Originally created 09/22/99

Braves don't look like league leaders



ATLANTA -- The New York Mets came out of the Turner Field visitors dugout looking like a ballclub with 92 wins. They had stars; they had future Hall of Famers; they had a manager with pearly whites and eyes that would make women swoon.

Across the way, the Braves stammered out for batting practice, a tattered team strung together with as many rookies and retreads as all-stars. Seeing Team Tomahawk in person makes you wonder just how it's one game ahead of opponents that appear so polished.

Then the difference emerges, a 58-year-old, gruff looking man who appears to need a shave. Bobby Cox doesn't look happy this Tuesday night. He rarely does.

Cox seems to be perpetually irked, which could be a reason why he's been ejected a baseball-high 10 times this season. And on this chilly, wannabe-October night, an incoming wind greets Cox as he walks out of the dugout, causing Mr. Happy to mutter something under his breath. He's got to go find his jacket.

The Braves story is well rehearsed this season, what with significant talent voids in four key positions. And the latest news that Brian Jordan's hand injury has failed to heal properly, causing him to lose much of his power, may be the source of Cox's dour expression.

"Just one more thing we've got to deal with," he says. "We've been dealing with so many this year, why not have one more."

This is Cox at his best: Succinct. Sharp. Salty.

He entered this season known more for his postseason failures than bringing Atlanta baseball full circle. He's been the stubborn ox with lineups, the grumpy grouch in dugouts.

When the 162-game schedule is exhausted in two weeks, Cox should finally be able to flash that $10 smile of his to claim his second National League Manager of the Year award. Then again, maybe he won't smile.

The ballots have been distributed to the nation's baseball writers, and Cox should be the first and only choice for voters to consider. Not that he's stumping for votes.

"Can't worry about that," Cox said. That's all he says on the matter. But Bobby Valentine, his dugout counterpart this series, has much to say.

"Bobby's done the best job of managing I've seen in a long time," said Valentine, who voted for Cox in a Sporting News poll. "Most guys with that much turnover in a roster would panic. I don't think Bobby knows how to panic."

John Schuerholz, Braves general manager, calls Cox's job this season "spectacular." When in the season's most important game to date to have Randall Simon as your fifth hitter and the waived Sean Bergman as a stop gap, it says a lot for Cox motivating the mediocre.

"There have been times when I've asked myself `How are we doing this?"' Schuerholz said. "I give Bobby all the credit. He's taken virtually a new team this season, mixed everyone together on the run, and we find ourselves poised for another playoff run.

"Manager of the Year? This is as easy a choice as ever."

Cox has won the award once, the year the Braves went from worst to first and came within a Lonnie Smith duping of winning the 1991 World Series. But managers with barrels of talent aren't seen as award candidates. Cox never has earned hardware consideration since the Braves have turned the playoffs into a birthright.

When the Braves topped 101 victories in 1997, Cox failed to crack the NL's top three. A year ago, when the Braves set a franchise record with 106 wins, Cox wasn't among the league's top four.

This season, Cox has done the most with the least. Maybe we'll get that smile after all.

Reach Rick Dorsey at (706) 823-3219.