Of all the decisions that led to the Atlanta Braves’ run to multiple National League pennants in the 1990s, perhaps the most far-reaching one took place 30 years ago this month.
On June 22, 1990, Bobby Cox returned to the dugout as Braves’ manager after serving as general manager for the previous four-plus years. Cox’s re-hiring as manager came after the firing of Russ Nixon, and with Atlanta sporting the worst record in the National League.
“We’re 25-40 and everyone — the players and even the outgoing manager — would say we’re better than that,” Braves president Stan Kasten said, via The Sporting News. “We don’t want to wait for the end of the season. We have close to 100 games left and there’s still plenty of time to have a good season.”
Of course, the Braves were only in position to hire Cox as manager in 1990 because they had fired him nine years earlier. Cox was let go at the end of the 1981 season after posting a 266-323 record in four years in Atlanta, his first MLB managerial job.
Braves owner Ted Turner immediately regretted firing Cox, even going so far as to say Cox would have been his top candidate for the job from which he’d just cut him loose. Cox went off to Toronto, where he was 63 games over .500 and had the Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series by his fourth season.
Cox returned “home” to Atlanta (his family had lived in Marietta the entire time he was in Toronto) two days after the 1985 ALCS ended, but as GM, not manager. He signed a five-year, $1.8 million deal to help end the clown show that had been the Braves’ front office for most of the 1980s.
The Braves had already hired Chuck Tanner as manager by the time Cox arrived as GM, but Tanner didn’t make it through three seasons. The genial former Pittsburgh skipper — who had managed the “We Are Family” Pirates to the 1979 World Series title — was fired on May 22, 1988, and replaced by Russ Nixon, manager at Triple-A Richmond and a former Atlanta third base coach.
The Braves lost their first 10 games in 1988, and finished with a 54-106 record that remains the worst in the franchise’s Atlanta era. Cox had begun acquiring and cultivating young pitchers by this time, with Tom Glavine (drafted in 1984) joining the big club in 1987 and John Smoltz (acquired via trade in 1987) getting the call the following year.
With veterans such as Dale Murphy and Lonnie Smith in the fold, and youngsters such as Glavine, Smoltz, Pete Smith, Ron Gant and David Justice on the way to establishing themselves, Nixon called the 1990 Braves the “best team I’ve ever managed.” Free agent acquisition Nick Esasky, who’d hit 30 homers the previous year with the Boston Red Sox, was supposed to give Atlanta the big bat to pair with Murphy in the middle of the order it had lacked since Bob Horner left town.
But things fizzled quickly, with the Braves starting in a 2-13 hole that matched the 1988 squad for the worst record after 15 games in franchise history. Esasky was suffering from a mysterious case of vertigo, which ultimately ended his career after nine games, 35 at-bats and six hits (with no RBIs) in an Atlanta uniform.
By early May, 1990 was shaping up as more of the same for an Atlanta club that had lost an average of 96 games the previous five years and hadn’t had a winning season since 1983. In a May 7, 1990, column entitled, “Baseball in Atlanta, Few Fans, Fewer Wins,” The Sporting News’ Bob Hertzel wrote that the team’s poor play was symptomatic of a full-fledged organizational rot.
“Blaming Nixon for what has happened to the Braves is like blaming the gun instead of Lee Harvey Oswald for what happened to John F. Kennedy,” Hertzel wrote.
About the only highlight of the early season came May 27, when Smoltz took a no-hitter into the ninth inning. After allowing a Lenny Dykstra double, and a Von Hayes RBI single, he managed to finish off a two-hit, 6-1 complete game.
Steve Avery, the Braves’ first-round pick (No. 3 overall) in 1989, made his big-league debut on June 13. The 20-year-old left-hander didn’t make it out of the third inning before allowing eight runs.
The Braves lost in June by scores such as 9-0 to the San Diego Padres, 6-0 to the Los Angeles Dodgers (a game in which L.A.’s Ramon Martinez struck out 18), 23-8 to the San Francisco Giants and 13-4 to the Cincinnati Reds (Avery’s debut). After a 9-7 loss in San Francisco to end a seven-game road trip June 17, Nixon blew his stack.
“Everybody keeps talking about our young pitchers. Well, you have to start showing something sometime,” he told the Atlanta Constitution’s Joe Strauss. “They’re getting to the point in their careers where they should really be taking off and establishing themselves.
“All the media talk in the world doesn’t mean a thing until you back it up. And I don’t mean back it up in one start. I mean backing it up with three out of four starts.”
Nixon also questioned the young pitchers’ approach, saying they should be “more businesslike.” He also called out the Braves’ front office for not making moves to improve the bullpen.
Cox told the AJC the following day he’d not given “a whole lot of thought” to making a managerial change, but stopped short of giving Nixon a vote of confidence. Avery allowed just one run in his second start on June 19 (a 4-2 loss to Cincinnati), but left the game after 4 2/3 innings with a blister, perhaps adding to the air of desperation surrounding the club.
On June 21, AJC columnist Mark Bradley wrote that Nixon wasn’t likely to still be managing the Braves “past the Fourth of July.” However, he added that the embattled manager wasn’t necessarily at fault for the club’s woes.
“Maybe Bobby Cox, in his heart of hearts, knows that the true blame rests not with the latest in a series of luckless managers but with the man who constructed this team, such as it is. Maybe Cox realizes that if he fires anyone he should fire himself.”
That same day, Braves shortstop Andres Thomas — a one-time top prospect who was batting just .235 with one homer and seven RBIs in limited playing that season — told the AJC he wanted to be released or traded if the club didn’t fire Nixon. That night, Atlanta beat first-place Cincinnati 4-3 on a walk-off, two-run double by pinch-hitter Tommy Gregg, but what AJC columnist Steve Hummer termed the “Russ Nixon death watch” still dominated the paper’s coverage of the Braves.
“When a team is 25-40, the only news of ground-shaking significance it is capable of generating is the sacking of another manager,” Hummer wrote. “The only headline of sizable type that team can make is by chewing off one of its own limbs.”
The axe fell that Friday morning, with Nixon fired and Cox stepping in as manager. In addition, pitching coach Bruce Dal Canton was demoted to Triple-A Richmond, with Leo Mazzone switching from the R-Braves to Atlanta.
Cox was the Braves’ sixth manager since he was fired nine years earlier, and fifth since Joe Torre was ousted in an equally questionable move following the 1984 season. Eddie Haas, Bobby Wine, Tanner and Nixon had gone a collective 349-520 (a .402 winning percentage).
“I think it had been building up on him for several weeks,” Cox told reporters on the day Nixon’s firing was announced. “It became fairly evident to me the past two days in meetings with Russ that there was a tremendous strain on him. I feel it was starting to wear on him and the players pretty good. There was probably going to be a communications problem and decision-making problems.
“He took the decision extremely well. I think it was a ton of bricks off his shoulders.”
Despite Cox’s pronouncements, Nixon didn’t appear to take the decision well. He blamed Kasten and Terry McGuirk, then chairman of TBS Sports (and now team chairman), of meddling in the club’s affairs.
“It’s the same old horse****,” Nixon said succinctly, according to the AJC. Though he admitted he was having trouble sleeping as the Braves continued to lose, he rejected the idea that his health was a concern.
“This thing about my health, that’s bull,” Nixon told The Sporting News. “After everything else that’s happened around here, it has only added to my belief that this is a horsebleep organization. Damn right I’m better off without it.”
(Though he never managed in the majors again, Nixon hung around the game for another 20 years as a coach, instructor and minor-league manager. He lived until 2016, dying at age 81.)
When the move was made, Kasten called Cox “the most qualified person, not just in our organization, but maybe anywhere” to be Braves manager. Cox, however, appeared reluctant to take the reins.
“I guess it’s always been in the back of my mind,” Cox said, according to The Sporting News. “But it was never my endeavor to fire Chuck Tanner and take over the ball club, or fire Russ Nixon and take over the ball club. I think when you’re asked to do something by your superiors, you’d better say yes. I didn’t hesitate.”
In a June 23, 1990, column in the AJC, Bradley doubled down on his earlier assertion that the Braves’ disastrous showing that season was largely Cox’s fault. Had modern social media existed at the time, “Freezing Cold Takes” would have made Bradley’s column go viral a year or two later.
As Bradley wrote:
“The Braves you see before you aren’t Ted Turner’s or Stan Kasten’s or Ernest P. Worrell’s. They’re Bobby Cox’s. This entire organization carries Cox’s design.
“It was Cox who went for youth over experience, for draft picks over free agents, for pitching over all else. Cox was on the job a year before Kasten arrived and has outlasted two managers. Neither Nixon nor Chuck Tanner could make Cox’s Braves win. Now the architect, no great shakes at one job, holds two.
“… Sitting behind the desk that was Nixon’s, Cox’s first act was to pop a plug of tobacco in his mouth. ‘My first one in five years,’ he said. By the time this season is over, he may be doing the stuff intravenously. See, Bobby Cox now has to manage the Atlanta Braves. Yikes.”
The Braves’ Friday night home game with the Padres was rained out, delaying Cox’s second managerial “debut” by a day. They lost 7-5 to San Diego on Saturday, but won 11-10 on Sunday when Thomas — who had given the Braves a “him or me” ultimatum regarding Nixon less than a week earlier — hit a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 12th.
In his “Inside Baseball” notebook that Sunday, the AJC’s Strauss wrote that Kasten “has pledged that either a new manager or a new GM will be hired after this season.” Cox was in danger of losing both jobs if the team didn’t improve, Strauss wrote.
At least initially, the Braves played better under Cox. They won five of their first seven games after the managerial change, including victories in their last four games of June.
Nevertheless, most observers remained skeptical. Hertzel wrote in The Sporting News on July 9 that “Cox knows that he won’t win a pennant. ‘Maybe I can just toughen up some people,’ he said.”
As the season’s second half began, however, the Braves reverted to form. They went 10-19 in July, then lost six straight games to start August and fall to 40-67 — 23 games out of first.
It was during that stretch that Cox the GM finally pulled the trigger on a long-rumored move, dealing away Murphy, the team’s lone superstar. On Aug. 3, the 34-year-old Murphy and a player-to-be-named later were traded to Philadelphia for reliever Jeff Parrett and a player-to-be-named later (Braves pitching prospect Tommy Greene and Phillies minor-league outfielder Jim Vatcher were later swapped to complete the deal).
(Murphy’s play had slid for three seasons and he was batting just .232/.312/.418 with 17 homers in 97 games when the trade went down, but it was still shocking at the time the Braves got so little for a two-time MVP and one of the franchise’s cornerstone players. Murphy has since revealed in numerous interviews — including one in April on the “From the Diamond” podcast with Grant McAuley — that he requested the deal and would have left as a free agent after the 1990 season if he had not been traded.)
Smoltz beat the Padres 7-1 on Aug. 8 to snap Atlanta’s seven-game losing streak, beginning what was a promising finishing stretch for the Braves. They went 25-32 over their final 57 games to end the year at 65-97 and 26 games behind the eventual World Series champion Reds.
Despite the poor team showing, there were some individual highlights. Gant hit .303/.357/.539 with 32 homers and 33 steals, becoming the Braves’ first 30/30 man since Murphy in 1983.
Justice moved from first base to right field after Murphy’s departure, and batted .282/.373/.535 with 28 homers to capture NL Rookie of the Year honors. Smoltz posted a 3.85 ERA (5 percent better than league average) in 231 1/3 innings at age 23, while the 24-year-old Glavine was also a near-league average pitcher in 214.1 innings (posting a 4.28 ERA, good for an ERA+ of 94).
(Thomas didn’t last much longer in Atlanta or the majors than Nixon, as it turned out. He was released prior to the 1991 season after posting an OPS+ of 61 in six seasons with the Braves.)
As fate would have it, Cox did lose one of his jobs. On Oct. 10, the Braves named John Schuerholz — who’d built the 1985 World Series champion Kansas City Royals — as their new general manager.
That same day, the Braves announced Cox was being retained as manager-only. Fresh off major surgery on both knees, he was visibly relieved, according to the AJC’s I.J. Rosenberg.
“Just give me the ballclub,” Cox said. “Once you get the uniform back on, you don’t want to take it off.”
Cox didn’t take off his Braves’ No. 6 for another two decades, retiring in 2010 after posting 1,883 victories — with 14 division titles, five National League pennants and the 1995 World Series championship — in his second stint as Braves manager. In 2014, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame along with Glavine and Greg Maddux.
Cox is now 79, and a stroke suffered in early 2019 has reportedly left him with difficulty speaking or walking. His legacy as a Braves legend is secure, however, thanks to a move from the front office back to the dugout three decades ago.
Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at email@example.com. No, that’s not his real name.
Sources: Newspapers.com; Sporting News archive (via PaperofRecord.com)