It's Bobby Cox, no doubt about it, which is why his farewell tour next season away from the Atlanta Braves dugout for the first time in two decades will feature lots of hugs and plenty more tears from those who know.
What they know is -- with apologies to Connie Mack, Leo Durocher, Billy Martin and all of the rest -- Cox's managerial career is incomparable. Such becomes apparent when you study everything involved with his distinction of leading Braves teams to a record 14 consecutive division titles. And since we're on the subject, consider this: if you include his last season with the Toronto Blue Jays, he won 15 consecutive division titles during one stretch of his full seasons as a manager.
Now let that sink in.
"It's the little things," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones once told me when trying to explain the success of the now 68-year-old, cigar-smoking baseball lifer who has won with extremely old teams and extremely young ones. He also has won with power teams and punchless teams. Not only that, he has won with and without a bullpen, with and without a full complement of Cy Maddux, Cy Glavine and Cy Smoltz, and he has won with aching teams, too.
Speaking of which, nothing surpasses Cox's 2001 miracle, when the Braves had injures ranging from John Smoltz's elbow to Kevin Millwood's arm, from Rafael Furcal's shoulder to Brian Jordan's shoulders, and from Keith Lockhart's ankle to John Rocker's brain.
If that wasn't enough, the Braves alternated between two third basemen, watched another player retire out of nowhere to become a high school football coach, and had to survive the free-agent departure of Andres Galarraga, their only true slugger at the time and undisputed leader among Latin players.
They won the division, anyway.
Added Jones, who will join Cox in Cooperstown someday, "You might see him making a pitching change, a double switch or calling a pitchout on a squeeze play. He always seems to pull the right strings. They go unnoticed by everybody but those inside this clubhouse."
Consider, too, that, Cox kept pushing his teams into the postseason during this era of overwhelming parity. They won it all in 1995. They've missed the playoffs after each of the past three seasons, and despite a wonderful push down the stretch this year for a wild-card "It's the little things ... He always seems to pull the right strings. They go unnoticed by everybody but those inside this clubhouse."
-Chipper Jones berth, they'll stay home again in October. Still, Cox continues to flash the ability to operate and prosper with a rotating core of key players.
In contrast, John McGraw, Casey Stengel, Walter Alston and all the rest prospered with mostly the same Hall of Famers year after year. There was no free agency back then, because they had legalized slavery called the reserve clause, which required players to stay put forever -- unless they were traded. So it was enough to create those New York Yankees dynasties that ranged from those of Miller Huggins during the 1920s through the ones of Ralph Houk.
It also was enough to make it difficult to determine the true greatness of any Yankees manager (or any manager) with sustained winning during those times.
What about Tony La Russa, you say? Yes, he joins Cox in managing during this era of overwhelming parity. And, yes, while Cox ranks fourth on the all-time victory list of managers, La Russa is third behind Mack and McGraw. It's just that La Russa resembles most managers not named Cox in this regard: He has been loved and hated simultaneously inside his own clubhouse. Take St. Louis Cardinals legend Ozzie Smith, for instance, who says he'll never do anything involving his old franchise until La Russa leaves the premises. Then you have former Cardinals player Ron Gant, who even claimed La Russa was despised by black players.
Well, that's the clean version from Gant.
Elsewhere, Gary Sheffield was among several players who couldn't care less about Joe Torre's march as manager to an unprecedented 80 postseason victories. In fact, Sheffield became the Gant of the Yankees. That's because Sheffield insinuated in a book that his old manager wasn't exactly into Martin Luther King Jr.
Earl Weaver had his snipers from the shadows, with star pitcher Jim Palmer leading the attacks with his tongue. Sparky Anderson was accused of favoritism among the little cogs of his Big Red Machine. Tommy Lasorda's players thought their Hollywood skipper was more into Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles than balls and strikes.
As for Cox, nothing. Not a negative word. Not a hint of dissent from any of his former or current players (including Sheffield) during his 28 years of managing in the major leagues.
Courtesy of Cox, the Braves lead the majors in having the most players on other teams wishing they could wear their uniform. Former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin told me during his playing days, "I've had some friends who've come through Atlanta , and I've heard different takes on the Braves experience. The one thing that is consistent is that it is very professional, and I'm sure Bobby Cox has a lot to do with that. He's the type of manager that everybody wants to play for."
He's a player's manager, but he is a deceptively tough manager. He is loved by players, because he saves his screams for behind closed doors.
Only twice has Cox punished a player in public: Years ago, he removed Andruw Jones and his Gold Glove during the middle of a game for not hustling in center field (a move that Cox later regretted). Then, earlier this year, Cox benched Yunel Escobar for displaying something less than his considerable talent at shortstop (a move that Cox didn't regret since Escobar mostly has sparkled since then).
Even in those cases, Cox's anger was fleeting. He has no doghouse, which is why umpire Ed Rapuano told the Associated Press about the manager who has been tossed more times than anybody in history, "You could toss him, but the next day all was forgotten."
That's because all really was forgotten.
I wouldn't know. During the years I've dealt with Cox -- including his first managerial stint with the Braves from 1978 to 1982 and his stint as general manager during the late 1980s -- he has been a bunch of delightful things to me.
Friendly. Knowledgeable. Comical.
And, if he trusts you, revealing. He is as intelligent as they come as a manager, but you wouldn't expect anything less from the best there ever was.