Thursday October 7th, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO -- The click-clack of cleats filled the corridor as Bobby Cox left the interview room and returned to AT&T Park's visiting clubhouse.

On the eve of Game 1 of the Braves' National League Division Series, Cox had just completed his standard pre-series press conference -- he brought notes to the dais even though it's a routine he must be used to in this, his 25th playoff series -- and led an impromptu parade down the hall. Writers and team staff trailed the moseying manager, each seeking a moment of his attention and probably hoping the stomp of his black Mizuno cleats on the cement floor didn't drown out his answers.

"I've never seen a manager wear cleats before," said Braves utility player Eric Hinske, who has played for eight major-league managers in his nine-year career. "And he's fully uni'd up always when we get here. He puts his cleats on right away -- sanitaries and old-school stirrups too."

Added Atlanta center fielder Nate McLouth, "Not only does he wear cleats, he's got them on at noon. It's old school. That's probably what he's been doing since he was 18."

Baseball has been Cox's life: he played parts of 12 years (10 in the minors and two in the majors with the Yankees in 1968-69); managed in the minors for six; coached first base for the 1977 World Series champion Yankees; managed in the majors for 29 years, including 25 in charge of the Braves; and was even Atlanta's general manager for four years.

But now Cox is retiring at season's end, and there is a sense of normalcy to his participation in October baseball. He once led the Braves to 14 straight division titles, but this year's wild card berth is their first trip to the postseason since 2005.

Relief must be pervasive in Atlanta right now. Even if the Braves don't advance deep into the playoffs -- their 18-20 record since Aug. 23 doesn't inspire overwhelming confidence -- this playoff berth alone would be sufficient sendoff for Cox. How disappointing would it have been for the future Hall of Famer to end his career with his team choking away a 4 1/2-game lead on a playoff berth entering September.

Cox's legacy, of course, wasn't built on championships. Atlanta won only one in five trips to the World Series in his tenure, but because he does have a ring -- thus sparing him the perennial bridesmaid status afforded, for example, the NFL's Buffalo Bills -- he will be remembered more for his teams' consistent excellence than their regular near-misses.

Instead of being "the manager who never won one," Cox is "the manager who always got near one."

He became an institution in Atlanta because he is the ultimate players' manager. That's why the tributes at home last weekend were so grand, from the on-field ceremony on Saturday attended by dozens of former players to his players hoisting him on their shoulders after their playoff spot was secured on Sunday evening.

Cox even had his No. 6 freshly shorn into Turner Field's manicured center field grass, a veritable landscaping cut-by-numbers routine. He is the rare manager for whom the digit on his uniform is recognizable. Most managers slink back in the dugout except when making pitching changes, but the fiery Cox is often jogging onto the field in defense of his players, always in the direction of an umpire, to dispute a call just made.

While fans know him best as the umpire-berating holder of the alltime ejections record, his players and the writers see a calm side to him.

Unlike other managers, he typically doesn't hold an appointed interview session before games, instead chatting conversationally with the writers while his opponent takes batting practice. On the Braves' last trip to Citi Field, Cox sat in the dugout for an hour -- cleats on his feet, of course -- and accompanying him on the bench were a partially-smoked cigar, two lighters, a tin of Copenhagen, a blue Bic pen, scratch paper and an iPhone that appeared incongruous, making the scene appear to be a logic puzzle in which one is not like the others.

"He's not young anymore," Hinske said, "but he's on top of everything."

So it is with Cox that, while his age (69), experience (2,504 wins in 29 years as a major-league manager) and manner scream old school, he has no trouble relating to today's players, based on a couple basic tenets.

"He treats us the same -- with respect -- and has a lot of confidence in us," rookie right fielder Jason Heyward said.

When McLouth began the year in a terrible funk and was sent down to the minors despite having been an All-Star and Gold Glove winner just two years ago, he said Cox couldn't have been more supportive at a difficult time of his career.

"He told me, 'Hey, we know you can play. Get yourself straightened out,'" McLouth said. "I never felt like he didn't have confidence in me."

Cox has been around long enough to understand that not all idiosyncrasies of baseball performance can be explained. Why a player can succeed for years and then need a Triple-A tune-up. Or why a team can dominate on the road one year than be dominated the next. In 2009 the Braves were better on the road (46-35) than they were at home (40-41). In 2010 they have the majors' best home record at 56-25 and the worst road record among playoff entrants (35-46).

Asked to explain this year's home success, Cox said, "I guess we get last at bat at home." So, then, why all the road victories the previous year? "I can't explain that either," he said.

That's not to suggest Cox is a simpleton -- in Wednesday's press conference, he noted Heyward's on-base percentage and his players say he's routinely preparing for matchups three innings in advance -- but that, from his extensive experience, not everything can be neatly explained. It is therefore not surprising that Cox doesn't believe in stunts like changing the hotel where the club stays in a certain city or making a change for the sake of reversing momentum.

"You stay in your routine," he said. "I hate when I get deviated from it in any little way -- it irritates the [crap] out of me."

Over the course of a 162-game season, with all its peaks and valleys, the players appreciate his even keel.

"I would describe him as steady," outfielder Matt Diaz said. "There's never a sense of panic around Bobby. This is, what, my fifth year here and I never once felt like he was making a move just to make a move. He always keeps the same routine."

When Delta surprised Cox before his final road trip by painting his No. 6 on the side of a plane and holding a ceremony in his honor, he tried hard not to let the hubbub interfere with what was his best for his players.

"[Delta] asked him to talk," Diaz said, "and I think he spoke really fast just so he could get his team on the plane."

There are no certainties in life or in baseball. Just as some have wondered aloud whether Cox will truly retire. Blue Jays skipper Cito Gaston, who is also set to retire, formerly coached under Cox in Toronto, and in August Gaston said of he, Cox and longtime manager, Lou Piniella of the Cubs, "Lou and I might be the only two to go," Gaston said. "I'm not sure about Bobby. Lou and I love the game, but I bet Bobby's at his park more than we are."

That's the routine Cox has been in for four decades. His days are long and so are his years. But with the Braves yet again in the postseason, for now Cox can stick to his routine, at least for another week -- lacing up the cleats and preparing for another game.

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