The most emotional moment of the week for me was watching Atlanta Braves’ manager Bobby Cox in his final press conference after the Braves lost their playoff series against the San Francisco Giants last Monday night. A notoriously stoic personality, the Braves’ skipper is not one to disclose his emotions publicly (except for his anger at umpires which has gotten him ejected more than any other manager in history). Thus, his tears had a riveting effect on viewers. Future Braves’ Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones reported, “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. I don’t think I’ve cried in uniform since I was about 8. You spend as much time with Bobby as I have, it’s hard. He’s been a father figure to me; he’s been my only manager. It’s hard to swallow that this is going to be the last time.” I, too, felt a lump in my throat and shed a tear. Bobby Cox has managed the Braves since I was 13 and I have many pleasant memories of Braves’ success under his tenure. But the emotion I felt was deeper than a sense of loss for my favorite baseball team. I was emotionally stirred by the beauty of a life well lived and by the dearth of the virtues Mr. Cox embodies not only in professional sports, but in our society.
A couple months ago I wrote about the virtue of faithfulness in the managerial career of Bobby. Today I would like to reflect on the related virtue of graciousness as seen specifically in his relationship with his players. A true test of character is how we respond to others with they disappoint or fail us. Any sports coach – amateur or professional – has to deal with this reality. Players will fail to perform and their failures often lead to losses for the team. Former players have commented on the memorably gracious way Bobby treated them after disappointing performances or injuries. Catcher Eddie Perez recalls Bobby’s response to his season-ending injury:
“I thought I was going to get released. Instead, he told me, ‘Eddie, I need you now more than ever. I need you to teach these kids how to act and how to play in the big leagues.’ I walked out of there, and I thought, ‘He just made me feel like I was the most important guy on the team — and I couldn’t even play.'”
Current back-up catcher David Ross sums up this spirit: “He makes you feel so special about what you do. Even if it’s the smallest little thing you can do for your team, he notices it.”
A more recent example is how Bobby treated infielder Brooks Conrad whose three errors at 2nd base cost the Braves the crucial third game in their playoff series against San Francisco (and this was after being moved from 3rd base after committing some game-changing errors). Even though this major mishap forced Bobby to bench Conrad in Game 4, he assured him of his support and insisted to the media that they do likewise. After the final game Monday, Conrad spoke tearfully of Cox’s support:
“I don’t think you see that a whole lot in this game. It’s a cut-throat game. It can be brutal at times. And when you’ve got a guy backing you no matter what, it’s uh….,” his eyes reddening and lip quivering, “It’s pretty cool. He’s got every one of our backs no matter what. And…(10 second pause) I was proud to play for him”
A manager, like any boss or person with authority over others, has to establish and maintain standards for those under his authority. Bobby Cox’s graciousness towards his players was not a matter of relaxing or lowering standards. But his reflex response to his players was not to punish and tear down, but to find what was good in them and draw it out by believing the best in them. He was patient with his players’ and teams’ shortcomings and thus was a master at helping them overcome temporary, short-term setbacks and attain success in the long-haul.
Grace is a central concept in the Bible that describes how God relates to his people. Though we disappoint God by failing to live up to His righteous standards, God does not respond immediately to us in anger and judgment, but shows us favor beyond what our performance deserves. The effect of his grace is to cultivate within us a love and devotion for Him that transforms us and empowers us to live up to His standards more that the fear of punishment ever could.
Indeed Bobby Cox’s grace towards his players did build a loyalty to Him and commitment to perform for him that was unsurpassed. That must be why he is famous for never having a player speak ill of him. Braves president John Schuerholz confirms, “If somebody has, I’ve never seen it. I’ve never heard it. I never even heard it secondhand. I never even heard it fourth-hand.”
Bobby’s relationship with his players is a picture of the grace of God and an example to emulate for how one in authority should relate graciously to others when they inevitably disappoint.