Guerry Clegg Commentary: Bobby Cox was best manager ever

December 10, 2013 

Bobby Cox was chatting with reporters before batting practice when someone started questioning him about a player personnel matter.

It might have had to do with the lineup or use of his bullpen or a roster move.

Doesn't matter. What does matter is the exchange that followed.

Cox's answers apparently failed to satisfy the reporter, so being a good reporter he kept digging. Cox politely but steadfastly refrained from elaborating.

Then, still politely but quite pointedly, Cox ended the discussion.

"I know what I'm doing, OK?"

When it came to running a clubhouse and managing a team, Cox more than just knew what he was doing. He was the best ever.

Managing in an era of huge guaranteed contracts and free agency, allowing players to leave when their contracts were up, handling a clubhouse is the modern manager's most important function.

Cox was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame, along with Joe Torre and Tony LaRussa. Sure, Torre and LaRussa won more World Series rings, four and three, respectively.

But with the exception of using starter Charlie Liebrandt in relief, a role for which he was ill-equipped, none of the Braves' World Series losses could be attributed to Cox's managerial moves.

He didn't tell Lonnie Smith to get decoyed at second by Chuck Knobloch, nor did he hang a slider to Jim Leyritz. If not for those two plays in 1991 and '96, respectively, Cox probably would have had three World Series titles.

Cox's loyalty to struggling veterans or frequent book-management of his bullpen could get exasperating to fans.

But he knew his players better than anyone. Just as important, he understood the complex dynamics of a major league clubhouse better than any manager of the free agency era.

The culture of a major league clubhouse is an intricate thing. Managers create the law, and players police it.

Sure, having a starting rotation with three future Hall of Famers would make any manager look at least competent.

But those three men -- Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux -- and many others will tell you that having Cox as their manager made them better.

When Maddux re-signed with the Braves for five years in 1997 when he could have gone elsewhere for more money, he explained "I have the best boss in baseball."

So Cox had three Hall of Fame starting pitchers and a Hall of Fame third baseman? Fair enough.

And all of Torre's World Series titles came with Mariano Rivera in his bullpen, once as a set-up man, then as the greatest closer of all time.

Prior to River, the most dominant closer ever was Dennis Eckersley, whom La Russa had in Oakland. When Cox finally had a dominant closer in Mark Wohlers, he finally won a World Series.

That's not merely coincidental. In fact, it's quite

logical.

If getting the last three outs of a regular season game is more challenging than getting the first 24, wouldn't it be even more difficult in the World Series?

Unlike football and basketball, which rely so much on schemes and strategies, baseball is about playing percentages and taking your chances.

Any manager would have liked his chances with Wohlers facing Leyritz.

He just made one bad pitch and it cost him. Given the chance, you'd do it again.

What a baseball manager does more than anything is create a winning atmosphere.

Cox and Jim Leyland were two of the best, but they did it two entirely different ways. Cox changed the losing culture in Atlanta twice.

Let's not forget that the Braves had a winning record in 1980, his third season of his first stint. He was fired after the strike-abrupted season on '81, a huge mistake.

When the Braves won the next season under Torre, the players gave Torre credit … for maintaining the positive atmosphere Cox instilled.

Cox built trust with his players, and they rewarded him by playing hard, not just every day but every pitch.

One reason they won 14 consecutive division championship and five National League pennants is that they kept competing until the final out.

He won with Hall of Famers, but he also won with journeymen who just happened to have their best seasons ever playing for Cox.

In my book, Cox is more than a Hall of Fame manager. He's the best manager of the last 50 years.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com

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