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Monday, December 9, 2013
Three skippers to Cooperstown

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa will rightfully enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a boxed set. We're talking about three managers who navigated changing times, different markets and the challenges of everything from media pressure to ballplayer egos to fickle fans with a consistency that never wavered. In total, they accounted for a staggering 7,588 wins and eight World Series titles, while bridging the gap from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama.

But for one of the honorees, Monday's announcement by the Hall's expansion era committee was just a smidgen more poignant because of the timing. In the crowning moment of his career, Cox couldn't help but look forward to this summer, when he probably will enter Cooperstown with 300-game winners and former Atlanta Braves rotational pillars Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.

"They're the guys that got me this far, that's for sure," Cox said. "It would be just unbelievably great. I've got my fingers crossed for both of them."

Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre
Legendary managers Tony La Russa, left, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre were unanimous selections Monday.

Those great Atlanta teams of the 1990s and early 2000s will wind up looking like a Hall of Fame factory. Chipper Jones is a lock to make it as one of the elite third basemen and switch-hitters in history, and John Smoltz stands a good chance as a Maddux-Glavine sidekick and a lockdown starter-closer hybrid in the Dennis Eckersley mold. At some point John Schuerholz, the architect of those dominant Atlanta teams that won 14 division titles from 1991 to 2005 (missing only 1994), is also destined to get serious consideration.

Of course, with so much talent in one place, Atlanta fans will always have reason to feel wistful over a single World Series victory in that span. But the Hall of Fame voting validates the greatness of individuals who did their part for a not-quite dynasty.

"This is kind of the exclamation point for what all of us who were involved know about that era," said Stan Kasten, Los Angeles Dodgers president and former Braves executive. "It was a unique piece of baseball history, with unique people, and an awful lot of Hall of Famers."

Cox and his two managerial peers rode distinctly personal styles to Cooperstown. Torre radiated a certain presence and authority when he walked into a room, and it helped him survive the cauldron in New York and add another chapter to his résumé as a prominent MLB executive. La Russa projected a much more different look, with his quick, staccato delivery and trademark intensity. Writers who entered his office at 3:30 p.m. and found him poring over matchups or a lineup card and asked him how he was doing received the inevitable response, "Ask me after tonight's game."

And then there was Cox. As someone who's covered baseball since the late '80s, I remember countless bull sessions with the former Braves manager in his office or the dugout, where he liked to spray chewing tobacco and reminisce about Ralph Houk, Ted Williams or one of his true baseball idols, Stan Musial. He was the folksiest of the three new Hall of Fame managers, the humblest and, in many ways, the most approachable.

That's part of the reason Cox's players loved him so much -- because he kept the rules to a minimum, treated them like men and went to great lengths to protect them for public consumption. Cox was comfortable riding a bus and painfully averse to throwing his players under it. In the aftermath of Cox's Hall of Fame election Monday, Glavine tweeted that Cox was "the best" and said he was "so proud to have played for you."

Cox was quick to reciprocate. He recalled how Glavine was 42 years old and 22 years into his career before he made his first trip to the disabled list, and remembered Maddux getting hit by a line drive in the foot during his final spring training start in 2001. Maddux removed his shoe to reveal a split toe that would require stitches to repair but lobbied Cox to bump him to the back of the rotation rather than put him on the disabled list. In his first start of the season, Maddux threw five shutout innings against the Florida Marlins.

"You talk about big-game pitchers at the right time," Cox said. "If you were in a losing streak and you had Maddux or Glavine going, you always felt you were gonna win. And you're talking about two of the greatest competitors ever."

If there was a reason to lament the expansion era committee's selections, it was the decision to stop at three. Marvin Miller, the late players' association leader and the most troubling omission from the Hall, was among a group of candidates who failed to receive more than six votes from the 16-member committee (with 12 votes necessary for induction). Former MLBPA executive director Donald Fehr called it a "sad and sorry state of affairs" that Miller is still on the outside, and he's correct. Baseball observers who view the big picture and value Miller's contribution as a transformative figure can only hope that someday, the Hall does the right thing and elects him posthumously. The shrine in Cooperstown will never be truly complete without him.

Nevertheless, it can't be argued that Cox, La Russa and Torre all do belong. The three skippers just looked right sitting on the podium Monday morning as a class.

"It would have felt somewhat empty, in my case, if one of these two guys was left out," Torre said.

The bonus for Cox will come this summer, when he enters the Hall of Fame accompanied by two of the arms that helped carry him to Cooperstown.