LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It was 9:52 on a sparkling Florida morning when the greatest manager of his generation sauntered into the dugout to begin another spring training.
For the final time.
Bobby Cox has been doing this now since 1978. And that's a long, long time in manager years, friends. The first time Manager Cox did this drill, his fellow managers included Herman Franks, Bobby Winkles and Vern Rapp. So you know it wasn't exactly last week.
And for all these springs since -- with a little four-year detour through the GM's suite -- this has been his life. A pre-dawn drive to the ballpark. A cup of coffee in the manager's office. And, on the first day of spring training, a new go-get-'em speech to the troops.
It hasn't really hit me yet that this is going to be my last year. And it probably won't until right at the end of the season.
”-- Bobby Cox
OK, so maybe "new" wouldn't exactly describe it.
Asked Saturday morning if he changed his mini-"Gettysburg Address" every spring, the manager laughed.
"How much can it change?" he asked.
For the record, he has one more of these spiels to give in a few days, when his position players report. And Cox revealed Saturday that he won't be changing that one much, either.
"Chipper," the manager chuckled, "knows it just about from heart."
That would be Chipper Jones, of course. And here's one more reminder of how long Cox has been doing this gig:
It might seem as if he and Jones have been in the same uniform forever. Uh, not quite. The first time Cox had to give one of these first-day-of-spring-training speeches, we're pretty sure his man Chipper had to miss it.
Because he had to attend kindergarten that day.
Yeah, the spring training mornings have flown by, all right. Followed by the spring training afternoons, the bus rides to Jupiter and Fort Myers and Lakeland, and the journeys in the golf carts Cox has been known to hop into from time to time.
And so here he was again Saturday, on yet one more spring training morning, doing what he's always done. And there was nothing about this routine that didn't feel like it's always felt -- as time-honored a spring tradition as the bunt drills and PFPs.
Except for the questions.
Yeah, it was those darned questions, unfortunately, that reminded the manager that this is his last spring training on this job, ready or not.
To refresh your memory, in case you'd somehow forgotten, Cox and the Braves agreed in September 2009 that this, finally, would be it: One more season doing what he's done better than just about any manager who ever made out a lineup card.
He is 68 years old now. He has won more games than all but three managers in the history of baseball. And once he manages his first regular-season game of 2010, he'll officially become just the fifth manager ever to manage 20 consecutive seasons with the same team. (The others: Connie Mack, John McGraw, Walter Alston and Tom Lasorda.)
Cox has been managing the Braves for so long now, he's had to put off some stuff he'd like to do, some places he'd like to visit. One example: a photographic safari he and the lovely Pam Cox have talked about taking.
So it's time to get to that stuff, right? Time to move on. Time to go.
On the first day of Cox's final spring, though, there was no extra pomp, no artificial circumstance. The manager wouldn't want it any other way.
"That," said catcher Brian McCann, "is just who he is. He doesn't want to be a distraction."
As he drove to the park Saturday morning, Cox swore he never thought, even for one second, that this was Day 1 of his grand finale.
"I honestly don't think about that," he said. "It hasn't really hit me yet that this is going to be my last year. And it probably won't until right at the end of the season. I haven't, honestly, given any thought to that at all. It's business as usual, and I'm trying to do the best job I can and win a World Series."
So when he was asked if he's thinking about even mentioning himself in next week's speech to the full squad, Cox got the same kind of look on his face he might have gotten if you asked him if he's thought about switching to an all-Brussels-sprouts diet.
"Oh, I might mention [it's] the last year or something," he said, squeamishly. "But it's not a motivational tool, by any means."
Oh, it's not, huh? Cox, apparently, was the last man on Earth to get the memo that he might be the most beloved manager, in his own clubhouse, in modern times. But he has convinced himself that his team isn't thinking about this any more than he is.
"Matt Diaz was on the caravan, and somebody asked him that question," Cox reported. "'Are we going to try really hard to get Bobby a winning season [because it's] the last one?' And he said, 'Bobby wouldn't want it that way, because he expects us to do that every year.' And you know what? He's right."
Well, Matt Diaz may be right about that part. But if he's implying that the Braves aren't in any state of win-one-for-the-manager mode, he couldn't be more wrong.
The men in that clubhouse understand that Cox doesn't want them thinking that way. But that isn't the same thing as saying that they're not.
"It's never been about him, and it never will be," said pitcher Tim Hudson, now in his sixth season playing for Cox. "But everybody knows that it is. All the players know that this is his last year. And even though he's really humble and he doesn't want the spotlight on him at all we're going to go out and bust our tails for him. And hopefully, at the end of the day, we're going to do something special."
Well, they're spending their spring in a ballpark now known, for the first time, as Champion Stadium. So you can take that as an omen if you'd like. But realistically, the Braves need a lot of things to go right -- especially on the old health front -- if they're going to end Cox's final season with a Domaine Chandon shower.
Is Troy Glaus going to make it back from shoulder and back trouble to hit cleanup at age 33? Are Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito still capable of being shutdown late-inning relievers at ages 38 and 40, respectively, after big health issues of their own?
Are Jones and Derek Lowe going to bounce back? Is Jair Jurrjens' shoulder going to be OK? Is Hudson going to pick up where he left off before Tommy John surgery? Is Tommy Hanson ready to ascend to acehood at age 23? Etc., etc., etc.
But the manager, naturally, thinks the answer to all those questions is yes. Just the way he always has. And that aura of positivity he's always projected has everything to do with the culture of winning that has rippled through his clubhouse for just about ever.
"It's going to be weird [next spring] to see someone else stand up, when we first get here, and give that speech," McCann said. "It's going to be weird, because his presence is everywhere. When you put on this uniform, you feel his presence."
McCann knows -- they all know -- that this is it. The tough part is trying to comprehend that. Throughout this organization, they're trying to digest what's about to happen here. But picturing someone else -- anyone else -- sitting in that manager's office is a lot tougher than trying to hit Hanson's curveball.
"It won't seem real," said Braves president John Schuerholz, Cox's longtime tag-team partner through all those NL East championship seasons. "It will be surreal."
"You know, it's going to be odd," Hudson said. "To be honest, I haven't really put much thought into it because nobody really wants to put much thought into it. It's just one of those things where you want to appreciate this last year with him."
But this is a sport in which it's tough to find the time to step back, stop the season and savor much of anything. So any minute now, the Grapefruit League will be starting. And then Opening Day will come along. And the All-Star break. And September.
And then, next thing they know, the Braves will be holding a news conference to announce the (ahem) lucky new manager who has to follow this man's act. Good luck.
But it's still way too early to say who that will be. So on the first day of Bobby Cox's final spring, the players in his clubhouse could only try to get their minds to fathom what lies beyond the only Braves manager any of them have ever played for.
"I just hope," Hudson said, "that whoever comes in next year reads Bobby's manager manual before they do."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new 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.