9/24/09

The Importance of Being Bobby

Bobby Cox is set to retire after next season.

And that depresses us.  Despite the repeated failings at bullpen management, which usually irks us beyond all good reason, we find ourselves forever defending the guy.  He's the one concession we make to the idea that amorphous, intangible qualities can make a team better.  And it's easy to see why; he's done so many good things for the team.  Players have always seemed to love him, and it's a sentiment he's always returned.  Headcases (e.g. Gary Sheffield, J.D. Drew) and franchise soldiers (e.g. Chipper Jones and John Smoltz*) alike have have found a comfortable clubhouse under Bobby's eye.  He won all those division titles, oversaw a remarkable worst-to-first turn in the beginning of his second stint as Braves' manager, and brought home a World Series title**.  He stayed with the organization for 25 years in a climate when managers and players alike were moved around like so many fungible chess pieces (though, really, he was hired thrice and fired twice).  He became a franchise icon, and a symbol of the Old Baseball Man throughout the league.  Fiercely loyal to his players, he never publicly called them out for poor performance; all such grievances were handled in-house, dedication to the team that netted him three Manager of the Year awards.  Bobby was a players' manager, a man of the people, who nevertheless established himself as the head of the team.

*Part of the reason Bobby's leaving, it's been reported, is that he was/is furious over GM Frank Wren's handling of the Smoltz situation this offseason.  And so were we.  We've touched on it before, but...you can't shell out a couple million bucks to keep a still-effective franchise icon around?  We know the rotation's fantastic.  We know that it's the one thing that's been keeping us in "contention.  But is it really so hard to find innings for a guy like Smoltz?  It's not like they'd have been counting on him.  Ugh.

** The trophy for which is called the Commissioner's Trophy, and really needs a better name.  And probably a new design as well, but let's start with the easy things.  Some thoughts, most of which are at least partly serious: the Landis Trophy (1st baseball commish; though we'd then have to rename the MVP Award), the Steinbrenner Trophy (love him or hate him, he's an icon as an owner), the McCarthy Trophy or the Stengel Trophy (both managers have the record for most Series victories), or the Veeck Trophy (what better publicity stunt?).

And yet...there is the discomforting side of Bobby.  The side that you remember when opposing fans' jeers remind you of his domestic battery charge.  The side that shows itself in his on-field tantrums that, you suspect, are not entirely disparate from the aforementioned domestic violence issue.  Is it, you wonder, a deep-seated anger issue that has reared its head more than just that one night in 1995?  Are we seeing very personal problems made very public on the field, for the 160th time?  

And so but then, as is the way in sports, all of those doubts about a man's character are washed away through celebration of the sporting deity: wins.  And Bobby's got plenty on his side his 2,408 are the fourth-most of all time, and he's won 54% of the time throughout his 24 year career.  That's 2,408 reasons why we can feel comfortable enough with him to call him simply 'Bobby;" 2,408 reasons why we think there must be some demented sort of rhyme and/or reason to his bizarre bullpen handling; 2,408 reasons why we'll be enormously sad to see him go.

Perhaps part of this sadness comes from the fact that Braves fans are accustomed to consistency; season after season after season ended with a division title, a trip to the playoffs, and, yes, there was often crushing disappointment at the end. But regardless, Bobby was there, at one moment adroitly guiding the team and another raging out onto the field on creaky knees to make a scene.  This comforted us.  Almost like Cubs fans, we clung to the Wait Til Next Year mantra, because we always knew there would be hope the next year.  And not the blind optimism bred of spring time, but of legitimate, we-can-do-it-this-time hope. Hope that, in large part, existed because of Bobby.  So now, as the Braves languish in the Wild Card race, we'll turn once more, and for the last time, to the hope inherent in that number 6.  And we'll try not to remember that it's a hope once constant, now eminently impermanent.  

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