"Well, there are three things that the average man thinks he can do better than anybody else. Build a fire, run a hotel and manage a baseball team."-- Rocky Bridges, 9 time minor league manager
ATLANTA -- Bobby Cox's backyard grill doesn't really count as a fire, but 30 years on the road certainly qualifies him as a hotel expert and he knows a thing or two about managing a baseball team.
Ask any baseball man to name the game's best managers, and if Cox, the Atlanta Braves' skipper, doesn't top the list, he certainly finishes among the top three.
In an era where teams change managers with the same frequency that television network executives cancel new shows, Cox's 10 years in Atlanta makes him the second-longest tenured manager in the majors, trailing only the Twins' Tom Kelly, who has been on the job since 1986. Since Cox took the reins in June 1990, 69 managers have been fired or retired.
Cox is also the second-longest tenured manager in the franchise's storied history, trailing only Frank Selee, who guided the Boston Beaneaters from 1890-1901. Two years ago, Cox, 59, passed Selee on the team's all-time managerial wins list, and it's doubtful his 1,216 wins (and counting) ever will be matched.
Cox, who will manage in his fifth All-Star game tonight at Turner Field, also is climbing in baseball's record books. Already this season he's overtaken Dick Williams for 15th place in all-time wins and he'll pass Tommy Lasorda and Fred Clarke later this summer. If the Braves win 99 games this season, he'll climb past his former manager and mentor, the Yankees' Ralph Houk, into 12th place, and he'll probably break into the top 10 in three years.
To put his accomplishments in perspective, only 16 other managers in the modern era, 18 overall, ever have won 1,000 games with one team, and of the top 10 all-time winningest managers, nine are in the Hall of Fame.
Cox's success can be traced to several factors: A lack of ego, strong strategic and tactical skills and an ability to communicate with today's players.
"Temperament, knowledge of the game, experience, respect of his players, he's accomplished all of that," said Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou, ticking off Cox's attributes. "It's too bad some people have overlooked Bobby because the Braves have won so many games. But there are a lot of us who know winning is not easy. Losing is easy, but winning is not easy, and he's been able to win for a long, long time."
In fact, the Braves' success is unprecedented. No other team has won eight straight division titles, and only three others have posted three straight 100-win seasons. Could another manager have accomplished the same thing with the Braves? Possibly, but it's equally likely another manager would have allowed his ego to get in the way and his players would have turned against him.
In 10 years under Cox, the closest thing the Braves have had to a clubhouse revolt was when Deion Sanders refused to participate in Picture Day in 1994. He was shipped off to the Reds a week later.
"Bobby's greatest asset is the way he treats the players," pitcher Tom Glavine said. "He's a tremendous people person. He treats guys with a lot of respect and that makes them want to play for him. There's not a lot of b.s. with Bobby -- what you see is what you get."
Before arriving in Atlanta, then-Kansas City general manager John Schuerholz sent out feelers to Cox, then the Braves GM, about returning to the dugout as manager of the Royals. It never went any farther than that, but when Cox stepped down several years later and put the uniform on again, Schuerholz knew he had the right man in the job.
"I told Stan (Braves president Kasten) when I was interviewing, that Bobby Cox would remain as manager," Schuerholz said. "I thought he was one of the best managers in the game. I've always had an admiration and respect for him as a manager.
"What makes him an excellent manager? It's a whole variety of things. Obviously, his knowledge of the game. His instincts for the game. His natural, instinctive ability to handle players and manage players. He has a tremendous respect for the game of baseball and an even greater respect for how difficult it is to play the game."
Bad knees and a .224 batting average forced Cox out of the big leagues following the 1969 season with the Yankees. His managerial career started in the Florida State League in 1971, where he remembers sleeping in the clubhouse and pitching batting practice during each of the three workouts he held each day. He was paid the princely sum of $8,500, a $5,000 pay cut from what he was making as a Class AAA player.
Two years later he was managing at Class AAA Syracuse, an astonishingly rapid ascension, then in 1978 the Braves approached and offered him $40,000 a year to manage a team that had lost 101 games the year before. In four years, Cox didn't lift the Braves above fourth place, but he did lay the groundwork for their 1982 division championship.
Fired by the Braves and hired by the Blue Jays, he helped turn a habitual loser into a club that came within one game of reaching the 1985 World Series. Returning to Atlanta as the Braves GM following the '85 season, he helped set the foundation for the club's decade-long success, overseeing a farm system that developed such players as Javy Lopez, Chipper Jones and Steve Avery, while swapping Doyle Alexander to the Tigers for John Smoltz.
Former Phillies manager Eddie Sawyer said managing is "like watching a man conduct an orchestra. All you see is him standing up there waving a baton. You don't see all those hours of rehearsal when he's working with the orchestra, trying to refine the music."
Five years in the front office was enough to convince Cox he belonged in the dugout. Swapping a coat and tie for a uniform and spikes, he rode out the remainder of the '90 season with a terrible team, then orchestrated one of the greatest turnarounds in baseball history by guiding the '91 Braves to within one win of a world championship.
"There's a lot to managing; it's not like you just push buttons," Cox said. "I really enjoy getting up and getting to the ballpark as fast as I can. It's fun to come out and hit early, it's fun being around the players, the game's fun.
"The competition and the love of the game is what keeps you going, I don't think you can ever get away from it. It keeps you young; even though you look older, your mind is young."
Cox often has been described as "a player's manager", which simply means he refuses to use the media to address a player's failings and he doesn't have a lengthy list of rules. If anything, Cox is a throwback to an earlier era, a time when music didn't blare in the clubhouse before and after games, players didn't wear earrings, and sport coats and slacks (no jeans) were the proper attire for road trips.
In an era of enormous salaries and even bigger egos, it's a system the players have endorsed whole-heartedly.
"There aren't a lot of rules concerning the childish stuff," Glavine said. "All his rules are based on how he wants you to represent the ballclub and the Atlanta Braves organization. He's big on that. He's an old-school guy. If there's anything he's adamant about, it's the dress code. You look professional on the road and you look professional on the field. That's the way it is here.
"If I had a dollar for every guy who came over here and said you guys don't know how good it is to play for Bobby, I'd have a lot more money."
Said Cox, "A lot of guys like publicity. I never have. Players deserve the credit."
Cox has been criticized over the years for a variety of failings, from his use of the bullpen to the lack of readiness of his bench to winning just one World Series in five tries. But, in the end, none of the criticisms sticks. From the men who know, opposing players, managers and general managers, Cox is universally revered for his principles and his managerial skills.
"He's a great manager," said former Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, who served as Cox's hitting coach in Toronto. "He doesn't demand respect, but he gets it by treating his players like men.
"You can say, yes, he has the players, but you absolutely have got to manage them. When I worked for Bobby, I always figured if we were behind, Bobby would figure out something to get us ahead and he usually did."
Said Chicago Cubs manager Don Baylor, the Braves' hitting coach last season, "Knowing talent and giving young guys a chance to be part of the club, like Kevin McGlinchy last year, that's one of the things that makes him a great manager. He took a guy from `A' ball and he had a great year and he did the same this year with Rafael Furcal, who I never thought would be in the big leagues this year. He's not afraid of giving guys a chance in the big leagues and that's what makes him different."
The bottom line is simple enough. Cox stays out of the headlines, allows his players to take the bows, and his teams continue to win. If he remains at the helm for another five years and surpasses such legendary managers as Leo Durocher and Walter Alston in wins, there's no question he'll deserve a plaque in the Hall of Fame.
"You can look out there and see what type of manager he is," Gaston said. "I'd say he's a Hall of Fame manager."
"His record will speak to that," Schuerholz said. "That's how managers are measured and how they're separated. That's the bottom line. How well have you managed your teams?"
How much longer will Cox continue? He's in his 19th season as a big league manager, and during the course of an interview he mentions wanting to manage another "two or three years", then moments later acknowledges the thought of retirement doesn't hold much appeal.
"I want to keep working," he said. "I don't want to just wither away."
After almost two decades in the dugout, Cox knows not to tip his hand.
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.