In the tradition of Bill Simmons’s Now I Can Die in Peace and Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, sports commentator, online columnist, and blogger Lang Whitaker combines memoir and baseball as he follows extraordinary manager Bobby Cox and the Atlanta Braves for the past two decades.
For many people, sports are an escape from reality. For Lang Whitaker, sports is reality. He reads and writes about sports all day, and then he goes home at night and watches sports. And he loves this. As often as Lang writes about sports—in daily blog posts, Internet columns, and monthly magazine features—he finds himself thinking about sports even more often. Mostly about the Atlanta Braves; specifically, about Bobby Cox. Now, just as Warren St. John achieved unexpected national bestselling success with his book about Alabama football, Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, Lang Whitaker tells the fascinating story of being a Braves fan during Bobby Cox’s incredible winning reign since 1990.
In the Time of Bobby Cox is Lang Whitaker’s heartfelt exploration of the lessons he’s learned from Bobby Cox—who is set to retire at the end of the 2010 season—during Cox’s unparalleled tenure as the manager of the Atlanta Braves. Frederick Exley’s 1968 classic A Fan’s Notes established the genre, and here, Lang weaves memoir with his obsessive super-fandom, providing the perfect blend of sports, humor, and insight for fans of America’s favorite pastime.
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Read an Excerpt
Sundays with Bobby
I’m worried. I’m really, really worried. It is a balmy Wednesday night toward the end of July 2007. My wife is asleep. I am with my dog, Starbury, in my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The window is open, but the curtains are drawn; the apartment is dark, and I am sitting on the left side of the couch, same spot as always, my bare feet resting on the IKEA coffee table with the gently warped top exactly where my wife doesn’t like me to rest my feet because it’s also where we place our dinner plates.
The Atlanta Braves are on my TV. The Braves are almost always on my TV. If I’m home during the baseball season, I’m watching the Braves play. If I’m not home when they’re playing, I’m recording the game so I can watch it later.
I especially love it when the Braves go out West. The games start late at night, East Coast time. I can put my wife to bed, then crash out on the couch and watch until the wee hours of the night. Tonight, for instance, the Braves are playing the Giants out in San Fran at whatever the current name of their park is, the one with the bay beyond right field. First pitch is around 10:05 p.m. in New York, which means the game won’t end until close to 1:00 a.m. Tonight’s game has a nominal national relevance, because Barry Bonds is only three home runs away from breaking Hank Aaron’s all-time career record, though I’m past caring about that, and so, seemingly, is the rest of the country. I guess one of the side effects of the steroid era is public ambivalence. What matters to me tonight is that the Braves are 3 games back of the New York Mets with about 50 games left to play. And, like I said, I’m worried. I’m really, really worried.
Our first basemen have combined to post the worst batting average at any position in the major leagues. Will Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Brian McCann get the start behind the plate tonight? Has McCann’s left ring finger healed completely? Willie Harris is no Willie Mays, but he’s still been slumping lately; we need him to get going again. We should trade Salty, right? Andruw Jones is down to about one home run a week and is again starting to lose his balance at the plate. Has hitting coach Terry Pendleton noticed this yet? If not, why not? It’s taken nearly two decades, but I’ve finally started to come around on Chipper Jones; the guy can flat-out hit. The back end of our rotation is beginning to stabilize, and lefty rookie Jo-Jo Reyes has me intrigued. The bullpen, though, is a disaster; I hate to say that it reminds me a little bit of last season’s pen, but they’re heading in that direction. Something’s wrong with reliever Rafael Soriano, but I can’t quite put my finger on what. I’m afraid thirty-eight-year-old Bob Wickman is too fat but doesn’t realize it. Pete Moylan, currently our best middle reliever, was previously a pharmaceutical salesman in Australia.
These issues are representative of the things that haunt me on a day-to-day basis between March and October every year. But I’m a reasonable person, and I’m willing to endure some anxiety. Look, the platoons in left field and at second base are unconventional but they’re working, and demoting Chad Paronto from the role of designated ground ball pitcher was smart. I’d been suggesting all of these moves to Bobby Cox for weeks, and now that they’re working, I hope he realizes that these were originally my ideas. Right now Bobby and I are getting along great, perhaps the best we’ve gotten along in many years.
Except for the Chris Woodward situation. For the last two weeks, Woodward, our utility infielder, has been slumping. He has been no help to the Atlanta Braves lately. To my Atlanta Braves. Hey, maybe Woodward will come back around. I hope Woodward can get it going again, and perhaps it’s just going to take playing time for that to happen. That seems to be the way Bobby is approaching this. In the meantime, it’s killing me. Honestly, I’ve got heartburn from this.
I understand that sports fans can be partially (if not fully) obsessive. That is part of the deal; a component of the pact that comes along with being a supporter of any team. We feel like we have to be constantly on guard, lest some horrible evil befall our franchise. And, in turn, fall on us. Not to the Braves. Not on my watch.
The thing is, I care vigilantly about every member of the franchise, from the players to the coaches to the front office staff. If the Braves announce the hiring of someone as trivial as a new travel secretary, I will immediately Google him and comb through his work history, looking for gaps in the résumé, as if I’d been charged with hiring him to begin with. Baseball teams often off-load aging players in exchange for younger prospects. Whenever the Braves bring in young guys, I study every bit of information available. They may never set foot on a major league field, but I want and need to know them inside and out. If I don’t care, who will? You can’t have a championship organization without having first-class people.
So I guess you could say that regarding Chris Woodward, Bobby and I seem to be at an impasse.
But it keeps us going.
Some of us learn from history, some of us from books, some of us from our families, some of us never learn. The thing is, lessons are all around us, just waiting to be absorbed. It’s all about where you look to learn. Even if you’re not really looking to learn.
During the mid-to-late 1990s, when my friend Matt and I were in our early twenties, we watched The Jerry Springer Show every afternoon. Our daily schedule involved watching Springer and then playing Madden for a few hours. Then fast food for dinner. Then sports on TV. Then Madden again before bed. I will allow that we probably could have been more productive members of society. I like to think that we were pacing ourselves.
For a while there, everything in our lives revolved around Springer. We mostly appreciated the sheer inanity of it all. We’d tune in and then sit sipping from our cans of Mountain Dew, and we’d cheer for these poor, sad people who were perhaps irrationally afraid of zippers, or maybe suspicious they had been impregnated by a goat in their sleep. These guests would confront their issues on national television, speak about them calmly and rationally, begin yelling at another guest, and then, unpredictably but reliably, a brawl would break out.
The Jerry Springer Show was billed as a reflection of a larger slice of society than television had ever shown us before, a fascinating, sometimes disturbing look deep into the fringes of our culture. People relegated to the American moral minority, the sort of folk who were serially engaged in things like promiscuity, deceitfulness, drug abuse, prejudice, and crime—usually simultaneously—were suddenly revealed to the rest of us. And we, the people, embraced them. Springer was terribly popular: by 1998, it was averaging around seven million viewers per episode.
Being able to identify myself as a Springer viewer was like being in a biker gang or getting a tattoo: it was about as badass as I could get. Living in the Bible Belt, the son of Southern Baptists, I could only rebel stealthily. I didn’t drink, mostly hung around the apartment, and lived by the old Southern adage “Don’t smoke, don’t chew, and don’t go with girls who do.” But if watching a TV show could guarantee me entrée into a new social class, that much I could handle. Maybe watching Springer didn’t make me “cool,” but it certainly identified me as someone who wasn’t afraid to watch imbeciles fight.
I came to Jerry Springer something of a moralist who believed that because of my lifestyle, I was clearly a better person than those who did not live the way I did, a group that included pretty much every person involved with The Jerry Springer Show. But watching Springer made me more forgiving of those living alternative or nontraditional lifestyles. I often felt empathy, if not sympathy, for these people. Before long, I realized I wasn’t better than them, and they weren’t worse than me; we were just different. We’d been dealt different lives, and we were all just trying to make the best of what was around. Even though I’d been raised to believe that all people were equal, it took Jerry Springer to show me what that really means.
I also learned that if anyone ever invites you to Chicago to appear on a TV program because they would like to reveal something to you, you probably should ask if it wouldn’t better be handled in private. The free trip might be nice and all, but I’ve been to Chicago; having your shirt ripped off and your hair pulled out on national television definitely isn’t worth getting to stand on the concrete shores of Lake Michigan.
In other words, I learned a lot from Jerry Springer. But these days my life is mostly informed by a series of principles I have fortuitously extracted from Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox, who couldn’t be more opposite from Jerry Springer if he tried to be.
Sports fans seem to know about Bobby Cox in an especially general sense: Braves manager for over two decades, fourthwinningest manager in the history of Major League Baseball, once was involved in an unsavory domestic dispute, gets thrown out of games often. Beyond that, and despite his undeniable success, Bobby Cox remains something of a mystery to many sports fans, even dedicated baseball fans. To begin with, the national media don’t pay him much mind, and Cox seems to prefer it that way. He doesn’t endorse any products. He refuses to do those in-game interviews during nationally televised games. He’s never released an autobiography ghostwritten by a sportswriter buddy. In this era where sports figures always seem to be looking to diversify their brand and make another buck, Cox is the anomaly: a person preoccupied with simply doing his job as best he can. If this means there’s a slight disconnect between Cox and the general public, that seems to be just fine with Bobby.
So you may be wondering how I was able to develop such a close relationship with Bobby Cox. If he is so focused on baseball, how would a guy half his age who lives in Manhattan, almost nine hundred miles from Atlanta, be able to absorb his considerable wisdom?
I’ve never sat at Bobby’s cleats and soaked in a series of homespun maxims while Cox chomped on a cigar, but I do know him. I know him very well, actually—very, very well—and we have an active, totally participatory relationship. I watch nearly every Atlanta Braves game, which means that for a conservative estimate, just over the last decade I’ve seen Bobby manage well over 1,000 baseball games. And Bobby’s always the same. At this point, I know what moves he’s going to make before he makes them, which as a Braves fan is a bit disconcerting, because I’m guessing that opposing managers, who have vast networks of scouts and analysts working for them, can predict Bobby’s next move as well.
But the Braves kept winning: Cox accumulated 2,504 victories. Since 1991, the Braves under Cox won more games than they lost in every season except one. This gave Cox the highest winning percentage of any active manager in baseball at the end of his career. He’s won as many league pennants as Tony LaRussa and one fewer than Joe Torre—the two contemporary managers in Bobby’s class—but Cox has only won one World Series ring, compared to LaRussa’s two and Torre’s four. For as many seasons as the Braves were dominant over the rest of the National League, they were officially the best team in all of baseball only once. As good as Cox was, some Braves fans think that winning just a single World Series in twenty seasons means Bobby wasn’t quite good enough.
Though I watch many of the Braves’ weeknight games on a self-imposed tape delay, battling sleep and trying my best to concentrate on every pitch, I’ll admit that I’m usually online or writing or doing other stuff at the same time. As much as I love the Braves, it’s impossible to be as obsessive as I’d like to be and be a fully productive human with a job and a life.
But Sunday is our day, my chance for some alone time with Bobby. My wife knows that Sunday afternoons are reserved for the Braves, and to not even bother asking me to walk the dog or take out the trash. I never ask her to skip a meeting with her shrink, and she doesn’t ask me to skip a session with Bobby. On those Sundays, I pull up the curtains and let the sun shine in. I stretch out on the couch, crank up the air conditioning, grab a blanket, and cuddle with Starbury. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to those Sunday afternoons. Bobby is my sanity. I take the remote control and a bottle of Coke, and that’s really all I need. For the next three hours, I am in a trance, breaking it only to remind Bobby to pinch-hit, maybe suggesting a hit-and-run or a pitchout now and then, but mostly it’s Bobby and me, sitting shoulder to shoulder in my imaginary Braves dugout, watching the games go by.
This is now the story of my baseball life. I moved from Atlanta to New York City in the summer of 2000, and I quickly found that following the Braves while living in Manhattan is nearly as easy as following them from Atlanta. Every game is on TV, and the internet provides all the news and rumors I could ever need. Upon arriving in New York, I thought about casually pulling for the Yankees, just so I could become part of a local fan base and have, you know, human interactions with a cabal of like-minded followers. But the Braves, if anything, have only tightened their grip on me since I left town.
I suppose it’s partially because of the isolation. I’m in the heart of New York Mets country, the Braves’ archrival, so I’m subjected to taunts and insults as I walk the streets wearing my Braves hats and jerseys. As I often point out to my coworkers and friends who are Mets fans, Bobby’s tenure hasn’t been kind to them. There’s not much room for Mets fans to talk, but that doesn’t seem to stop any of them. And then there are the Yankees fans, who seem, at best, to pity the team their team beat in the 1996 and 1999 World Series, usurping a would-be dynasty.
Stranded here on this island with my Braves, I’ve adopted something of a foxhole mentality. We are in this together: Bobby, the players, and me. Whether they know it or not, they need me as much as I need them. Because if I don’t watch every game, if I don’t stand and cheer in my living room, if I don’t work the home plate umpire, if I don’t call out suggestions at the televised image of Bobby Cox, the Braves just might fall completely apart.
Baseball teams in the modern era have plenty of turnover. Whereas players in the fifties, sixties, and early seventies often spent most of their careers on the same team, these days free agency and the constant search for another sizable payday ensure that most guys are never going to find a home. Back in 1998 and 1999, the Braves got several months of good work from a relief pitcher named Russ Springer. Braves fans were just starting to warm to him when the season ended. Springer left the Braves soon after and was still in the majors in 2010, at forty-one years old, with the Cincinnati Reds, his tenth major league team in eighteen seasons. He was also with Houston, St. Louis, and Arizona twice, among others. Did he ever develop an enduring following in any of those cities along the way? No, though not because he lacked talent or personality; it was because he never stayed with one franchise long enough for the fans to embrace him. It’s hard to give people hugs when they won’t stand still.
Defying all of that, Bobby Cox spent twenty consecutive seasons as the manager of the Atlanta Braves. He outlasted every player, coach, front office exec, television commentator, television station, and even a fifty-thousand-seat stadium. Bobby is our rock, our fortress, our shield, our comfort, our salvation. He may be rickety and a bit of a curmudgeon at sixty-nine, but Bobby’s presence alone lends stability. Not only to the team but also to me. We can’t rely on much in life, but I know Bobby will be there for me day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Over those twenty seasons, I’ve hated Bobby, loved him, praised him, even publicly denounced him. Now I can’t imagine my life without him. Bobby Cox has been the single most important person in my sporting life.
And in getting to know him and the players he has molded, following the Braves through their run winning an unprecedented fourteen consecutive division titles from 1991 through 2005 and a World Championship, I’ve learned a few things along the way.
© 2011 Lang Whitaker
Table of Contents
Introduction: Sundays with Bobby 1
Chapter 1 Emotion: How Greg Maddux Is Like Traveling Cross-Country with Your Grandparents 11
Chapter 2 Faith: How Greg Norton Is Like Playing on a Terrible Basketball Team 32
Chapter 3 Persistence: How Mark Lemke Is Like Managing a High School Baseball Team 52
Chapter 4 Consistency: How Chipper Jones Is Like Going to College 70
Chapter 5 Failure: How David Justice Is Like Starring in a Commercial for a Gas Station 89
Chapter 6 Greatness: How Deion Sanders Is Like Ted Turner 139
Chapter 7 Adapting: How Jeff Francoeur Is Like Teaching Yourself to Cook 156
Chapter 8 Communicating: How Andruw Jones Is Like Your Grandmother Dying 173
Chapter 9 Patience: How Tom Glavine Is Like Going on Safari in Africa 189
Chapter 10 Hope: How Jason Heyward Is Like Starting a Family 206
What People are Saying About This
“That fond couch potato planted yonder on your sofa, watching sports day after night... it turns out there's a sensitive man inside. With In the Time of Bobby Cox, Lang Whitaker shows eloquently how baseball is so much more than just a game to its devoted fans.”—Mike Sager, Esquire, author of Wounded Warriors
"Atlanta Braves fans will read Lang Whitaker's book to the final page."Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"A strangely compelling mash-up of memoir and obsession. . . . You don't have to love baseball to be a fan."Atlanta Magazine