Bobby Cox’s Legacy, Part II: The Man with the Plan

by M.C. Antil on October 26, 2010

(The following is Part II of a two-part analysis of Bobby Cox’s tenure as Braves manager and general manager.  Part I examined Cox’s muddled legacy as a field manager whose post-season reputation belied his regular season brilliance.  Part II looks at his long-forgotten and mostly unrecognized role as the front office guy who set into motion Atlanta’s turnaround from annual laughingstock to perennial powerhouse.)

In the first part of this series, I explored Bobby Cox’s well-documented post season failures and suggested what made him a great regular season manager made him a downright awful one in the post season. 

It would be, however, patently unfair to talk about Cox’s complicated legacy as a manager without also exploring the role he played in building the team he led to so many fruitless post-seasons. 

In fact, it might be argued that one of the great baseball injustices of all time is the extent to which John Schuerholz has been given credit for turning the Braves into a model franchise, and for creating a front office that for nearly 20 years stood as a model for every other team in baseball, while Cox’s role in that regard has been summarily dismissed, if not forgotten altogether.   

Scheurholz: Great Timing

And believe me, given the job Cox did, that is the baseball equivalent of a felony.

But before I get into a more detailed explanation, let me first offer some background. 

Prior to 1991, the Atlanta Braves were one of the two worst franchises in the entire National League.  Since moving from Milwaukee following the 1965 season, the Braves complied a combined won-loss record of 1,838–2,134 (.462).  That’s an average record of 75–87 for what amounted to a full quarter century.  What’s more, in those 25 years the team never won a single pennant and played in only two division series, both of which they lost by being swept, 3-0. 

Not only that, but starting in 1969 and the advent of divisional play, the Braves finished last or next-to-last an astounding 14 times in 22 seasons.

Truly, only the expansion San Diego Padres surpassed Atlanta’s record for futility during that time.

When Bobby Cox was first re-hired by the Braves in October of 1985 they were in disarray. (He had managed the team for a few seasons beginning in the late Seventies before being given the axe following the disappointing, strike-torn season of 1981.)  Not only had the club finished with the third-worst record in the NL, they had just lost their supposed difference maker, Hall of Fame closer Bruce Sutter, to a torn rotator cuff, which for all intents and purposes ended his career. 

Signed to what was then the richest contract in baseball history, Sutter had been presented to owner Ted Turner as the guy who could get the Braves over the top. The club’s previous GM, John Mullen, had convinced Turner to open up his checkbook and sign Sutter.  So when he went down and the team went south, a frustrated Turner turned the reins of his organization over to Cox, a guy he’d fired just a few years earlier.

When Turner hired Cox as GM, and told him the Braves days of chasing big-name, big-money free agents were over, the Braves’ new GM knew he had to do something dramatic to turn his team’s fortunes around.  The few Brave assets that remained were at the big league level (a handful of aging holdovers from the club’s ’82 division champs), and the minor league cupboard was all but bare. 

So Cox sat down late in 1985 with, arguably, the most unsung hero in team history, the club’s one-time director of player personnel, Paul Snyder, to begin the process of overhauling of the Braves scouting, drafting and minor league development philosophies, while at the same time putting together a five-year plan that — although no one knew it at the time — would serve as the blueprint for the most protracted and unlikely run of success the game had ever seen.

Paul Snyder: Most unsung hero in Brave history?

Cox began dismantling the hapless Atlanta roster and selling it off for parts, including the club’s beloved, two-time MVP and All American boy, Dale Murphy.

But he didn’t stop there.  While John Schuerholz was still acting as general manager in Kansas City, making a series of decisions that would eventually run a showcase franchise into the ground, Bobby Cox was busily investing every dollar he could get his hands on in scouting, signing and developing young talent. His goal was to build for the Braves the biggest and most productive pipeline of major leaguer players the modern game had ever seen; one unsurpassed in all of baseball.

But back to Schuerholz.  His performance during the end of his Royal tenure was noteworthy for a number of reasons, but two in particular stood out.  Not only were his poor decisions being made at the exact same time that Cox was brilliantly building the Braves, but a few of them were so patently foolish that in Kansas City some old-timers contend to this day that if you were to trace the Royals’ current ineptitude, it would trace directly back to where it all began; with John Schuerholz.

And those people make a strong case for themselves.  Consider: as GM of the Royals, Schuerholz once traded one of the most electric arms in all of baseball, David Cone, for three players, the best of whom, Ed Hearn, had been the Mets’ backup catcher.  Then seven months later he dealt a young flame throwing southpaw named Danny Jackson to the Reds for a solid but unspectacular shortstop named Kurt Stillwell.  In his first season in Cincinnati, Jackson won 23 games and finished second in the Cy Young balloting.

David Cone for Ed Hearn?

Then two years later, Schuerholz attempted to address the Royals now critical (and apparently self-imposed) lack of pitching by lavishing millions on closer Mark Davis (six saves and a 5.11 ERA) and starter Storm Davis (seven wins and a 4.74 ERA). The two pitchers’ historically fat contracts, combined with the absolutely putrid production they bought, crippled the small-market Royals and helped expedite the once-proud franchise’s swift decline into the land of the bottom feeders.  

Following those two signings and Cone’s acendency to the ranks of the baseball’s elite, there arose a groundswell of a support in Kansas City for the Royals to simply thank their current GM for all his hard work and to move in an entirely new and different direction. 

In fact, when the team finished last in 1990, many otherwise polite Kansas City fans — the glory of the ’85 World Series still fresh in their minds — took off the gloves and started turning in their tickets in droves, demanding the Royals either can Schuerholz or risk losing them as fans forever.   Many of those fans knew — as did many in baseball — that the best players on the ’85 champions (George Brett, Frank White, Willie Wilson, Dan Quisenberry, et al) were all products of the previous regime and that John Schuerholz’s role in assembling the championship roster was, at best, complimentary. 

As soon as the ’90 season ended, and just days before he was hired by the Braves in October, the buzz in Kansas City had grown so loud that the MLB rumor mill already had the GM reassigned within the organization.

Meanwhile, as this drama continued to play out, Bobby Cox kept going about his business, quietly and diligently injecting the Braves minor league system with the kind of talent it had not known since its glory days in Milwaukee; talent that would bear fruit in Atlanta far sooner than anyone would realize — in fact, just about the time the Schuerholz and the stink of his last job performance hit town.

And those who want to give the former Royal GM the bulk of the credit for the Braves’ stunning turnaround would do well to remember that.

After all, it was not John Schuerholz who drafted a young hockey player from Massachusetts named Tom Glavine and convinced him not to go to camp with the Los Angeles Kings.

And it was Bobby Cox, not Schuerholz, who traded Doyle Alexander for a young Tiger farmhand (and Tiger fan) from Michigan named John Smoltz.

It was Bobby Cox who drafted high school phenom Steve Avery and convinced him not to accept the scholarship he’d been offered to Stanford.

It was Bobby Cox who drafted or signed major league talents like Jeff Blauser, Mark Lemke, Kent Mercker, Brian Hunter, Keith Mitchell, Vinny Castilla, Mike Stanton, Mark Wohlers, Pete Smith and playoff hero Frankie Cabrera, all of whom would go on to play a key role in the Braves stunning turnaround.

Cox's original "Young Guns": Pete Smith, Steve Avery, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz

It was Bobby Cox who drafted Ronnie Gant and David Justice, and it was Cox who sent Gant, a great hitter but horrible second baseman, all the way back to Class A from the big leagues to learn how to play left field.

It was Bobby Cox who pulled Lonnie Smith off the MLB scrap heap following his drug rehab and gave him a shot at being a team leader.

And in 1990, it was Bobby Cox who defied conventional wisdom and passed over consensus #1 pick, Todd Van Poppel, to select a virtually unknown kid from Jacksonville named Chipper Jones.  And it was Cox who then found himself forced to defend his choice in front of the largely clueless baseball press by trying to convince them he’d gotten the guy he’d personally scouted and wanted all along.

In fact, even thought it was Schuerholz who ultimately swept in and made the three-for-one heist that pirated Fred McGriff away from San Diego and gave their Braves their only World Championship under Bobby Cox — it was Cox who scouted and signed the one player the Padres demanded in return for McGriff, Mel Nieves.

Don’t get me wrong, John Schuerholz did his part.  Prior to and during the ’91 season he saw fit to bring in Deion Sanders and Otis Nixon to help ignite the offense, he traded for Alejandro Pena and Juan Berenguer to solidify the back of the bullpen, and he imported Sid Bream, Terry Pendleton and Rafael Belliard to provide the Braves’ young staff the kind of defenders they’d need to keep gift runs to a minimum.

But make no mistake.  John Schuerholz was only slightly more responsible for  Braves turnaround than Jane Fonda was.  He was simply the guy who came in and added the finishing touches to the amazing thing that Bobby Cox and Paul Snyder had already built; kind of like a guy who slaps the final coat of paint on a magnificent new home — or better yet, landscapes its front lawn.    

Bobby Cox might have been one of the least successful post-season managers of all time; and that point is difficult, if not impossible, to argue.  But that should not diminish the fact that the man conceived and put into motion, arguably, the most successful — and most unlikely — turnaround in the entire history of Major League Baseball.

As an architect, Frank Lloyd Wright had nothing on Bobby Cox.

In other words, he might not have been much of a closer, but he was one hell of a starter.  What’s more, given the legacy he inhereted and the era in which he was forced to operate, he may just have been the greatest architect the game has ever known. 

I just hope that in time, history finds a way to remember him as such.

Previous post:

Next post: