Georgia Today: Despite stroke, Bobby Cox still a presence for Braves and manager Brian Snitker
Longtime Braves fans know Bobby Cox as one of the winningest managers in baseball history. But they may not know what happened in the decade since he retired that's kept Cox mostly away from games at Truist Park. In 2019 Bobby Cox had a stroke. But the legendary baseball figure remains influential with the team and close to Brian Snitker, the Braves’ current manager. In this week's Georgia Today, we explore how the Braves’ miracle season is in no small part due to their special bond.
Steve Fennessy: Tonight is Game 3 of the World Series. It's the first game in the best-of-seven series to be played in an Atlanta ballpark since the Braves last went to the World Series in 1999. On Saturday, when the Braves clinched a trip to the series with a win against the Dodgers in the NLCS, Truist Park erupted. But amid the celebrations, there was one face familiar to longtime Braves fans that we didn't see: that of Bobby Cox, who retired as manager in 2010 after leading the Braves for 25 seasons.
[News tape] AP: Bobby Cox: Baseball is your life when you sign a contract, and one of the reasons I'm retiring is to separate baseball from family life for a while and learn where the fuse boxes are in the house, and the gas main, the water main and things like that. So, you know, at age 70, it is time for a younger guy to come in here with younger ideas and keep this organization rolling in the right direction.
Steve Fennessy: Cox was a frequent sight at Braves games and practices. That is, until two years ago, when he suffered a devastating stroke. This week on the podcast, My guest is Alan Blinder, a journalist for The New York Times. His recent piece for the paper explores the special friendship between Cox and Brian Snitker, the Braves’ current manager, and how the Braves’ miracle season is in no small part due to that long relationship. I suppose fans of every World Series team says their team is magical, this is the one. But man, the Braves, wow. When they clinched on Saturday night with those remarkable two innings of pitches from Tyler Matzek, I mean, it felt to this Braves fan like the baseball gods had finally shown us some mercy. You would not have predicted this even a couple of months ago. I mean, this team, they were 111 games into the season before they even reached the .500 mark, which no team that's ever reached the World Series has waited that long before they got a .500 record. What turned things around for them?
Alan Blinder: I mean, you go back to Opening Day. They lose at Philadelphia in a walk off, so that doesn't bode well for the season. The season keeps going, problems pile up. The biggest one probably comes in July, when Ronald Acuña Jr., who was the Rookie of the Year not too long ago, terrific hitter, terrific outfielder, tears his ACL during a game at Miami.
[News tape] ESPN: The reason that the Braves were even in contention still in the National League East was because of what Ronald Acuña Jr. has been. And the fact that I was told by a source it's going to take nine to 10 months for him to be back on the field, it’s just a devastating injury, not for the Atlanta Braves, but for all of baseball.
Alan Blinder: And there's nothing you really want to see less in baseball than your star player being injured at midseason. Atlanta got a little lucky on the timing though. The trading deadline was a couple of weeks away. So Atlanta's general manager is very well known for being, shall we say, an active wheeler and dealer around the trading deadline. So Atlanta went shopping and they came up with some tremendous players who maybe hadn't quite blossomed this season so far, but they got to Atlanta and really started to put the Braves on a roll that continues to this day.
Steve Fennessy: And we need to talk about Brian Snitker, the manager. It's not like he's a new manager or some sort of Cinderella story out of nowhere. This guy has been part of the Braves organization in various roles for years, right?
Alan Blinder: Yeah, I think like dating back to the Carter administration. He was a player in the minor leagues and he never — he never played big league ball, and then he spent most of his coaching career in the minor leagues. I mean, he had a couple of stints in the mid ‘80s, early 1990, actually, as the bullpen coach in Atlanta, but he'd never spent a ton of time at the big league level. He did just about every job you could think of, it seemed like, in the minor leagues, shuffled among all sorts of teams in the Braves system, was always in the Braves organization.
[News tape] FOX5: Braves manager Brian Snitker is a baseball lifer, and that entire life has been with the Braves organization. He's coached at every level of the minor leagues. He finally got his big break in 2017 when he got the full-time manager job for the Atlanta Braves. And now, after 44 years with the franchise, he's taking the Braves to the World Series and it's clear talking to his players, they want this first for Snit.
Alan Blinder: He was hired as Atlanta's third base coach under Bobby Cox. You know, he was the guy who you most often see, you know, waving or stopping a runner thinking about heading for home.
Steve Fennessy: So and of course, in 2007, Bobby Cox, the legendary Braves manager who I think has won more Major League Baseball games than all but three other managers in the history of the game. So Snitker was sort of brought under the tutelage to some degree of Bobby Cox.
Alan Blinder: Yeah, I mean, Snitker told me that he had been watching Bobby Cox for decades, you know, how he ran the Braves, how he dealt with baseball situations, and he'd been a student of Cox. But when Snitker comes to the Braves staff, he really becomes a full-time student of Cox, you know? You know, they just spent a lot of time talking about the game, about politics, about whatever. Snitker essentially was Bobby Cox's shadow.
Steve Fennessy: What was it about Bobby Cox's style that so many people in baseball, not just Brian Snitker and not just people who are with the Braves organization, but throughout baseball saw in him that they either wanted to emulate or learn from?
Alan Blinder: Cox was seen very much as a player’s manager. As Snitker noted in a conversation, and actually Eddie Perez said the same thing when we were talking about this, you know, Cox never forgot that baseball is a much, much more complicated and difficult game to play than it might appear. You know, that it is hard to stand at home plate and take a pitch coming at 97 miles an hour and figuring out what to do in a split second. He was, you know, well-known for getting thrown out of more games than any any person in baseball history. But you talk to his old players and they all talk about how so many of those ejections were because he was coming out to argue in their place to keep them at the game so they could keep playing. Cox was seen as — as a player-centric manager, someone who defended his players in public and in private and, you know, was just known as someone you wanted to play nine innings or more behind.
Steve Fennessy: He engendered great loyalty.
Alan Blinder: Absolutely.
[News tape] AP: In 29 seasons, all but four in Atlanta, Cox led the Braves to 15 division titles, five National League Championships and the 1995 World Series. He was also named manager of the year four times.
Steve Fennessy: And when he retired, Bobby Cox in 2010, he didn't sort of go off to some, you know, beach in Florida. He stayed in Atlanta, and he stayed very much a part of the Braves organization. What was his role?
Alan Blinder: He had a front office role, essentially advising the team. You saw him at practices, you saw him at games. He was at spring training and he helped, you know, continuously evaluate and scout out potential talent
[News tape] AP: Bobby Cox: During the course of the season it gets lonely down there and long, it’s a grind. And I always enjoyed somebody from the front office coming to visit when I was a player down there. So my duties are going to be minute. And, you know, if they want to bounce something off of me, they certainly can. I'll give them a good answer.
Alan Blinder: Some might see him as something of a mascot for the Braves of yore, but he was the voice in a lot of people's ears around the organization. And I was talking with someone about this who has been around a lot of major league teams. I think he's played for eight or nine. His observation that he could think of no other major league manager who had retained that kind of connection to his old franchise with the possible exception of Tommy Lasorda, you know, who just loomed over the Los Angeles Dodgers for years and years and years. So it was a very unusual type of bond between the Braves and Bobby Cox.
[News tape] WSBTV: When you think of the Braves, you think of one-name guys: Hank and Chipper and, of course, Bobby. Yeah, he is a legend in this town beloved, as you said so well. I mean, he is every bit a part of the fabric of the Braves, a sweet man, a gentle man, an inspiring man.
Steve Fennessy: So Bobby Cox steps down in 2010, but still he maintains this advisory role with the organization, and they hire Fredi González, whose tenure over the next few years is unimpressive by virtually any measure. But Brian Snitker was still with the organization, right? Under — under Fredi González?
Alan Blinder: Yeah, I mean, Snitker stuck around as the third base coach for a few years under Fredi González. Eventually, as I said, he moves out to manage the Triple-A team in Gwinnett.
Steve Fennessy: In Major League Baseball, is there sort of a expected line of succession when when a manager such as Fredi González was fired in 2016, like, Oh, the first place we look is our Triple-A team manager, is he the guy that we want?
Alan Blinder: There can be. It depends on really what kind of firing you’re doing, and why and such. I mean, there are interim managers named sometimes they’ve already got someone up their sleeve. But Atlanta in 2016, they fire Gonzalez, who has a pretty underwhelming tenure by Atlanta standards. And they go to Snitker and say, Hey, we need you to be the interim manager, so Snitker goes at the drop of a hat from being the Triple-A manager to being the interim manager of the Atlanta Braves.
Steve Fennessy: To what degree was Bobby Cox instrumental in them,calling on Brian Snitker as either interim or eventually the full-time permanent manager?
Alan Blinder: I got the distinct impression that he played perhaps the decisive role in Snitker getting the permanent job. I mean, Atlanta interviewed some legendary baseball figures for that job. Cox, one Braves executive said, Bobby was no shrinking violet. And Bobby Cox's seal of approval carried enormous weight with the Atlanta executives. And Snitker got the job. And I mean, one thing to know is that it's not like Bobby Cox was an outlier here and saying, you know, Snitker is the guy. A lot of Atlanta players were lobbying for Snitker to get the permanent job, too.
[News tape] FOX5: Braves players: At the end of the day, it's about trust. Yeah, it means a lot. You know, that's that's why we play so hard every day and bring it every day. You know, for a guy like that to get a chance to — to manage in a World Series, hopefully win a World Series. So, you know, he's kind of the heart and soul of the team.
Alan Blinder: You know, I'm guessing it didn't hurt to have one of the all-time winningest managers in your corner as well.
Steve Fennessy: Well, what was it about about Brian Snitker himself that that earned Bobby Cox's trust and the trust of prospective players under him?
Alan Blinder: Well, I think you see a lot of Cox's sentiments and approach in Snitker. You know, they're not the same men, but they are close templates of each other. I mean, Eddie Perez made the comment to me that everything Brian knows he learned from Bobby Cox.
Steve Fennessy: The story that you ran about the friendship between these two men. There was a photograph of Bobby Cox with Brian Snitker at spring training in 2019. They're sitting together on a golf cart watching the team, and it was just, I guess, weeks later that Bobby Cox actually threw out the opening pitch to start the season at Truist Park.
Alan Blinder: So Opening Day 2019, Bobby Cox goes to the ballpark. He does the ceremonial calling of play ball and the very next day, Brian Snitker gets a phone call and is told that Bobby Cox had a stroke.
[News tape] WSBTV: Multiple sources close to Bobby Cox tell me the Hall of Fame manager wasn't feeling well late this afternoon and was eventually rushed to a Cobb County hospital where he was treated for a possible stroke. I'm told Bobby was home alone this afternoon, did not feel right and went to a neighbor's house for help.
Alan Blinder: Snitker heads to the hospital. It's very, very clear early on, the Bobby Cox Atlanta has known for decades is really gone.
Steve Fennessy: Next, how Bobby Cox’s stroke changed the dynamic behind the scenes for the Braves. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today.
You're listening to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. We're talking about the Braves making it to the World Series for the first time in more than two decades. And about Bobby Cox, whose stroke in 2019 took him away from the team he loved. And Bobby Cox is 80 now?
Alan Blinder: He's 80 now. Yeah. And it's been a very difficult couple of years for everyone. His speech largely vanishes. His right arm, he struggles to move it. I've talked to his wife a little bit about this.
Steve Fennessy: Pam Cox, his wife.
Alan Blinder: Yeah, I mean, we had a lengthy conversation ahead of this story, and she talked about how, you know, it is challenging. I mean, Bobby Cox has not been to Truist Park since 2020 at this point. He was able to go a little bit after the stroke, make an occasional appearance, sit in the box, you know, maybe wave. A stroke can be exceptionally devastating and in Bobby Cox's case, it was, but he has remained, she told me, this devout Braves fan;, you know, watching games. And she said baseball was his life, and it's not like he could just turn it off. And in fact, she said, you know, there are days when Bobby Cox doesn't remember her name or the grandkids’ names. But she said, you know, someone can drop by and talk about the Braves or a baseball game from some year in the past, and he can tell you who was pitching in the third inning. It's that kind of memory that has remained intact for him. But it's hard. He doesn't speak much these days.
Steve Fennessy: And with Brian Snitker relying to such a large degree on Bobby Cox's mentorship over the years, when Bobby Cox suffered the stroke, how does he still communicate with his friend?
Alan Blinder: Cox lives about 15 minutes from Truist Park, and Snitker goes over there most every homestand, and he goes and sits with him and just talks. And Cox, you know, can't really say much back to him. I'm told that Cox is absolutely delighted when he hears Snitker is coming. When when Snitker does show up, he often brings a peach milkshake, whatever the seasonal milkshake is at that point from Chick-Fil-A, and they they sit and Snitker does a lot of the talking. And he said sometimes Cox is able to say a little bit back to him. Pam Cox told me that sometimes Bobby surprises her and he can get a sentence or two out. I'm told that he still gets a little feisty with umpires watching ballgames. You know, Snitker told me that sometimes Pam Cox will call and say, Oh, he got mad last night. You know, it's kind of a fundamental image to picture Bobby Cox sitting at home watching a ballgame and still looking to chew out an umpire over a strike three call or whatever.
Steve Fennessy: Alan, you cover primarily college sports now for the New York Times. How did you come upon this idea for this story?
Alan Blinder: You know, it was a function really of having been around Atlanta for so long. I mean, I used to cover the South for the Times, you know, when I was a national correspondent and it was knowing how much a part of Atlanta life Bobby Cox has been, but also Snitker has made a couple observations almost in passing about Cox over the years. And it was one of those things where I had filed the tidbits away in my mind and was kind of waiting for the right moment to write the story. And we thought as the Braves advanced in this postseason, this was a good moment to do it.
Steve Fennessy: You mentioned that the midseason moves were pivotal in the Braves that emerged in the second half of the season, you know, trades, acquisitions and whatnot, especially among outfield players. But when we talk about Brian Snitker’s management of the team, how much of that is is due to what he learned over the years under Bobby Cox, do you think?
Alan Blinder: There's an old line about how managers get far too much credit when their team is winning and far too much blame when their team is losing. And there's probably a lot of truth to that. And Snitker has said he always thought Atlanta's best baseball was ahead. Mike Soroka, who's this ace-in-waiting pitcher for Atlanta, him re-tearing his Achilles while he's walking at the ballpark isn't really something anyone could foresee happening, you know? Acuña going up for that, for that catch in Miami and tearing his ACL wasn't on the on the drawing board. But you know, you had Snitker in there telling players, Look, I think we can still be a force.
[News tape] 11Alive: And to get that news that you’re going to the World Series, it’s hard to top that. And watching these guys celebrate here, it makes you smile. It’s so exciting and there’s so much excitement going into this World Series. I think that there are so many people now that are going to cheer for this team and you can call them fair-weather fans or what, but this is going to bring the city together and I think it’s going to create a lot of excitement here in Atlanta.
Alan Blinder: They take down the Brewers in a division series. The Brewers were a stacked pitching team. Then the NLCS comes on. The Dodgers, who won the World Series last year, Atlanta takes them down four games to two. So, you know, momentum is a big thing in baseball, and it may be one of those things where Snitker kept just enough momentum inside people's heads, you know, that they could do this, that here the Braves are in the World Series.
Steve Fennessy: When you think about Bobby Cox being 15 minutes away from Truist Park, but not being able to come to the field for this amazing season. But, you know, to hear about Brian Snitker’s, I mean, real devotion to the man is so touching.
Alan Blinder: Cox has been this Georgia institution for decades now. I mean, a lot of people around the country have a, you know, a deep knowledge of the Braves. And for a lot of them, over the years, Bobby Cox was synonymous with the Braves. His wife told me that he's been staying up late to watch the playoff games. You know, during one of them, she made, she made popcorn and hotdogs. So he was having just the same kind of food experience, you know, people at the ballpark were having. But yeah, there is something touching about — about where he is. But you know, right after the Braves clinched in the National League Division series to move on to the National League Championship Series, Brian Snitker was in the clubhouse. He was telling other folks that he was going to go take over some hats and shirts and that kind of stuff to the Cox house because he wanted Bobby Cox to still feel like he was a part of the Braves organization.
Steve Fennessy: The other thing about this particular year is its timing and, you know, in the midst of this pandemic, and — so I wasn't here in 1999, I moved here in 2000. So I've seen Braves playoff teams, but I've never seen the Braves advance to the World Series. Still, to see this at this moment in time feels especially momentous, really. I mean, it's — it's just incredible to see the city, which is often maligned for not being a great sports town — but here it's like, this is — this is really amazing at this moment in time. Do you agree?
Alan Blinder: You know, I remember thinking last year when the Braves played the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series on a neutral field in Texas that Atlanta would be really psyched if the Braves made the World Series. But I also remember thinking how frustrating it would be to so many people in Atlanta if the Braves made the World Series in 2020 and the games were all going to be in Texas because of the pandemic. It's fun to watch and look, Atlanta does have a reputation as being maybe a letdown sports city. I mean, look, there are plenty of disappointing moments in Atlanta sports history, but maybe this is the year. Who knows?
Steve Fennessy: After splitting the first two games with the Astros, the Braves come back to Atlanta tonight to open a three-night stand at Truist Park. The Braves have not won a World Series game at home since 1995, but during this postseason, the team is undefeated on its home turf. And if they sweep the Astros at Truist, the Braves would win the whole thing on Sunday night. Go Braves.
Steve Fennessy: Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Jess Mador is our producer. Our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jake Cook. You can keep up with Georgia Today by subscribing to the show at GPB.org or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening. See you next week!