Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Getting the Legacy Right: Bobby Cox's Retirement

Bobby Cox is retiring from baseball. He has spent fifty years in the game and managed the Atlanta Braves for the last 20 years and 3 years in an earlier tenure, an unparalleled stint in modern baseball. He took a moribund franchise and transformed it into a high quality and high performing unit over two and one half decades guiding the team to 16 post seasons and 1 world championship. During that time the rest of the National League whirled through 106 managers.

The mandatory accolades and praises are appearing in all the news media, although muted because his retirement ends with a loss and is overwhelmed by the sheer range of sports crowding the pages as well as the dynamic of the baseball playoffs. He also did it right by announcing his retirement at the beginning of the season to give the team maximum chance to prepare for the transition and downplay the drama.

No matter who praises him, one nagging fact will be mentioned any time someone talks about Cox's "legacy." They will mention that in all these years, the Braves "only" won one world series. This "only" one stigmatizes Cox just as surely as the rap on many quarterbacks or great point guards about not wining a championship grates on them. I will leave aside the fact most players and managers never win one and how difficult it is to  consistently attain the playoffs in a world of free agency and debilitating economic inequality among teams.

Our writing on "legacies" almost always misses the mark. We focus upon awards, wins, and titles. They matter, sort of, but they are monuments and moments, dead and on paper. These markers only symbolize  the deeper reality of sports for players and fans.. The legacy of a leader and manager accumulates one player, one team, one game, one series, one season at a time.

Cox's contribution and legacy are more real than the penants and championships. He probably managed over 1000 players in his major league career. Nine former players went on to become managers and countless others coaches. Each player who passed under his tutelage changed because of Cox's interactions with him. What consistently comes across from players who passed through Atlanta was not that Cox was a "nice guy" but that he was a great teacher.

Baseball managers in the world of free agency manage relationships as much as tactics. They must adapt to the players they get from farm teams and from signings. Most managers work well with one kind of team--veterans, offense, defense, speed, pitching. Most managers can hold a team togethe for awhile an then the team or manager get tired of each other or flame out.

Cox was a master of connecting with human beings who happened to be baseball players. He was a master of helping players grow into their talent and work with them to live through the inevitable slumps and pains of a long career. This enabled him to hold players longer and to adapt his management style to the team he had rather than the team he wanted. His own record for being thrown out of games a record number of times, 158 to be exact, reflected a tactic to prevent his own players from being ejected. The best book on leadership of the last 20 years Good to Great argues that successful long term enterprises put "people first," "vision second." Cox figured this out and proved it can be done.

The other cumulative dimension is the delight that Cox and his teams provided for two generations of Atlanta baseball fans. Going to Turner Field is alot of fun and aside from the deep fried oreos and amazing hotdog sauces, the quality of play on the field, good or mediocre personnel, was always high. The teams not only provided delight and joy to those who loved baseball, but they year in and year out gave hope and topics of discussion to the population during the long sultry Atlanta summers and wonderful autumns. As someone who has lived with the Mariner's doom for 25 years, this hope and this baseball worth following and with a payoff matters profoundly to fans.

Finally, Cox's tenure demonstrates an oft forgotten fact in today's world of impatient, rich, micro-managing owners. Good teams build good cultures. Cultures take time. Good teams build deep farm/training systems and provide consistency in its teaching and in its leadership. (Leaving aside the Yankees and the pernicious Steinbrenner approach which devalues the moral and leadership components of winning through buying themselves out of any mess).  Cox reminds us all, including any owners who will listen, that consistency, relationships, working with talent, and teaching build consistent programs over time. Cox reminds us that good leaders and managers need the support to ride out the ups and downs in order to sustain the long term, not just the short term.

23 years of players growing; 23 years of fans provided with delight, joy and hope. 25 years to remind others of the way a good organization can thrive. These are not bad ways to be remembered..

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