By Steve Hummer
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It has been 50 years since Bobby Cox first came to Florida, dressed up in a major league uniform and slowly warmed to the task of a baseball season. Fifty years. Gone in a flash.
In 1960, Cox was an 18-year-old farmhand for the Dodgers, a team that had just recently moved to Los Angeles. The second time he ever flew on a plane, it was aboard a prop job bound for Vero Beach, Fla., from California. He swears the plane stopped twice to refuel.
At the team's Dodgertown spring complex, the aspiring infielder slept in the barracks left over from the property's days as a World War II naval air base. And he grew up fast in the company of roughneck veterans in no mood to embrace a rookie.
Here it is 2010, and he, his wife, Pam, and their little dog have moved into a plush rental house in a Disney resort. This will be home for the next seven weeks.
It has been a 50-year trip from paying dues to collecting them. And after a half century, a man starts to get some ideas about how this baseball life is going to play out.
"I'd rather die with the uni on," Cox said. "But I'm not going to do that."
The practical part of him won out in the end. Last September, he signed a one-year extension and announced that it would be his last as a manager. Cox knew himself well enough to realize that, if he didn't go public with his plans, he'd hold out the option of managing just one more season. And then maybe one more after that. And on and on into the sunset -- if not in Atlanta, then anywhere that would have him.
It's another spring training and, at a time of year all baseball people love for its promise of renewal and new beginnings, Cox is saddled with talking about professional and personal mortality.
"I'm getting old," Cox answered when asked the reason for retiring now. "You don't live forever. There are some things I need to do besides go to the ballpark every morning. You get almost 70 years old, you don't have a lot of time left (he is rushing things; he turns 69 in May).
"There is something about having free time, not having a routine anymore. I think that will be a good thing."
Cox noticed this offseason that, when a vacation commercial appeared on television, he and Pam almost simultaneously would share the thought: You know, we could do that next year.
Still, he is going to hate dealing with the topic of his retirement over this long, last season. He will appreciate the tributes that come his way at ballparks around the league -- and fidget through them like a three-cavity patient in a dentist's chair.
Cox is not an endings guy. He is all about the next game, the one who can put lipstick on the toughest situation and sell it as a prom queen.
Of managers in general, Cox joked, "We all think we're real smart or we wouldn't be doing this."
Yet few in his profession have downplayed their role so consistently as Cox. He resists talking about himself, his impact, his place in a game in which only three managers have ever won more.
Two writers for national outlets showed up last week to the first day of workouts for Braves pitchers and catchers. They were interested in neither pitcher nor catcher; they were there for Cox. It had begun.
To them and everyone else, the manager is preaching that his departure is nothing to get worked up about.
"It's still a year of baseball and nothing changes. It really doesn't," he said.
"But," catcher Brian McCann chimed in, "it is a big deal."
That some players have not quite accepted the idea of Cox's retirement is a sign of their fealty to the manager. Pitcher Tim Hudson made a point of referring to this as "potentially" Cox's last year. "You never know," he said slyly.
Asked if he is going to try to talk his boss out of retiring, McCann smiled and said, "Every day."
Spring always was the time when Cox laid down to players the fundamentals of his relationship with his team. As with this season, he gave a short speech before the first workout about rules and goals. The rest of the season, he traditionally spends building an environment of shared struggle. That's why he has the reputation of being a players' manager.
The Cox Method has been defined by building relationships and loyalties throughout every level of the club, from the front office to the laundry room. John Holland has been a clubhouse hand since 1975, meaning he dates back before Cox's first stint leading the Braves (1978-81). Back then, Holland made the West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium clubhouse his spring residence, sleeping there to guard against break-ins.
He always will remember Cox as the manager who often brought him food at night -- a manager who, long after others had gone on their way, would go out with Holland and hit golf balls on the deserted field. Cox also would organize late-night basketball games with the staff on a hoop nearby, lit by the headlights of any available car. The quality of the game varied in relation to the amount of alcohol consumed beforehand.
"I've outgrown that stuff, though," Cox said.
To this day, Cox and the clubbie compete each weekend head to head in a NASCAR fantasy draft, matching their racing knowledge for fun and profit. "He's always been one of the guys to us," Holland said.
One other story to illustrate why Cox is so popular inside the clubhouse:
Having washed out in Tampa Bay and Kansas City, outfielder Matt Diaz arrived in Orlando the spring of 2006. His locker was in a little-noticed corner then, near a hallway leading to the training room and lounge. As Cox ambled that way on one of his rounds, he wheeled back after noticing the new guy and greeted him with something to the effect of, "Matt Diaz, I've seen your tapes. You can help this team."
"That was something that meant a lot to a guy who had never made a camp out of spring training," Diaz said.
"It felt like he was waiting for me to succeed instead of looking for me to fail. That wasn't always the case with some of my managers."
How much actual impact Cox's retirement will have on this season is difficult to know at this stage. After their epic run of 14 straight division championships, it has been four years since the Braves have visited the postseason. Cox is the last one to consider any win-one-for-the-skipper speeches at this point, downplaying his departure as any kind of reliable motivational tool.
Hudson has a quaint way of putting into words the team's mindset on this issue: "Everybody has looked at Bobby as that father figure around here for a lot of years. When you want to do something for somebody you care about, you really want to do it. It's no different this year (with Cox) than if you wanted to make your dad happy."
Whenever Cox has been cornered by his own accomplishments, whenever he has been asked about his three National League manager-of-the-year awards or that long stretch of winning, his refrain has never varied: "It's a players' game."
Whether Cox likes it or not, from spring's first stirring to October's last out, this is going to be a manager's season.