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Braves' Cox mellows out

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What's Bobby Cox's dream finish to his certain Hall of Fame managing career?

"I always wanted to go out with a five-year contract and get fired the first year,'' he said with a chuckle last weekend in Boston. "That's the way I wanted it.''

That scenario isn't going to happen. Cox, who earlier this month became just the fourth manager to win 2,000 games with one team, will manage the Braves as long as he cares to keep the job, according to his bosses.

"We go year to year, as long as he wants it,'' general Manager Frank Wren said.

Surely, Cox, who turned 68 on May 21 , has thought about when he'll drop the curtain on a career that has spawned 15 division titles, a record 14 in succession with the Braves, five National League pennants, and one World Series title. Among active managers, only St. Louis' Tony La Russa, who recently won his 2,500th game and is in his 31st season, has managed more games than Cox, who like Joe Torre of the Dodgers is in his 28th season.

"No,'' he said, "I can honestly say I've never thought that once. I like it too much.

"This might be it. Next year might be it.''

Wren said that's always been the team's understanding with Cox. "Philosophically he has said, 'Someday,' " he said, "but never specifically.''

Chipper Jones(notes) has been with Cox and the Braves longer than any current player, now that John Smoltz(notes) bailed out for Boston and the Braves decided Tom Glavine(notes) couldn't pitch anymore. Jones, a rookie in 1995, when the Braves won their only World Series title in Atlanta, said he's never wondered how Cox keeps going, year after year.

"Because from Day 1,'' Jones said, "Bobby has given off the impression he's a lifer.

"I don't know Bobby away from the ballpark. I know Bobby here at the ballpark, and I don't know how he would handle being away from the ballpark. Day in and day out, he's a guy who's here at noontime every day, fully dressed with his spikes on, out in the dugout smoking a cigar, just taking in the sights and sounds of a major league ballpark. It's kind of hard just to walk away from 50 years.

"I know all the guys in here think of him as a favorite grandfather. You got one who's a little standoffish and one who's the big old teddy bear, and Bobby's the old teddy bear.

"It will be culture shock around here when he's not here.''

The Braves streak of division titles could not go on forever, but it is jarring that they've missed the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. They haven't advanced to the NLCS since 2001, losing four straight times in the first round. They last appeared in a World Series in 1999.

While his critics point to his lone Series ring as a symbol of failure, the more widely held view in baseball is that the consecutive division titles have always been a better barometer of Cox's managerial skills. In a three-tiered playoff system of short series, there are too many variables that come into play to make a Series title the sole measure of a manager's worth.

But if the Braves miss the playoffs again this season, Cox for the first time may hear rumblings of retirement.

Their current homestand, which began with a shutout win over the Cubs in a makeup of a rainout, and continued Tuesday night with another shutout of the Yankees in the first game of a three-game set, may offer some clue as to whether the Braves can mount a challenge in what has become a crippled division. The Red Sox and Phillies follow the Yankees into town, before the Braves embark on a 10-game trip against the Nationals, Cubs and Rockies that will take them into the All-Star break.

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(AP Photo/Rob Carr)
Hands-on management

The Braves' Bobby Cox trails only Tony La Russa in wins among active skippers. Here's where he ranks among baseball's top 10:

Manager Wins Losses Pennants Titles
Connie Mack 3,731 3,948 9 5
John McGraw 2,763 1,948 11 3
Tony La Russa* 2,501 2,178 5 2
Bobby Cox* 2,361 1,890 5 1
Joe Torre* 2,198 1,872 6 4
Sparky Anderson 2,194 1,834 3 5
Bucky Harris 2,157 2,218 3 2
Joe McCarthy 2,125 1,333 9 7
Walter Alston 2,040 1,613 7 4
Leo Durocher 2,008 1,709 3 1
* Active managers (As of June 23, 2009)

Both the Phillies and Mets have sustained significant injuries, and the Marlins appear to have too many holes to make a run in the NL East.

"I believe in my heart this team is back on the rise,'' said Jones, pointing to the additions of starting pitchers Derek Lowe(notes), Javier Vazquez(notes) and Kenshin Kawakami(notes) to the rotation, and the trade for center-fielder Nate McLouth(notes). "We're headed in the right direction. I wouldn't have signed my extension if I didn't feel that way. The last thing I want do the last six, seven years of my career is not play competitive baseball."

Still, Jones is frustrated by the team's inconsistent play that has kept the Braves hovering around the .500 mark. Those mistakes, he said, which he attributes to the team's youth, were not present when the club was reeling off division titles. Cox has had to change, he said, as a result.

"He's become more patient,'' Jones said. "When I first got called up, the names on the back of the jerseys was a who's who of Hall of Fame ballots. The game was played the right way. He didn't have to do any coaching. All he had to do was manage the bullpen and tell Marquis Grissom when not to steal and when to steal, and tell Mark Lemke when to bunt and when to hit and run. That was basically it.

"Over the course of the past five, six, eight years, the names on the back of the jerseys have changed a little bit. He's had to get a lot more patient with some of the players who made mistakes that quite frankly we were not used to seeing here. He's mellowed quite a bit. He has very few rules, but if you break one of them he's going to come down hard on you. But still not to the extent he used to.''

Cox concedes he may have mellowed a "tiny bit,'' then notes that he recently yanked young shortstop Yunel Escobar(notes) after he botched a double play and a rundown play. And Sunday, Cox was ejected for the 145th time, extending the all-time record he set two years ago.

Will the new generation take advantage of Cox's better nature?

"I don't think so,'' Jones said. "I think people have too much respect for him. When people come into this clubhouse, everybody wants to play for Bobby. There's not a single guy who comes in this clubhouse who wouldn't run through a wall for him.''

And so Cox soldiers on, on knees that were replaced with artificial ones nearly two decades ago. "He's so passionate about the game,'' Wren said, "that I believe he'll want to stay as long as he feels good. And he feels good.''

HITTING THE CORNERS

Home wreckers: All that brotherly love lavished on the Phillies on Broad Street after winning the World Series last fall hasn't carried over to Citizens Bank Park this spring. The support is there, but the winning isn't. The Phillies, who are on the road this week, are 13-22 at home. The only team in the majors with a worse record at home (12-24) is the Washington Nationals, who lost to the Red Sox on Tuesday night, and are on pace to lose 114 total games this season. They trail the first-place Phillies by 17 games in the NL East.

The last World Series winner to have a losing record at home the next season was the Florida Marlins in 1998, who were 31-50 and 54-108 overall after their '97 championship roster was blown up by owner Wayne Huizenga. The 10 champions since then are a combined 167 games over .500 at home; the 2007 champion Boston Red Sox were 56-25 at Fenway Park last season, the best home record of any Series winner in that span.

The Phillies have been outpitched and outhit in their bandbox, which former pitcher David Wells(notes) once proclaimed deserved to be in Williamsport. Phillies pitchers are 13-22 with a 5.37 ERA at home, as opposed to 23-9, 4.15 on the road. They've given up more home runs (59-42) at home, and tellingly, have walked far more batters (143-97).

But Phillies hitters have not enjoyed a home-field advantage, either. They've hit more home runs on the road (51-47) and are batting 27 percentage points higher (.273 to .246).

No knock on this nonagenarian: With big-league teams no longer willing to come to Cooperstown for an annual exhibition, new Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson staged a replacement, the Hall of Fame Classic, which was played Sunday and featured ex-ballplayers sprinkled with Hall of Famers. The game's starting pitcher was Bob Feller, who at 90 was as feisty as ever. Feller gave up a single to leadoff man Paul Molitor, but wasn't about to concede that Molitor, 38 years his junior, got the better of him.

"Got him to hit a little pop fly,'' Feller said in a telephone interview the next night, "but my outfielders couldn't run. Just stood there like a couple of drugstore Indians.''

Political correctness was never a Feller strong suit. His outfielders, by the way, were a couple of pitchers, Anthony Telford and Bill Lee. Lee did retire Bobby Grich on a little ground ball to first, but not before throwing a pitch behind him. He left when the third batter, Steve Finley(notes), singled to the warning track.

Feller, as we noted last week, made his big-league debut for the Cleveland Indians at age 17. Asked about Bryce Harper, the Las Vegas high schooler angling to get drafted next June, after what would under normal circumstances be his junior year, Feller said: "Unless he can go straight to the big leagues, he should stay in school.'' Feller joined the Indians between his junior and senior years of high school, and went back to school after returning home, wearing his Indians cap on the school bus until he had to report to camp. "I had a tutor in spring training that I worked with seven nights a week in the hotel,'' Feller said, "then I took two weeks off, went back to my high school, and got my degree.''

Fehr and (no) loathing: Former commissioner Fay Vincent, in an interview on XM/Sirius Radio, was highly complimentary of Don Fehr, the outgoing executive director of the Major League Players Association.

"I think the legacy is very strong,'' Vincent said, according to a transcript provided by the satellite radio network. "If you think about it, he withstood some enormous pressures. The collusion issue. I know the owners colluded twice. They only got caught once, but they had major collusion going on in the early '80s that they never got caught over, and the second time, of course, it cost the ownership $280 million plus interest. And I think that was a terrific win for Don. I think he proved what was going on. The players were really getting cheated, the owners were stealing from them, and that was a huge victory.

"Secondly, I think in '94 when the owners really ganged up to try to break the union, to crush it, he withstood that, largely, I think, because collusion had preceded it and that made it very difficult to persuade the players that the owners were anything but cheats.

"And thirdly, steroids. There I think he gets marked down pretty seriously. I think Don always missed the drug issue. He never really saw it for what it was, namely, a threat to baseball. He thought that the issue was really one of civil liberties for his players. And I think one criticism of Don that is fair is that he never thought of himself as being a baseball person. He was a union person. He didn't worry about the future of baseball. He worried about his players and I think that was a very major strategic mistake. … I don't think Don Fehr really knew or loved baseball. He certainly loved the job and he loved what he was doing, but he was not a baseball person.”

Add Sirius: Cox said he listens to West Coast games on his satellite radio while driving back to his farm, about an hour and a half from the ballpark. "Was listening to one game, I think it was in the 18th inning, and I drove into a ditch, right by my farm road,'' Cox said. "Had to pull it out with a tractor, at 1 in the morning.''

A wider net: With Tuesday's suspension for 50 games apiece of two Venezuelan Summer League players, Jose Hernandez(notes) of the New York Mets organization and Dail Villanueva of the St. Louis Cardinals organization, a total of 21 minor leaguers have been suspended this season for violating the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment program. That's three times the number suspended at this time last season. The number jumped dramatically after the All-Star break last season, when baseball began testing of teams in the Dominican and Venezuelan summer leagues. Forty-nine of the 59 suspensions announced after that date last season, or 83 percent of the total, were players from those leagues, according to data from Maury Brown's bizofbaseball.com.

This season, six players from either the Dominican or Venezuelan summer leagues have been suspended. Players of Latin descent continue to appear on the suspended lists in disproportionate numbers: all four major leaguers suspended in 2009 fall in that group – Sergio Mitre(notes) of the Yankees, J.C. Romero(notes) of the Phillies, Kelvin Pichardo of the Giants, and Manny Ramirez(notes) of the Dodgers.

Why is Ramirez being allowed to play in the minors on a rehab assignment while still serving his 50-game suspension? According to one major league official, the agreement allowed for such assignments because the union argued that without such assignments, any pitcher suspended would be lost to his team for closer to 65 games than 50. Don't be surprised, the official said, if owners try to strike that clause in the future.

Fungo hitting: While David Ortiz's(notes) career was thought to be in jeopardy when the Boston DH went the first 40 games and 149 at-bats without a home run, and Detroit outfielder Magglio Ordonez(notes) caused an uproar when he was benched last week with only two home runs (none in his last 143 at-bats) , Toronto's Vernon Wells(notes) went even longer without a home run – 160 at-bats – before connecting Saturday night off Ross Detwiler(notes) of the Washington Nationals. Meanwhile in Anaheim, Vladamir Guerrero is raising the same kind of alarms that Ortiz did in Boston, as he came into Tuesday without a home run since connecting off Boston's Hideki Okajima(notes) on April 12 , a span of 104 at-bats . Guerrero, who missed five weeks in April and May with a torn chest muscle , shaved off his trademark dreadlocks and showed up at the ballpark Tuesday with a crewcut. "Vladi looks awful,'' said one American League scout, who was referring to Guerrero's play, not his shorn locks. "I gave him the benefit of the doubt a month ago, but he hasn't hit a ball hard yet. Pitchers are just pounding him inside, and because he has to cheat to catch up, he's opened up some holes on the outer half of the plate." … According to veteran Japanese baseball journalist Gaku Tashiro of Sankei Sports, who has covered the major leagues since 2001, Red Sox manager Terry Francona is not taking much flak back in Japan for blaming Daisuke Matsuzaka's woes on his participation in the World Baseball Classic. Matsuzaka has been the MVP in both tournaments, won by the Japanese. The Red Sox have shut down Matsuzaka indefinitely with weakness in his right shoulder, and his stay on the DL could be a lengthy one. According to Tashiro, Japanese reports have downplayed the shoulder woes and attribute Matsuzaka's problems more to a loss of confidence and inconsistent mechanics. Tashiro speculates that Matsuzaka, whose contract with the Red Sox runs out in 2012, one year before the next WBC, will not pitch in the next tournament if he expects his big league career to continue. Matsuzaka's DL stint has quieted talk that the Red Sox will move Brad Penny … Williams College sports publicist Dick Quinn notes that Michael Weiner, expected to succeed Don Fehr as head of the players' union, graduated from the elite Massachusetts school in 1983, making him a contemporary of Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bob Nutting (Class of '84) . … The radar gun used on Fox Sports Detroit's telecast of the Tigers-Cubs game Tuesday clocked the fastball Joel Zumaya threw to strike out Milton Bradley at 104 miles an hour. On MLB.com's "GameDay," 14 of the 20 pitches thrown by Zumaya registered at 100 or more. He threw one changeup in the inning, which Micah Hoffpauir hit for a two-run home run. … Turns out that Braves rookie center-fielder Jordan Schafer, who struck out 63 times in 167 at-bats before being sent down by the Braves after 50 games, had been playing with a sore left wrist and has had the hand in a protective cast for the last couple of weeks, according to Bobby Cox. "He's going to be fine,'' Cox said. "Pretty talented kid. He can't come close to [Nate] McLouth hitting right now, but one of them can play left and one of them center next year.'' Cox said that as good as Schafer is defensively, the player the Braves traded to the Pirates for McLouth, Gorkys Hernandez, was even better. It remains to be seen whether Hernandez will hit in the big leagues.

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