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Just win, Bobby

A couple of standard questions, a couple of predictably warmed-over responses, a friendly "OK?" and everyone dutifully moves on. That is, of course, just the way Cox plans it.

If it's not the cigar smoke that gets you, it's the smokescreen.

You want positives? Oh, Cox will do positives. Cox is the Manager of the Year when it comes to talking positives. Nobody's close.

Cox, the genial field general of the Braves, can make a fender-bender out of a 16-car pileup. He can turn a shriveled ballpark dog into a feast. The pitcher who allowed 12 earned runs in 4 2/3 innings? Ahhh, he just missed on a couple of balls, fellas. He was throwing really well.

"What was your word? Bland?" said Braves general manager John Schuerholz when I suggested that Cox might be purposely bland in his public comments about the team. "You might say bland. From his viewpoint, it's effective. It's proper. It's the way a good leader protects his men."

It's also one of the main reasons that Cox, 63, is the best manager in the National League. Where others poke and prod, Cox smoothes over and cushions. He closes ranks. And, let's not forget: He wins. He keeps winning.

"It's hard for a player not to continue playing for a guy like that," said Terry Pendleton, who won the 1991 National League MVP under Cox and now is the team's hitting coach.

Cox is in his 23rd season of managing, his 15th straight during this second stint with the Braves, and he's never been more on top of his game. If he isn't the NL's Manager of the Year in 2004, something's messed up somewhere.

The pitching staff that carried the Braves to all those titles in the '90s is, with the exception of closer John Smoltz, long gone. Instead of Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, Cox is winning with guys named Jaret Wright, Russ Ortiz and John Thomson.

The Braves lost sluggers Gary Sheffield and Javy Lopez to free agency last offseason, along with third baseman Vinny Castilla. There were injuries to Chipper Jones, second baseman Marcus Giles, shortstop Rafael Furcal and first baseman Adam LaRoche. So Cox won by taking advantage of a brilliant offseason trade for career underachiever J.D. Drew, moving Jones back to third base to save his sore hamstring and plugging in guys like DeWayne Wise, Charles Thomas, Nick Green and 46-year-old Julio Franco.

The knock on Cox has been that he's won, sure, but he's had the horses. Well, the Braves have claimed an unprecedented 13th straight division title (not counting the strike year of 1994, when they were in second place behind the Expos) this season with a collection of players that a lot of teams wouldn't have touched.

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It's Cox who has nurtured them, kept them together and protected them.

"He gets those guys to subjugate their individual egos and blend them into one team ego," Schuerholz said. "It's an ego of one."

It would be hard to find a more homogeneous -- some might say bland -- organization in baseball. Cox has rules and he has a way he expects his players to perform. No music in the clubhouse, sport coats on the road (with no jeans or sandals), hustle at all times and, above all, professionalism.

He famously pulled a young Andruw Jones off the field when he failed to run hard after a ball in 1998. Cox was behind the expulsion of the disruptive John Rocker after those boneheaded comments in Sports Illustrated in 1999.

Still, Cox is far from unyielding. In 1993, Pendleton stormed off the field in the middle of an inning and threw his glove down in disgust after Braves' pitchers failed to retaliate for a beaning earlier in the game. Cox and Pendleton had a couple of long talks -- "Oh yeah," said Pendleton. "He'll put that little bass in his voice" -- and Pendleton reportedly was fined.

But he played the next day, and Cox absorbed the public criticism for allowing him to play. Pendleton is now fiercely loyal to Cox and the Braves, much like bullpen coach Bobby Dews, who has been with the team since 1975.

"It's 1987," said Dews, who was a roving instructor in the minor leagues and an assistant to Braves executive Hank Aaron, the director of player development at the time. "I'm drinking too much, and I'm really not doing my job. Bobby calls me in [Cox was the team's GM] and says 'Bobby, you're a good baseball man. But you either get this straightened out and be the baseball man we know you can be, or you're going to Mexico and you're only coming home once a year.'"

The Braves shipped Dews off for a 28-day stay at a treatment facility in coastal Georgia. He's been sober ever since.

"He saved my life," Dews said.

Cox won't talk much about himself or the job he does -- he's won nearly 2,000 games, five NL pennants and a World Series in his career -- yet it's clear that this season may go down as his finest ever.

He has taken a team racked by injuries and the economic realities of the time and blended it, against all odds, into a winner. Again.

And winning, remember, never is bland.