KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Bobby Cox spent the first few days of spring training trying to fight off a cold. And what about the future? He’ll shoo away those questions with even more fervor.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he insists over and over again. “Right now, I want to manage. We’ll see how it plays out.”
After hinting a year ago that 2008 might be his final season, the longtime Atlanta Braves manager is coy about the issue this spring, which isn’t too surprising.
Cox isn’t the type to put up with a schmaltzy farewell season, with all those speeches and ceremonies and people giving him rocking chairs to enjoy in retirement. But the future of the 66-year-old manager will likely be an underlying theme for the Braves all year.
Will this be his final season? Stay tuned.
“It would weird not having him in the dugout,” outfielder Jeff Francoeur said. “But it’s going to happen one day. It’s inevitable.”
This will be Cox’s 27th year as a manager, a stellar career that includes 15 division titles (14 in a row with the Braves, one during the 1980s at Toronto), a World Series championship in 1995 and the most ejections in baseball history — a badge of honor to his players, who know most times he’s only sticking up for them when he gets the heave-ho.
But perhaps his greatest accomplishment is remaining relevant after all those years. Cox is still the dominant figure in the Braves clubhouse without even trying. No one complains about his ban on loud music. Everyone shows up on time and plays hard because they know their manager expects it.
“He’s the one who takes all the hits,” said pitcher John Smoltz, entering the 21st year of a career spent entirely with the Braves. “He’s the reason I stayed here.”
The Cox Commandments are passed down from one generation to the next, as readily accepted by the 300-game winner (the Braves have one of those in Tom Glavine) as they are by the players who weren’t even born when he managed his first big league game in 1978.
“He just knows how to run a team,” the 24-year-old Francoeur said.
“He’s not out there in the middle of the drills telling everyone what to do. He lets his coaches run those things, and he just goes about it from there. He does what he needs to do, but he’s not out there over-coaching.”
It’s almost impossible to envision Cox wearing anything other than a cap, a pair of cleats and a jersey with “Braves” written across the chest. This is who he is. This is how he’s lived virtually his entire life.
Sure, it’s only natural for someone who’s passed retirement age and can see 70 on the horizon to start considering the next phase of his life. But Cox talks about the future with a tinge of dread in his voice, as if he, too, can’t imagine not waking up every day and heading to a baseball park.
“I don’t know what I would do,” he said. “You can only mow your lawn so much. You can only play so many rounds of golf. You can only go fishing so many times. I’ve been doing this my whole life. There’s no substitute for it.”
The years are catching up with him. He waddles around slower and slower on those two surgically replaced knees. The dark hair of youth has gone gray. Every year brings a new wrinkle or two to that weathered face.
Cox used to grab his mitt and take a turn at first base during batting practice, but he now sticks to a safe spot in the dugout or behind the cage.
“I can’t get on the field as much as I once did,” Cox conceded. “I can’t lift my left arm anymore. I’ve torn it up. I miss that part of the game. I was having fun out there.”
But his eyes light up with the promise of each new season. The passion to win another World Series is as strong as ever, especially with the Braves coming off a second straight year of not making the playoffs.
“He’s still one of the very best, if not the best,” said Frank Wren, the Braves’ new general manager. “He’s great working with players. He’s great evaluating players. He’s great running the game. He’s the whole package.”
Some thought Cox might fade away in tandem with John Schuerholz, the team’s general manager for 17 seasons. Theirs was one of the great partnerships in baseball history, resulting in an unprecedented run of playoff appearances, but it ended when Schuerholz — who’s less than a year older than Cox — moved upstairs to team president last fall.
Cox remains in the dugout, getting ready for another season.
“I don’t think Bobby will ever be able to walk away from the game,” Wren said. “That’s so ingrained in him. He’ll want to stay involved in some respect, even if he’s not managing.”
The Braves have made it clear to Cox that another job in the organization awaits him whenever he wants to quit managing. But they aren’t pushing him for a decision, and they certainly aren’t considering the idea — now in vogue in the NFL — of naming a successor while Cox is still in the dugout.
“I’m not sure that would be good for either party,” Wren said. “I just think it tends to make the guy in place a lame duck if he’s still there before the other guy has taken over. I just don’t think it’s appropriate, especially with a manager like Bobby. I wouldn’t be comfortable with that at all.”
While Cox confidantes such as Jimy Williams, Ned Yost and Fredi Gonzalez have gone on to become big league managers elsewhere, there’s no clear line of succession on the current coaching staff. Hitting coach Terry Pendleton is probably the most likely successor if the Braves wanted to keep it in-house, but no one is comfortable talking even in the vaguest of terms about a manager-in-waiting as long as Cox is around.
How long might that be? No one knows, maybe not even Cox himself.
Perhaps his decision will be influenced by players such as Smoltz, Glavine and Chipper Jones, who’ve spent all or most of their long careers with the Braves. They, too, are closing in on retirement.
“I always felt that when some of the guys who’ve been here the longest start to go, that’s when he’ll go,” Smoltz said.
All Cox will say is he plans to manage another season and see where things stand. He’s not basing his future on any preconceived goals, such as retiring if the Braves make it back to the playoffs or win another World Series. He’ll see how his body feels at the end of another long grind, talk it over with his wife and the team, then decide whether he wants to do it again in 2009. It’s his call, and his alone.
For those Braves fans who can’t imagine anyone else managing their team, who are desperate for any sign that Cox isn’t ready to hang it up, there are some encouraging words from the man himself.
“I really gave retiring more thought the last few years than I have this year,” he said. “It’s really not on my mind right now.”