'Til death do they part

Jeff Passan

LAKELAND, Fla. – Everyone, please take a seat. You, in the back. No fighting! This is supposed to be a relationship-building class, and today we have two very special guests.

This is Bobby Cox. He is the manager for the Atlanta Braves. His partner is John Schuerholz. He is the Braves' general manager. Give them a warm welcome. That doesn't mean lighting them on fire, Mets fans, got it?

Bobby and John are in their 16th year working together. That's longer than any manager-GM combination in professional sports. If neither had a wife, you might even say they're married. No, they're not the Brokeback Braves! Settle down, please.

They are a dynasty. The last 14 full seasons Atlanta has won its division.

"Nobody will ever do that again," John says (and he's right).

"I lose track sometimes," Bobby says (and he's getting old).

Kidding! At 64, Bobby somehow has bridged an entire generation of players without losing relevance. And John, 65, has done one better: He built the model organization of the 1980s in Kansas City and left that job for Atlanta, where he molded the standard bearer.

What's that? Oh. They built it. John never wants to hog the credit. That's his inner junior-high teacher, which, in fact, he was before he broke into baseball operations with Baltimore.

"We don't bicker," John said. "But we do, as anyone in this business does, have differing opinions sometimes. It's as a result of Bobby's experience in this job. He understands it. He respects and appreciates the challenges and difficulties of the job."

Part of the reason they get along so well comes from their similar backgrounds. Cox had been the Braves' general manager for five years when he ceded the duties after the 1990 season to Schuerholz. They had done business together (Charlie Leibrandt going to the Braves in exchange for Gerald Perry), and they liked each other. Braves president Stan Kasten asked Schuerholz whether he approved of Cox, and he replied that Cox was part of the job's allure, even after the Braves finished in last place in 1990.

Since then, the Braves have been consistent for almost as long as Cal Ripken. They've won 100 games six times. They've been to five National League Championship Series.

You in the back again! What do you want?

"They've only won one World Series."

Fair criticism.

"That's not the only championship in our game," Schuerholz said. "A lot of people look at it that way. That's not it. Winning a division championship is as challenging today as anything. You have to win that one before you can win anything else."

We'll leave the squabbling for elsewhere. This is about maintaining a relationship in an industry where managers and GMs are on a Pomeranian's leash. And that manifests itself in ways unique to only the best associations.

They say the same things.

"There's no magic," Cox says.

"We don't sprinkle any magic dust over this organization," Schuerholz says.

They have their secrets.

"When I was in Kansas City, I had a secret plan to hire him as manager when he was general managing the Braves," Schuerholz said of Cox. "I never really talked with him about it. That was just in my head, and it never happened because word got back to me that he loved the Braves and he was dedicated and he wouldn't even consider it."

One of these days, these two are going to break up. Both of their contracts expire after this season. Neither wants to address the future, though Cox says, "When all the aches and pains happen, that's when you retire. So far that hasn't happened to me."

At least there will be a 16th season, a chance to marvel once more at what the Braves have accomplished. Left for dead last year, saddled with 18 rookies walking through the clubhouse, Cox coaxed another division title out of his team. He enters this season with a young nucleus as good as Atlanta has had in his time there.

"It's been really fun," Cox said.

"You have to have a lively and healthy sense of joy about whatever your enterprise is if you're successful," Schuerholz said. "I have it. Bobby has it. We have it together."

And that's the whole key to this relationship thing. It's not John. It's not Bobby. It's the Braves. And everyone in this room, no matter how much of a knucklehead you are, can appreciate that.