Thursday, September 24, 2009

Thoughts About Bobby Cox

Switching to the first person: I always liked Bobby Cox. How could I not? As a twelve year old kid keeping score for every Yankee game as a New Jersey youngster, Cox played third base for the Yankees for two years in 1968 and 1969. It would end up being his only two years in the majors. And for that team, he was pretty good.

The 1968 Yankees were perhaps the weakest hitting team in the history of the majors. The team batted .214 for the year. That was easily the worst in the American League that year. It was the last year for Mickey Mantle, the hero. Many, including Mantle, say he shouldn't have played that year. He only hit .237. But he walked over a hundred times and still had an OPS+ of 142. That was certainly better than anyone else on that team.

Cox was a proud member of the weakest hitting collection of infielders ever. Horace Clarke was given 607 plate appearances and put together this incredible line as a lead off guy: .230/.258/.254. He scored 52 runs. He had nine extra base hits. Nine. The guy was terrible. But he wasn't alone. There was Tom Tresh, who played 150 games and batted .195. There was Gene Michael, who batted .198 in 119 plate appearances. There was Dick Howser, who batted .153 in 190 plate appearances. There was Mike Ferraro, who batted .161 in 87 at bats. There was Ruban Amaro who batted .122 in 50 at bats.

Bobby Cox was a stud among those guys. His line for that season? .229/.300/.316. Hey, compared the the litany you just heard, that's a stud. So certainly he was one of our favorites. At least he got on base once in a while. But again, he only played two seasons and then disappeared.

Wasn't I surprised when ten years later (1978), he shows up as the manager of the Atlanta Braves. Cool! But not so cool because the Braves were awful. They lost 93 and 94 games his first two years there. The 1978 Braves posted the worst batting average in the National League that year. Cox's streak continued!

The 1979 Braves were worse. Their batting improved to eighth in the league, but their pitching was dead last. That was the year Phil Niekro won 21 games, but lost 20, a feat that may never happen again. The rest of the starters were 24-46. Gene Garber lost 16 games in relief. To lose 16 games as a relief pitcher may never happen again either. It's an amazing fact.

1980 saw the Braves improve to a .500 club. They finished in fourth place. A moral victory of sorts. But when the strike year of 1981 saw a regression for the Braves, Cox was done for his first stint as a Braves' manager. Few remember that he spent the next four seasons as the manager of the Toronto Blue Jays.

I would say he had a successful run for the Blue Jays. He inherited a bad team there in his first season as manager in Toronto. The team finished last in the division in 1982. But the team went on to win 89 games the next two seasons and finished fourth and second respectively.

But 1985 is the season to remember. The Blue Jays won 99 games that year and easily won the division. Then they played one of the most memorable American League Championship Series ever against George Brett and the Royals. The Royals won it in seven games but it was nip and tuck all the way. Bobby Cox came a game away from taking that team to the World Series. It was the last game he would manage for the Blue Jays.

Remarkably, he didn't manage for the next four seasons. He almost didn't manage for the fifth, but the Braves fired Russ Nixon half way through the 1990 season and Cox took over. It was too late to turn that team around as they finished sixth. But the rest is history as the 1991 season started a run of success that is unparalleled in the history of Major League Baseball. During that run, the Braves finished: 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1.

Of course, the knock on Cox is that in those thirteen first place finishing seasons, his teams only won the NL pennant five times and the World Series once. But I don't think that diminishes the job Cox did at all. He won all those years in all kinds of ways. He won with a big offense and with hardly any offense. He brought in young players and the team stayed consistent through all those years. And sure a manager probably gets too much credit when a team is successful. The team's general manager and scouts deserve a lot of the credit, the players deserve a lot of the credit, but the constant was Cox. He was always there to get the most out of his teams and they did nothing but win.

The Braves fell on harder times in recent years. There fabulous starting pitchers got old. Their ownership faltered. But they were never really a rollover team. Cox kept them competitive and they are in second place this year and were only a Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez away from being able to give the Phillies a run for the money. It will be fun to see what they can do next year.

And it should be a year to celebrate Bobby Cox. Look, I have always hated the Braves. In fact, it's one of my security questions on one of my accounts: "Which team do you root against the most?" The Braves. But you can't hate Bobby Cox. He has earned too much respect for too long and he's always been a first-class guy. I hope the Braves' fans and all baseball fans appreciate him and give him a loving ride next year. He deserves it.

1 comment:

Josh Borenstein said...

Wow, that '68 Yankees squad must have been painful to watch.