Cox no doubt the best in the biz

The best manager in baseball has never had a best seller written about him. Has never hosted "Saturday Night Live." Has never been spotted hanging out with John Fogerty, Hugh Jackman, Huey Lewis, Lorraine Bracco or Kermit the Frog.

No, for the best manager in baseball, it's enough just to show up every year and inspire Wilson Betemit to play like Eric Chavez, and Jorge Sosa to pitch like Pedro Martinez.

And win, of course. Every single year.

"What I wonder," says Braves ace John Smoltz, "is why does everybody know everything about Joe Torre and Tony La Russa -- but not Bobby Cox?"

Think about it.

"Actually," Smoltz laughs, "I think I know the reason, but I don't need to say it."

And then, naturally, he says it, anyway.

"Bobby is so unassuming and humble, he'd much rather have no credit whatsoever. So with each passing year, we have to do what we can to make people notice."

Well, those Atlanta Braves may finally have pulled that off this year. 'Bout time.

Any minute now, somehow or other, the Braves are going to clinch their 14th division title in a row. Even in a year in which they've used 17 rookies, 13 of whom had never before appeared in a single big-league box score.

Even in a year in which the manager has had to write the name of at least one rookie on his lineup card every day since May 28.

Even in a year in which the Braves had to waste 142 at-bats on Raul Mondesi.

Did it stop them? Did it matter? Does it ever matter to Bobby Cox?

"The thing about Bobby," says outfielder Brian Jordan," is he doesn't panic. This year was one of his biggest tests as a manager in his career, with all these young guys. But he just stuck with them. And that's why we're in the situation we're in."

Of course, this is the situation the Braves are always in this time of year. Whether their payroll is $100 million or $80 million. Whether their closer is John Smoltz or Kerry Ligtenberg. Whether their No. 4 starter is Kevin Millwood or Damian Moss. Whether they're being chased by four teams or none.

You can argue that that's because the Braves are the best organization in sports. Or because they're the luckiest team in sports. Or because they've always had a Cy Young or three on the premises to bail them out when they needed bailing.

But we would argue that the biggest reason is the manager, Robert J. Cox.

The best manager in baseball.

That best-manager-in-baseball title is not an honor we bestow haphazardly, by the way -- because, in case you hadn't noticed, this is the Golden Age of Managing. Or at least the most golden age since somewhere around the Korean War.

By next Memorial Day, barring something shocking or Steinbrenner-esque, three of the top 10 names on the all-time managerial win list will be active managers -- La Russa (No. 3), Cox (No. 6) and Torre (No. 13 now, but only 32 wins out of 10th place).

And by the end of next season, La Russa and Cox both might have passed every manager in history except Connie Mack (who managed for 50 years) and John McGraw (who managed for 32).

If you factor in all of Torre's champagne showers, you could make a case for him, La Russa or Cox as the class of the current managerial field. But with no slight intended to those other men, we would argue for the manager of the Braves, as he concludes his most spectacular managerial job ever.

So here they come -- five reasons Bobby Cox is the best manager in baseball:

1. He leads the league in turnovers
Is there any kind of team Bobby Cox can't win with?

He has won with pitching. He has won with power. He has won with Cy Youngs at the top of his rotation. He has won with Russ Ortiz at the top of his rotation.

And then there are all those closers spinning through his bullpen's revolving door.

Joe Torre has had Mariano Rivera around to wrap up his show for nine seasons now. Cox, on the other hand, has had more closers than coaches.

Over the last 15 seasons, 42 different Braves pitchers have collected a save, 14 have saved at least five games in a season, 13 have saved at least 10 in a season and nine different relievers have led Cox's team in saves.

"He hasn't quite had one [closer] a year," says GM John Schuerholz, "but only because Smoltz did it for three years."

The turnover Cox has lived through hasn't just been in his bullpen, though. His teams have averaged 10 new players a year. Eight different starters have led his staffs in wins. Ten players have led his teams in homers. Nine have led his clubs in RBI.

Did it matter? Does it ever matter to Bobby Cox?

Yet when folks try to give him the credit, Cox says: "I don't care for any [credit], to be honest. I've got an ego like everyone else. But I'm sure everyone knows you'd better have some players."

Well, no one has ever denied Cox has had some great players. But not as many as Torre. Not as many as a lot of those names around him on the all-time managerial win list, in fact.

If the essence of leadership is an ability to inspire infinite varieties of people, then who has been a better leader than this man? Bono? The Pope? Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf?

"What Bobby has been doing for 15 years," Schuerholz says, "is taking all different manners of teams and meshing players from various backgrounds and various organizations, and bringing in young players from our organization, and building them into a team, so that each year the result is a championship club."

We'll never know if those 14 flags would be waving over Turner Field without him. But had this team been managed by someone else -- or six someone elses -- "I just don't think it would have continued for all these years," Smoltz said. "We've had so many things going on, so many different players, I just think he's the main reason."

2. A little respect
Some managers are around for 15 minutes, and their players have had enough of them. Bobby Cox has been doing this for 15 years -- in the same uniform -- and we're still waiting for this shocking, historic development:

Hearing one of his players rip him.

Just one.

"I don't think anybody in this room would tell you anything bad about Bobby," says catcher Eddie Perez, now in his second incarnation as a Brave under Cox. "How could they? He never puts you down. He never talks bad about you. He never makes you feel like you're the one who loses the game, even if you just made an error to let in the winning run. He'll try to make it seem like it was a fluke. He'll say, 'Did you see that ball hit that rock?'

"I played here for eight years the first time," Perez goes on. "And until I moved to another team, I never had another manager. But I saw a lot of guys come here who said, 'He's the best manager ever.' Fred McGriff was one of them. I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'Just try to stay here, because he's the best.' And you know what? Fred was right."

Even players whom Cox didn't particularly like have nothing but good things to say about him after they depart. So the heck with his won-lost record. That's the part of his record that may never be approached by another manager in our lifetimes.

"He's one manager who doesn't change," Jordan says. "Most of them change. They change with the atmosphere. You lose three or four games, they become totally different. Bobby is one of those guys who's just cool as ice.

"He knows that in the game of baseball, you go up, you go down. As players, you don't like to see guys get temperamental and put more pressure on their players. When you get that respect from the manager, the way you get it from him, it allows you to relax and just go play baseball."

Cox has been thinking about ways to create that atmosphere for more than 35 years now, since his playing career for the Yankees began winding down. The manager he played for who most resembled his style, he says, was Ralph Houk. But Cox drew just as much on his time playing for managers who were nothing like him.

"I played for a lot of managers I really disliked, to be honest," Cox says. "It had nothing to do with my performance. I just didn't like how they handled certain situations, other players. It flew in the face of what I thought was the best way to treat your players and win at the same time."

So Cox set out to create a very different environment.

"I think it's important that when you get to the ballpark, you know it will be fun to put the uniform on," he says. "A lot of years, when I played, it was no fun coming to the ballpark."

So he keeps things loose. He stays out of the way, as long as his troops play hard and don't act like knuckleheads. And it works. It has for 15 years. And he hasn't had one team yet that tried to take advantage of him.

Not that his most loyal veteran players would ever let that happen.

Only a couple of weeks ago, in fact -- after the Braves lost three games in a row for just the second time since the All-Star break -- those veterans staged a veritable baseball intervention with their younger teammates. They thought they detected an un-Brave-like sloppiness seeping in. So they walked off the field and called a meeting.

The manager never had to say a word.

"He doesn't have to. It's more of a pride in the players," says Chipper Jones, a ringleader of that meeting. "We're not going to sit back and let things happen. We're going to address what needs to be addressed. We don't need anybody to do that for us.

"Smoltzie and I have been here forever. Brian Jordan is on his second tour here. Julio Franco has been around the block about 18 times. So we know it's up to guys like us to let people know how things are done here."

How Things Are Done Here. Not many teams have a defined ambiance to them anymore. But one thing that makes the Braves special is that they clearly do.

And that's about as coincidental as a sunrise. It starts with the manager. It's enforced by the players he has empowered to lead. It has worked exactly that way for a decade and a half. And, most incredibly, very few players ever have even questioned it.

"Well," Cox chuckles, "it helps to win."

3. Not-so-new and improved
Julio Franco. John Thomson. Jaret Wright. John Burkett.

Chris Hammond. Quilvio Veras. Gerald Williams.

Does every much-traveled veteran player who comes to Atlanta get better within about 20 minutes? Or is it our imagination?

"It happens with a lot of them," Schuerholz says. "And that's a direct reflection of the environment Bobby creates in the clubhouse, on the bench, out on the field and during a game."

You don't need to spend six months in the Braves' clubhouse to know it's different than just about everyone else's clubhouse. There's a certain vibe in the air that doesn't take long to absorb. It's a vibe that says: "We will succeed. We will win. And if we don't, then it's just a temporary phenomenon."

The players who have been there before feel it. The players who have never been there have heard about it.

"Players know and understand the respect Bobby has before they ever get here," Schuerholz says. "And that environment enables that player to produce to his potential, no matter how well he's done the year before or how well he was expected to do. There's just a great, constant flow of positivism that comes out of him and goes to the players. And the players who have been here before tell other players. So when a player comes here, he knows it's real. It's not phony. It's not hollow. It's real."

But it isn't nuclear fusion, either. Cox doesn't see that quality of his as anything particularly innovative or ingenious.

"It doesn't have anything to do with ability," he says. "Just make them feel at home. I try to. We all try. After all, we wanted the guy for a reason."

But everyone knows that some managers don't consider themselves part of the "we" that brought that player there. And everyone knows how some managers bury players they don't want or don't like. And everyone knows how fast those managers make up their minds about those players. But not this manager.

"He just knows how to treat people," Perez says. "One of our bullpen guys pitched bad the other day, and I just said, 'Be ready tomorrow -- because I know Bobby.' I know he wants a guy to forget a bad game, so he puts him right back out there."

Russ Springer. Terry Mulholland. Mike Bielecki. Luis Polonia. Jerome Walton.

We could go on for an hour. One dose of Bobby Cox's miraculous positivism, and you're the comeback player of the year. And the Braves have built an entire organization around it.

4. Youth will be served
The Tale of Kelly Johnson is the tale that says it all about the 2005 Braves.

On Memorial Day weekend, after it had finally become apparent that Raul Mondesi wasn't an Atlanta kind of guy, the Braves called up a 23-year-old outfielder to replace him.

And two weeks later, Kelly Johnson was embarrassed to look up at his average on the scoreboard -- since it was .033 (1 for 30).

So how did the manager react? By putting him in the lineup the next day. How else?

It's a tale the veteran players in Bobby Cox's clubhouse love spinning -- because it sums up the way of life and leadership that has led them to title No. 14.

"Anywhere else, a kid goes 0 for 20 -- he's gone," Perez laughs. "Not here."

Nope. Never even occurred to this manager. OK, that 1-for-30 wasn't real picturesque -- "but he looked good doing it," Cox says, sounding as if he's talking about a guy hitting .450. "And he was walking and getting on base. And he wasn't striking out at all."

So what did the manager tell this kid -- a kid who easily could have come to the conclusion he might never get his career average over .100?

"I told him, 'Quit listening to so many other people and don't change a damn thing,' " Cox says. "I just said, 'Be yourself.'"

So of course, Kelly Johnson then went 14 for his next 34 (.412). And has hit close to .270 since. And has, more than anything, fit right in on another journey of Bobby Cox's First Place Express.

Talented as this group of Braves rookies might be, is there any other team that could have plugged in this many of them and just kept on rolling? Is there any other manager who could have made this work?

"I don't think so," Schuerholz says, "because if it's someone who is more demanding, more volatile, more unsettled or more unsettling, that makes it all the more difficult for young guys to respond and play comfortably in a championship setting under these kinds of circumstances. But Bobby makes it possible for them to do that."

And it isn't as if Cox just stumbled upon that approach three months ago, either. There was a time, remember, when the young guys in his clubhouse were named Smoltz and Glavine and Jones. And they all turned out OK, we hear.

"The thing about Bobby is, he gives you confidence when you don't even think you're worthy of it," Smoltz says. "In 1991, he stuck with me even though I was 2-11 and the fans were pushing him to put me in the bullpen. And I could give you 20 stories like that with individual players."

How many managers have we all witnessed who would rather send a kid to the Southern League than send him back out there after a couple of weeks of struggles? But in Atlanta, that isn't how it works. Not just because the kids have talent. Because the manager believes in that talent.

It's all about "faith and patience," Bobby Cox says. "You've got to have that. They're up here for a reason. They've earned it. You don't want to give up on them and not give them a good look. You've got to give them a chance to show their talent.

"I don't think anybody should be able to say, 'This kid can't play,' after watching them for two or three games. I know some people do that. But somebody had to have faith in them to push them up here. So I go along with that."

And as he goes, you may have noticed, so go the Atlanta Braves.

5. This is not your grandfather's October
There isn't much the Bobby Cox detractors can use for ammunition when they try to poke crevices in this man's legend. But there is one black hole:


All those trips to the playoffs. Only one trip to a parade float. Maybe you've heard about that someplace.

But there's another side to that story.

This man's teams have won 12 postseason series. And he's won 65 postseason games -- 22 more than La Russa and second all-time behind only Torre. And then there's an even more important question:

How did they get to the playoffs all those years in the first place? The manager must have done something right for that to happen.

"Most people who bring that up don't understand baseball," Schuerholz says. "People who understand the game understand that the true measure of excellence for a baseball team, and the construction of a baseball team, and the strength of a baseball team, is the 162-game season. If you prove yourself over the 162-game season, that's the litmus test that validates what you've done.

"And it's that litmus test that validates Bobby's credentials, more than a happenstance, or a bad hop, or a bad play that happens in a short series. And most people in baseball understand that."

Obviously, that same litmus test validates Schuerholz's credentials, too. So we'll concede he isn't the most objective man alive on this subject. But we still agree with every word.

This isn't 1935 or 1955, when you finished first and headed right for the World Series. In an age of three-series, four-week postseason marathons, when wild-card teams have won three titles in a row, October actually proves less than ever -- even if it might be more fun than ever.

Bobby Cox has still managed in five World Series -- more than any active manager except Torre, and more than any National League manager since Walter Alston. Which means, in other words, he has reached more World Series than any National League manager in the division-play era.

And while you can quibble with a move here or there, the truth is that Cox has managed every one of those games with a total understanding of the urgency of October. We can't say that about every manager -- even the ones who have won more than he has.

We saw him pitch four members of his starting rotation in the same game (a 12-inning Division Series classic in Houston in 1999). We've seen him issue intentional walks (and not just to Barry Bonds) with first base occupied. We've seen him bring back starting pitchers on three days' rest (probably more than he should have, actually).

But at least he didn't lose those series because he fell asleep, or pushed the usual buttons, or fell back on the old "that's-how-we-did-it-all-year-long" alibi. Stuff just happened, the way it always does in October.

So give us a manager who gets there every year, and we'll take our chances. Give us a manager who is 492 games over .500 in his career (the third-most ever), and we'll take our chances. Give us a manager who can win with any kind of team you give him, and we'll take our chances.

And we'll take our chances with this guy -- Robert J. Cox, best in the business.

"What he's done here, it's been tremendous," says Smoltz, the only player to witness it all from start to finish. "But the sad thing is it won't be thought of that way -- until it's all done."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.