Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Spring 2011 [Print without images]

Monday, February 28, 2011
A 'different' world for Braves this spring

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- He pulled into the manager's office by 5:30 on Sunday morning. Then Fredi Gonzalez sat at his desk and journeyed where only one Braves manager had ever gone before.

For 14 years, since Disney's Wide World of Sports first rose out of the Florida wilderness, just one man had ever occupied this manager's office, sat at this desk, jotted names on a lineup card. That man was the great Bobby Cox.

Fredi Gonzalez
Fredi Gonzalez is in his first season as the manager of the Braves.

But on Sunday, it was Gonzalez's turn.

It was the first spring training game of 2011 at Champion Stadium. Which meant it was the new manager's turn to make out that lineup, take it to home plate and hand it to the umpires -- the first time any Braves manager except one had ever done that in this ballpark.

So on this day, as on all days, Gonzalez could not have been more conscious of the living legend he's succeeding.

Then again, it's hard for him not to be -- because the legend himself still comes to work every day. He's just wearing a golf shirt, not a uniform.

"Some mornings," Gonzalez said of his good friend, Bobby Cox, "I come in at 5:30 -- and he's right behind me."

On this day, though, the former manager of the Braves was not right behind. He somehow waited all the way until 7:30 to show up for work. Somehow. Still, this was an historic day for Bobby Cox in other ways, too.

It was the first time in 50 years in baseball, Cox said, that he'd ever sat in the stands and watched a game with his wife. Which, when you come to think of it, was as good a bit of news for the local umpiring crew as it was for the lovely Pam Cox.

Then again, there have been a lot of firsts this spring for Bobby and Pam Cox. Breakfast together. Nearly every morning. That's been new. And trips to the mall. Lots of trips to the mall. Never had time to do the mall thing before, Bobby Cox reported.

And then came Saturday, the day of the Braves' first road game of spring training. The team got on the bus and played baseball in Port St. Lucie. The former manager listened on his car radio back in Orlando, through the miracle of XM technology.

But you should know he wasn't actually driving at the time. He was sitting in his parked car. In a parking lot. While his wife was shopping -- at the mall.

"I caught on real quick about those malls," Bobby Cox joked.

Outside of some magical shopping opportunities, however, the former manager hasn't missed much. And the new manager wouldn't want it any other way.

"I know he wants to stay out of the way as much as he can," Gonzalez said of his distinguished predecessor. "But I don't want him to.

"I get him involved as much as possible," Gonzalez went on. "I mean, this was his team last year. So he's got a pretty good pulse on what he's done with the guys."

Yeah, that's safe to say. So Gonzalez knows just the right questions to ask: Can you hit and run with this guy? … Who should be the Opening Day starter? … Stuff Bobby Cox has a few opinions on.

But one thing Gonzalez has noticed, he said, is that he has to ask for those opinions. The former manager doesn't think it's his place to inject his thoughts. Not anymore.

"So I've gotta ask," Gonzalez said. "He won't say anything unless I ask."

And why is that? Because "he doesn't need my input," is the way Bobby Cox looks at it.

It isn't easy to blend into the scenery when you've been the face of your franchise, when you're heading for the Hall of Fame any minute, when you've won 2,504 games managing in the big leagues, when you've taken 16 teams to the great Octoberfest. But the former manager is trying as hard as he can to blend.

He still chats amiably with all his old friends in the media biz. But if the chatting threatens to evolve into something more than that, "I feel funny doing interviews," he said, uncomfortably.

Still, Bobby Cox hears the ballpark calling him, every morning. So he hasn't missed a day, just as he stayed 100 percent engaged with this team all winter long.

He and Gonzalez spoke every single day of the offseason, Cox said. Some days, it was just by phone. But many, many other days, they met in the morning for coffee. And once a week, they got together for lunch or dinner with coaches Roger McDowell and Carlos Tosca.

Then, this spring, at least until the games started, the two Braves managers of past and present had lunch with the two Braves general managers of past and present, John Schuerholz and Frank Wren, nearly every day.

Maybe there's a more perfect symbol of the uniquely graceful way this franchise has found to pass its most significant torches. But none comes to mind.

"For all of us in this organization," Wren said, "the fact that John and Bobby are still around and so vibrant, so big a part of what's going on, is so important. I love the fact that Bobby is still here and in the middle of everything -- just in a little different role."

If Cox could have scripted this transition, in fact, it "couldn't have been better" than this, he said. He and Gonzalez have been close since Gonzalez spent four years on Cox's coaching staff from 2003 to 2006. And from the moment the Marlins pulled the plug on Gonzalez's managerial reign in Florida last June, it's been clear he was Cox's No. 1 choice as The Successor.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez and Wren go back 20 years themselves, since they were both hired as original members of the Marlins' staff back in 1991. So Wren reached out to Gonzalez almost instantaneously after the Fish fired him. And less than a week later, they met privately for almost five hours at Wren's getaway cabin in Alabama.

They kicked around every conceivable managerial topic and how it might apply to the Atlanta Braves. And when they were through, they found "we were in lockstep on everything," Wren said.

"We didn't want to all of a sudden start the process in October and realize Fredi didn't really have the same organizational philosophies we did," Wren said. "But once we came out of there, we knew he was the No. 1 guy on our list, and he'd fit very well."

Bobby Cox
Bobby Cox retired as the Braves' manager after last season, but is still a daily presence at Braves camp this spring.

Schuerholz then met with Gonzalez and seconded that motion. So exactly one day after the Braves' season ended last October, they announced the worst-kept secret in baseball -- that this was, officially, Fredi Gonzalez's team.

Now managerial change may not be blockbuster news with most franchises -- but it sure is with this one.

How long had it been since anyone else besides Bobby Cox managed a Braves game? So long that there are probably only about 17 living Americans left who can remember that the man who preceded him was Russ Nixon. That was back in 1990, mere months after the arrival on Planet Earth of Fredi Gonzalez's two new rising stars, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman.

So unlike most managerial changes, this was one case where a team was NOT looking for someone or something dramatically different from the previous administration. And Gonzalez got that memo from day one.

"It's not like I've got to come in here and blow this up," he said Sunday. "It's really not broke."

So he's not trying to fix much of anything. And the men he manages, men who have known only one way of doing things for just about ever, are grateful for that.

"If they'd brought in a high-profile manager, with a whole different philosophy and a whole different regime," said Chipper Jones, "it would have been culture shock. … The way I see it, we've just got a younger version of Bobby."

But change is still change. And change is tricky for everyone.

"I don't think you'd find anybody in here who'd say it's hard," said catcher David Ross. "It's just different. … If you've got a new boss -- even if it had been the bench coach from last year and everything stayed the same -- it would still be change, and you've got to adjust."

Those changes have been so subtle so far, they're practically imperceptible to folks just peering in from the outside. But that doesn't mean they're not there, or that they're not a challenge -- for everybody.

For instance, as Cox sat in the dugout during batting practice Sunday, EVERY player who strolled by called him "Skip," or "Skipper."

"It's funny," Ross said. "I call Fredi 'Fredi,' and I call Bobby 'Skipper.' But I can't help it. He's always going to be 'Skipper.' If I said 'Bobby' or 'Mr. Cox,' that would just sound weird to me."

And if they think stuff like that is a test for THEM, they should try sitting in the chair of the manager trying to follow the friendly neighborhood living legend.

"I'm really careful about how I choose my words," Gonzalez said. "Even though they've told me from the beginning -- Bobby and Frank and John -- to 'just be who you are and do whatever you want to do,' I'm still real careful. Even when people are making a big deal of how we're going to do camp different, do this different or do that different, I think, 'Hey, he's put 15 banners up there.' So you've got to be careful. I think if you come in and say, 'This is the right way,' it can come back and bite you."

So in his quest for guidance, Gonzalez turned to another manager who stepped into the spikes of a legendary predecessor and made it work -- the Twins' Ron Gardenhire, who had to succeed Tom Kelly after Kelly had won two World Series.

Gardenhire's sage advice: Whatever you do, don't push Bobby Cox aside.

So the new manager makes it a point to constantly seek out the former manager, because that's The Way It Ought to Be. And because of the classy way this change has been handled by everyone, the former manager still loves walking into the ballpark, and hanging on every pitch.

Even if he has to do his hanging in a parked car outside the mall.

"Believe it or not," Cox said, "I got just as excited listening to the game in the car as I do in the dugout. My wife even had to ask, 'Hey, are you OK?'

"And I said, 'Oh, yeah.' I'm doing fine."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.