020 season, we spend this week on No. 6, The Skipper.

A study in No. 3, Dale Murphy

1. Everyone has a favorite Bobby Cox story

Picking a favorite Bobby Cox ejection would be like trying to pick a favorite flavor at Baskin Robbins, if they had 130 more than their 31 flavors. Tom Glavine likes to tell the story of when someone questioned a call from the bench, and Cox, who was working over his lineup card, simply jumped out of seat — call unseen — to argue. But it’s hard to beat the story of when Jeff Francoeur was tossed from his first game in July 2006 in San Diego for a comment home-plate umpire Bruce Dreckman took exception to. Cox came out, offered a few choice words, and was tossed too. Francoeur said to Cox “What do I do? I’ve never been thrown out of a game.” To which Cox replied “Ah, go up, have a few beers, relax. You’re going to get fined $500, or you can do what I do, and send in a $10,000 check to tell them ‘Call me when I owe more.’’

2. A record that may stand forever

We say we may never see anyone equal records like Joe DiMaggio’s hit streak (56), Cy Young’s wins (511) or Cal Ripken Jr.’s most consecutive games played (2,632), but nothing about those players accomplished is entirely unobtainable, just unfathomable. Bobby Cox’s record of 161 ejections may be out of touch largely because of the way replay has all but humbled managers with a gripe (with some exceptions). Ron Gardenhire (73) and Clint Hurdle (50) are the only active managers with more than 50, and the former tied for the MLB lead last year with eight. The 62-year-old would need to manager for another 12 years averaging those same number of ejections to surpass the Braves legend. Cox, by the way, had three years of 10 or more (1999, 2001 and 2007) and led the NL in 12 of the 20 years after his return to the Atlanta bench.

3. The Rules of Bobby

Every year at spring training, Cox would rattle off his six rules for his team: 1. No beards, No. 2 No uniform pants covering the shoe tops, 3. Dress code (away from the ballpark), 4. Mind the curfew, 5. Be on time and 6. Play hard at all times. Those weren’t the Braves rules. They weren’t Ted Turner’s rules or John Schuerholz’s. They were Bobby’s and they were the byproducts of his days on Billy Martin’s staff with the Yankees — and he’d grow more lax on rules No. 1 and No. 2 over time — and they ultimately came down to the overall esthetic of how a big leaguer should operate in appearance and attitude. As Eddie Perez summed up their meaning in the clubhouse: “He taught me to not only be dressed good [at the ballpark], [but] dress good outside, dress good at the hotel, going to a restaurant, going to the ballpark. He said ‘We’ve got to dress nice. There’s people around. We have to look like a professional player.’”

4. Northern exposure

After his firing by Ted Turner in 1981 — at a press conference that Cox attended — he headed north to Toronto, and following a sub-.500 season in his debut, rattled off three straight winning seasons, including a 99-62 campaign in 1985 that earned him American League Manager of the Year (and a pretty sweet McDonald’s commercial). When he claimed the NL award in 1991 — he’d go on to win in 2004 and ‘05 as well — it made him the first skipper to have won the award in both leagues, though he’d later be joined by Tony La Russa, Lou Piniella, Jim Leyland, Bob Melvin, Davey Johnson and Joe Maddon.

5. Helping to stock the cupboards with talent

John Schuerholz has carried The Architect label for decades, and for good reason, as his machinations kept the Braves machine humming for that fabled run of division crowns. But let’s not overlook what Cox was able to accomplish in his stint at GM when he returned to Atlanta in October 1985. He traded for future Hall of Famer John Smoltz in 1987, drafted another Cooperstown-bound talent in 1990 in Chipper Jones, along with taking Kent Mercker in ‘86, Steve Avery in the first round in 1988 and grabbing Mark Wohlers that same year, and in ‘89 he took Ryan Klesko. Not to mention adding the likes of Francisco Cabrera, Vinny Castilla, Charlie Liebrandt, Javy Lopez, Greg Olson, Eddie Perez and Lonnie Smith. Schuerholz was a master at adding pieces along the way, but Cox the GM help lay the foundation for success.

6. Cox’s place among his 2,000-wins-with-one-team brethren

On June 8, 2009, Cox earned his 2,000th win with the Braves, making him the fourth manager to hit the 2,000-win plateau with a single franchise. Cox is third among those skippers in terms of winning percentage (.557 with the Braves), trailing McGraw (.591) and Walter Alston (.558), while Connie Mack is fourth (.484). But if ranking those managers in terms of resumes, it’s hard to put anyone besides McGraw above Cox. The Giants manager, who was there for 31 years, had just two losing seasons, and granted he was the only one operating entirely in the era of divisions (which happened in 1969), but Cox has the record for most postseason appearances (16) and division titles with 15. Say what you want about the lost World Series or early postseason exits, but Cox became the standard for the position in his era, more than anyone but McGraw in the Deadball Era.

7. The Leo Mazzone Factor

It’s difficult to talk about Cox’s successes on the Braves bench and not discuss Leo Mazzone, the guru who fostered and developed some of the best rotations in the game’s history. Their partnership would last for 15 years and if Cox’s helped to build the roster, he’d win a 1995 World Series with — and appear in four other World Series — it can’t be underscored what he found and elevated in Mazzone from Richmond in 1990. As economist J.C. Bradbury wrote “working with Leo shaves off between .55 and .85 points off a pitcher’s ERA. And I promise you, the results are not some artifact or some manipulation of the numbers to prove a point.” Certainly, having Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz doesn’t hurt, but the trust in Mazzone and his outside the norm throwing program was absolute. “He had more influence on me in my lifetime with the exception of my father as a male,” Mazzone said of Cox. “He had a tremendous influence on my career, because I wouldn’t have had a career without him.”

8. Bobby and The Mick

Bobby Cox’s playing career was limited to two years with the Yankees and 628 at-bats in which he hit .225/.310/.309, bad knees bringing an end to that chapter. But he was part of a memorable play in his rookie year of 1968, when he was at third with Dooley Womack on the mound. A line drive came back to the pitcher for the first out, he threw to Cox at third for the second out, and Cox tossed it to first baseman Mickey Mantle to complete the triple play. The ball would wind up in the Hall of Fame, and Cox later quipped (before his own election) “So I can say I’m in Cooperstown with the Mick.”

9. A spelling mistake gone hysterically right

When Cox was in Washington, D.C. in May of his final season to play the Nationals, he was invited for a reception on Capitol Hill, hosted by Georgia senator Johnny Isakson and West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller. Included in that celebration of the future HOF manager was a cake, which read: Thanks for 50 Great Years Bobby Cocks. The cake was cut before Cox could have a piece, but told of the flub, he replied “That’s funny. What bakery did he get that (from)? That’s what I want to know.”