Always Bobby Cox, Always

The grandfatherly field boss of the Atlanta Braves has long been known as a players’ guy. He always seems to be in their corner. He always seems to have their backs. He always says so, too. Or so it always seems.

By Joe Kovac Jr.  / Originally published April 10, 2009
Before long, Robert Joe Cox, a 67-year-old native Oklahoman and four-time Manager of the Year, will be the subject of fond farewells. Those retrospectives, however, won't likely paint as clear a portrait as his own words already have. His genius, at least in part, is his trophy-for-all-participants knack for saying something that sounds genuine enough without necessarily saying a thing.

The man can make even the most mediocre of prospects and free agents from utility men to high-dollar pitchers and, on occasion, players who have just over-matched his own, sound equally wondrous.

See, there is this favorite line of his. Cox doesn't just say that he "likes" players. He prefers to tell how he has "always liked" them.

It's a small thing, a nuance of vocabulary. Yet it may be emblematic of Cox, leader of men, equal-opportunity glad-hander.

To careful readers of the local sports pages, ones who have pored over his coachspeak for much of the past quarter century, this small thing has a way of standing out. Every time the Braves ink a deal with some up-and-comer, some retread or anyone really, an "always liked" is always likely. 

In 1992, speaking of Braves reliever Randy St. Claire, a well-traveled hurler who played a couple of seasons in Atlanta, Cox said, "I’ve always liked Randy. He gets out there and throws strikes."

When the Braves got pinch-hitting outfielder Luis Polonia for the postseason push in 1995, Cox said, “I’ve always liked Polonia. He’s only 30. He could still be an everyday player."

And don’t underestimate the power of positive Bobby. The Braves went on to win their only World Series that year. Before they did, Cox had his say late that September on an outfielder Atlanta acquired from the Chicago White Sox. 

Said Cox, “I’ve always liked [Mike] Devereaux. He’s a fit with our club.”

Less than a month later, Devereaux was the MVP of the National League Championship Series.

Of course, just because Cox drops an “always liked” on a guy doesn’t always mean the fellow will pan out.

During the 1998 exhibition season, Cox said, “I’ve always liked Marty [Malloy]. He’s a tough little kid ... He’s a better-than-average ballplayer.”

Malloy, an infielder who played single-A ball in Macon, saw action in 39 major league games over two seasons.

The beauty of this particular “Coxism” is that in the dribs and drabs of postgame quotes, gameday interviews and Grapefruit League gab, the flowery comment goes down easy. It isn’t until one stacks up 20 years of "always likeds" that they ring not so true. And even then they still kind of do.

Cox isn’t stingy with his choice words. A 1997 dust-up with ump Tom Hallion in St. Louis prompted the Atlanta manager, ever diplomatic, to say, “I’ve always liked Tom. ... I was yelling at Tommy and he had every right to toss me."

When Atlanta brought in former slugger and ousted Colorado Rockies manager Don Baylor to be the team’s hitting coach in 1999, Cox said, “I’ve always liked Don.”

That season, which would lead to Atlanta’s fifth trip to the World Series in the ’90s, and the following one in 2000, were years Cox seems to have “liked” just about everyone.

In early ’99, after the Braves signed first baseman Brian Hunter, who’d broken into the bigs with the club earlier that decade, Cox said, “I’ve always liked Brian’s bat and liked his defense.”

Even collective groups have been objects of his affection. As he said in 2002, “I’ve always liked benches with guys who could actually play, not just pinch hit.”

And again in 2004: “I’ve always liked a bench that can play, not just hit.”

When hit king Pete Rose, banned by baseball, attended a Turner Field ceremony at the ’99 World Series in honor of the league’s All-Century team, Cox was affable as ever. 

“I’ve always liked Pete Rose,” he said.

In 2000, when hurler John Burkett became a Brave, Cox, at spring training, told the Atlanta paper, “I’ve always liked John.” 

And he really must have. A couple of days later, speaking to a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, Cox struck again, calling Burkett a “terrific acquisition. ... I’ve always liked John.”

The next season, Burkett was an All-Star for Atlanta.

Later in the 2000 season, when the Braves signed pitcher Andy Ashby for the second half, Cox said, “I’ve always liked Andy."

When St. Louis starter Garrett Stephenson mowed down the Braves one day early that September, Cox said, “His fastball looked like 105 mph when he threw it. I’ve always liked him."

The “always liked” line has popped up more and more in recent times, possibly because news databases are online, making Cox’s candy-coated quotes easier to find.

Cox on second baseman Kelly Johnson in 2005: “I’ve always liked him."

On Washington Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson in 2006: “I’ve always liked Nick. ... I like guys who can beat you with lumber or leather."

On Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo, who last July shut out the Braves for seven innings: “I’ve always liked him.”

On Giants lefty Noah Lowry, who miffed Atlanta batters a month later: “I’ve always liked him. ... I like him a lot." 

But never, at least in print, has Cox’s adulation runneth over the way it did in 2005 for Phillies pitcher Jon Lieber. In a flourish of “like” appreciation, Cox said, “I always wanted to get him. I liked him in Pittsburgh. I liked him with the Cubbies. I’ve always liked him." 

One of Atlanta’s premium pitching signees of the recent offseason, Javier Vasquez, has already been christened by Cox.

“I have always liked Javy,” the manager said. “I’ve always thought he has 20-plus wins in him.” 

Atlanta’s record-breaking manager sounds, yes, like a broken record. 

Earlier this year, though, there was a sign that he may be changing his tune. If ever so slightly.

The Braves were angling to sign free-agent Garrett Anderson. The team hoped Anderson, a career .296 hitter, would add some offensive oomph to its outfield.

“He’s got one of the sweetest swings in baseball. He’s a guy you want up with the game on the line,” Cox said. “I’ve always loved this guy.”

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