In 1960, a 19-year-old second baseman dug his spikes in the dirt of the batter's box for the Reno Silver Sox and banged out the first hit of what would be a very average minor league career that would take him through Panama City, Great Falls, Albuquerque and far from the bright lights of major league parks for eight full seasons. Then, Broadway called his name, put him on the tour for Mickey Mantle's last hurrah and gave him a pinstriped number 14 uniform. The second baseman, now almost thirty and playing third, hit an anemic .225 in two seasons before he took the bus back down (and it is down in baseball geography) to Syracuse to play for manager Frank Verdi, who in 1953 played one game for the New York Yankees without an at-bat and never saw the major leagues again. A lot of players never see the majors again after being sent down, a majority actually, and Bobby Cox couldn't have known on that trip back to the minors in 1969 that he had four Manager of the Year titles in front of him, five World Series to coach and fourteen straight division titles to win spanning the next forty years.
"They played their hearts out, and I'll miss them," the manager said of his team.
Bobby Cox slumped his shoulders, sighed and walked to the mound where Derek Lowe, his game 5 starter, had just put two men on with one out in the seventh. Lowe, standing tall on the mound, held the ball, sweating in the Georgia heat as Cox approached. Bobby looked at his pitcher, listened to the man ask for one more hitter and nodded. He gave the ball back to Lowe and shuffled back across the diamond to the bench, moving slowly as if each step were the first he'd ever taken. The move didn't work out. Lowe walked the next batter and a run eventually scored because of it, ending the manager's illustrious career. But that is Bobby Cox. The good baseball managers know the situations and know how to beat them. They have an immense knowledge and instinct for the game that allows them to pick-up, compute, and extract information in the flash of a catcher's sign or the split-second sound of mitt popping. Bobby Cox certainly had all of that in spades; but he was great, not just good, and it was his ability to see the human side of the game that truly separated him. The guy simply knew players and knew the life. No other manager could have brought the 2010 Atlanta Braves home to October because no other manager could have made them play as hard as they did this summer. He was a player's manager, and they loved him for that and gave whatever they had, because they knew he'd look into their eyes and not into the stat book before he took the ball away. Chipper Jones, the Hall of Fame third baseman, who has only played for Bobby Cox, said, "The guys wanted so bad to get Bobby back to the playoffs. And once we got a chance to go to the playoffs, we wanted so bad to get him back to the World Series. All those things contributed to the grit and guts this team played with all year."
"A grown man shouldn't do this," the manager said through tears after the final out of his last game in uniform.
Bobby Cox was far from perfect. He couldn't hit as a player. He finished dead last for almost half of his first ten years as a manager. He lost more than 2,000 games. He was beaten in four out of five World Series. He was charged with battery. He cursed his way to more than 150 ejections. He lived the ups and downs of a game and a baseball life that began before the first man was shot into space and ran all the way to the invention of a car that can drive itself. In a game based on failure, the experiences he lived through humbled and helped him become one of the most loved and admired managers in baseball history. He was a manager who Billy Wagner, a closer retiring after a 16-year career said, "Me leaving is nothing. But Bobby being a legend is just like the word says -- a legend... I just wish I could have been able to play for him longer." He was even respected enough that, moments after he lost his last game, he could make the opposing team of twenty-something-year-old men who had just clinched a trip to the NLCS stop their celebration, put the champagne on ice and take their hats off in respect for the man, not just the manager, that Bobby Cox was. In an age where players can be cold enough to say that they are playing for free when they sign ONLY a two-million-dollar contract, you just don't see that anymore.
"No more uniform, honey," the manager promised his wife.
Brooks Conrad set the record for errors in a division series and cost the Braves at least one game in a series of five. He is thirty years old, spent nine years in the minors playing second and third base, and has a career average over three major league seasons of just .231. He is, in effect, similar to who Bobby Cox was forty years ago. The manager had a chance to take him out for a defensive replacement after the third error he committed in game four but did not and Conrad, who may never get to start another playoff game again, said of the man he's known for only 133 games, "It's a cutthroat game. It can be brutal at times. When you've got a guy backing you no matter what, it's pretty cool. He's got every one of our backs no matter what, and I was proud to play for him." Bobby wore spikes for every game, just like he did when he was 19-years-old, and well, Brooks, as a fan, I have to say I was proud to watch him.
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