Bobby Cox’s impending retirement is not the foremost concern for the Braves right now, nor should it be. They’ve squandered an NL East title and are in the throws of a heated chase to salvage the Wild Card. However, the time to take a step back and consider the entirety of Cox’s illustrious career is nigh, whether it be at the conclusion of the regular season or at some indeterminate point during or after the playoffs, should the Braves make it. That’s their conundrum, though, and as a Mets fan and healthily devout Braves hater, I’ll cop to hoping it arrives sooner than later.
For all Cox’s accomplishments — and it would kill me to enumerate them, considering so many have come at the Mets’ expense — his retirement is simply astonishing to me because it’s a reminder that his tenure with the Braves (actually his second) has literally spanned the entirety of my baseball fandom. What’s more, and I suspect this is a dirty secret of many a Mets fan around my age, Bobby Cox and his 1991 Braves captivated me, then an eight-year-old boy enjoying baseball autonomously and by my own volition for the first time in my life. I no longer had to be pacified with ice cream bars on the occasions my dad brought us all to Shea Stadium, nor did I whine my way out of the ballpark in the sixth inning.
Quite simply, my lifelong devouring of baseball began with Cox and those Braves, and they were the perfect single-season captors for my imagination. Though I loved them just the same, the Mets weren’t much of a consideration. They were bad that season, atrophy having fully eroded the vestiges of the mid- and late-80s juggernauts. Division realignment was still a few years off, meaning the Braves resided in the old NL West and were of little threat to the Amazin’s, anyway. Plus, their games were aired nationally TBS, so I could watch all of them.
The Braves were young and exciting, a worst-to-first revelation. I watched as many of their games as I could (as school and bedtime would allow), scanning Newsday‘s box scores the next day for whatever I missed and to have a look at the standings, which would be up to date if the Dodgers game out West had ended early enough. It was easy to pull against the Braves’ chief rival that season, the Dodgers, as they had poached Darryl Strawberry from my Mets the preceding offseason.
Of course, there was no lack of drama with those Braves. If ever there was a team built to make someone a lifelong fan of the game, this was it. They won the NL West by one game (foreshadowing what would later be known as the last great division race of 1993) over the Dodgers. They beat the Pirates (1992 would be Pittsburgh’s final foray into relevance) in a positively thrilling and often overlooked seven-game NLCS, portending what would unfold in the Fall Classic.
That 1991 World Series was, in the purest and most romantic sense, truly a fall classic, the 1975 World Series for a new generation. Even at the age of 8, I knew then that I was watching something special, something that everyone else was watching as intently as I was, something that everyone would remember forever, as I would.
I wasn’t merely enjoying great baseball, the game being played at its highest level (although that was certainly the case), but I was actually learning it. Each tilt was so tense and seemed to be so tightly contested that they held in them small baseball wonders previously unbeknownst to me. When Kent Hrbek lifted Ron Gant off of first base, effectively picking him off, I was enraged. How could he get away with that? When Kirby Puckett crashed against the MetroDome’s Plexiglass wall to rob Gant of a sure extra-base hit later in the series, I couldn’t believe what I had seen. Could a man of that stature really look so agile and jump so high? Why did Charlie Leibrandt awkwardly jerk his soft-tossing left arm behind his back during his windup? Why did Lonnie Smith look so pissed off all the time? Why did Terry Pendleton wear a batting helmet with ear flaps on both sides of it?
The wonder — the sheer amazement — never seemed to subside, as corny as it may sound now. When Puckett slugged his walk-off homer in Game 6, I thought all game-ending calls would be this good:
“And we’ll see you tomorrow night!” — Jack Buck
Yes, Jack, we will see you tomorrow night.
Game 7 was ulcer-inducing. Jack Morris and John Smoltz were brilliant. The game went to 10 innings. Wouldn’t the Twins cave at some point? Couldn’t they just give in and let the Braves realize their destiny? No, they couldn’t. The Braves lost by the narrowest of margins.
The series was played so closely that it may as well have ended it in a draw. It was, as detailed by ESPN’s Jim Caple in 2003, perhaps the greatest World Series ever played. Three games went to extra frames. Three ended with walk-offs. Five of the seven games were decided by a solitary run. I knew then that this series was great, but this great?
There’s a compulsion among baseball fans to delineate things tidily. We remember things by stretches — of our teams’ good and bad play, of player dominance. There are eras, too — Dead Ball, Steroid, Money Ball. Cox was on the Braves’ bench for so long that he actually transcends any fad or era or movement. He not only survived but actually thrived while a handful of those things came and went (having three Hall of Famer pitchers to anchor your rotation for a decade certainly doesn’t hurt toward that end).
That he’s the final active prominent figure from the seminal 1991 World Series says a lot about Cox’s impressive resume, but really, it serves to give pause to a generation of fans who became hooked on the game on account of the greatest Fall Classic ever played.