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Bobby Cox approaches retirement with success and humility

Atlanta manager has the Braves positioned for their first division title in five seasons. He's in the top five of winning managers, but is focusing on the team and not his own achievements.

August 12, 2010|By Kevin Baxter

Back when he was an Atlanta Braves coach, Fredi Gonzalez recalls being sent to the clubhouse to retrieve something from Manager Bobby Cox's office.

Beneath the debris in the bottom drawer of his manager's desk, he found a surprise: Cox's last two National League manager of the year awards.

"That's just the way he is," Gonzalez said.

Cox has been voted the league's top manager four times, but he modestly lets his record — not the trophies — speak for him. And that's exactly how Cox is closing out his managing career: with success and humility.

Heading into this weekend's series with the Dodgers, Cox, 69, has the Braves positioned for their first division title in five seasons. Yet he remains humble enough to refuse to look back past this morning and human enough to have cried when his wife threw him a retirement party during spring training.

"Honestly, the numbers, I don't look at that," said Cox, who will retire as the fourth-winningest manager in major league history. Among managers who began their careers in the 20th century, only Tony La Russa has won more often.

"Every day is a good memory for me, just about," Cox said. "I come to the park pretty positive every day. I don't think [retirement] will hit me until the last pitch is thrown and the last ballgame."

Cox's last game will be part of a significant changing of the guard. The Chicago Cubs' Lou Piniella, the fourth-winningest active manager, and Toronto's Cito Gatson, a two-time World Series winner, have announced plans to step down after this season. St. Louis' La Russa and the Dodgers' Joe Torre, whose 15 playoff appearances are tied with Cox for the most all-time, are finishing out contracts and are uncertain about their future.

Combined, the five have managed 125 seasons and won more than 10,000 of their nearly 19,000 major league games.

Of them, Cox might be the only to make the playoffs this season. After four consecutive seasons in which the Braves never finished higher than third in the National League East, Atlanta begins Friday's series against the Dodgers in first place, having led the division since May 30.

Indeed, the Braves seem intent in delaying their manager's retirement as long as possible — if he actually retires.

"Bobby might be doing a Brett Favre," Cincinnati Reds Manager Dusty Baker said. "I've enjoyed watching and managing against Bobby big time.

"There's a handful of guys that I really respect on the other side of the field, and he's near the top of that list."

Cox is near the top of a lot of other lists too. No manager in history has had more 100-win seasons. Cox has done it six times. He's also won 15 division titles, five league championships and a World Series.

But perhaps his most impressive numbers are 29 and 25 — the number of seasons Cox has spent as a big league manager and the number of seasons he's been with the Braves.

Contrast that with what's happened elsewhere. When Seattle fired Don Wakamatsu this week, he became the fifth manager fired this season and the 174th to be replaced since Cox began his second stint in Atlanta in 1990. Half the teams have changed managers at least a half-dozen times since then, including Florida, which has welcomed a new manager an average of every 19 months.

Cox has been such a fixture in the Braves' dugout that 20 of the 29 other current big league managers first faced him while they were players. And Torre just missed making that list, playing his last major league game only three months before Cox managed his first.

"I feel great. I know I could manage another five years probably," Cox said. "But I think it's just time to step back and let somebody a little younger come in and get it going themselves.

"I've been fortunate to be in this position so long."

Hitting coach Terry Pendleton, who has played or coached for Cox during 14 of his 25 seasons in Atlanta, said every Braves player's goal was to beat the manager to the ballpark at least once — something few accomplish since Cox has been known to get to the ballpark as early as 5:30 in the morning during spring training.

Chipper Jones, who has never played for another manager in his 17-year big league career, says Cox appears to be cherishing his last days in uniform, having more fun and laughing more often this year than at any time in his career.

During homestands, for example, Cox spends much of the early afternoon in a storage room off the Braves' dugout, smoking cigars and swapping baseball stories with whomever happens by.

It's a practice he's maintained for years.

"I'll miss it," he said.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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