LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Each year his win total takes another giant leap up the all-time list and Bobby Cox moves past another three or four legendary managers.
If the Atlanta Braves continue to average 99 wins per season, as they have done in the five non-strike seasons this decade, in six more years Cox will have climbed to eighth place on the all-time list. More impressively, of the seven managers ahead of him, six are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Can a case be made for Cox as a Hall of Fame manager, assuming his success continues into the next century? Absolutely.
Already he's the Braves' winningest manager of the modern era and has more postseason wins than any other manager. He's guided the Braves to more wins (651) in the past seven years than any team in the major leagues and won division titles in six consecutive completed seasons, four pennants and one world championship.
Asked if he has any plans to retire, Cox laughed and shook his head.
"I feel too good," he said. "I still love it. I guess that's why I feel good all the time. You get out (of the game) and you feel sick. I feel the same as I did 30 years ago, except my back doesn't work as good. But mentally I feel like one of the players. It keeps you young."
Cox enters the season in 24th place on the all-time list with a record of 1,312-1,089, a .546 winning percentage. The only active manager with more wins is St. Louis' Tony LaRussa, who has a career record of 1,481-1,346, a .524 winning percentage.
Cox, in his 39th year of pro ball, may never retire. When the team is home, he usually arrives at his Turner Field office seven or eight hours before the start of a game and he can often be found stretched out on a leather couch, puffing contentedly on a cigar and watching an afternoon baseball game on television.
It wasn't always this good. During the late 1970s, Cox presided over teams that finished sixth twice and improved only enough to finish fourth before he was fired. When he returned as general manager in 1985 he laid the foundation for the team's future success, but he missed his clubhouse office and dugout seat so much he eventually gave up the suit and tie and slipped back into uniform in 1990.
Cox says he never figured to still be managing 27 years after he accepted a Yankees' offer to manage their Ft. Lauderdale club in the Florida State League in 1971.
"Back in my day it was like hitting pay dirt when you got to Triple-A because there was so much talent and so few teams," he said. "The years go fast, though, you look back and say, `Jeez, it's been 39 years."'
Cox has stayed around this long by building a solid reputation as a strategist and a player's manager. His players appreciate his handling complaints or controversy quietly and he never criticizes anyone publicly. He doesn't set many rules, but the few he has he enforces with a firm hand.
You will never see a Brave wearing an earring on the field. You will never see one sporting a goatee. Those rules reflect Cox's traditional values and his players respect his wishes.
"The best managers let you be yourself on the field," outfielder Michael Tucker said. "You don't have to do anything you're not capable of doing. As long as you play hard, that's all Bobby asks for."
Each season Cox's credentials for entry into Cooperstown grow stronger. He will climb past former Pirates, White Sox and Braves skipper Chuck Tanner this year and will probably break into the top 20 on the all-time list. He needs 101 wins to tie former Yankees manager Miller Huggins for 18th place and next season he will surpass former Orioles manager Earl Weaver's win total.
Yet, while ex-Dodgers skipper Tommy Lasorda was voted into the Hall of Fame two years ago, Cox says he's never given Cooperstown much consideration.
"The Hall of Fame isn't something I've even thought of," he said. "I don't think any manager ever thinks of it while he's still in uniform. I think it's something you think about after you retire."
Thursday, Feb. 26 --
University of Georgia at Disney, 1:05 p.m.
Friday, Feb. 27 --
Kansas City Royals at Disney, 1:05 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 28 --
New York Mets at Disney, 1:05 p.m.
Sunday, March 1 --
L.A. Dodgers at Vero Beach, 1:05 p.m.