Bobby Cox, it is clear now, did not do such a good managing job in 1992, when he led the Atlanta Braves to the World Series for the second straight season, nor in 1993, when the Braves lost in the National League Championship, nor in any of the succeeding seasons, when the Braves made the playoffs every time they were held. In each of those years, the NL manager of the year award went to someone else.
But in 2004, apparently, Cox finally figured it out -- because he was honored with the third manager of the year award of his career, but his first since 1991, the year his Braves began their remarkable (and still active) string of 13 straight division titles.
"Our fans and our players expect to win, year after year," Cox said yesterday. "And we haven't let 'em down in over a decade. . . . There's been one constant here for 13 years, and that's good ballplayers."
Cox, 63, collected 22 first-place votes and 10 second-place votes among 32 voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, easily outpointing Tony La Russa of the St. Louis Cardinals. Jim Tracy of the Los Angeles Dodgers finished third.
In the American League, Texas skipper Buck Showalter took the honor after a season in which he kept the radically downsized Rangers in contention until the final week of the regular season.
With 14 first-place and nine second-place votes out of 28 ballots, Showalter edged out Minnesota's Ron Gardenhire, who finished runner-up for the second year in a row. Anaheim's Mike Scioscia finished third.
Just as La Russa's 105 wins this season were not enough to gain him the honor -- and likewise, Joe Torre finished fourth in the AL voting despite a league-best 101 wins -- Cox was a perennial victim of the Braves' success. The very nature of the award implies that the team of the honored manager was not expected to perform as well as it did, something that rarely applied to the Braves.
But this year was different. Not only did the Braves lose their best starting pitcher (Greg Maddux), their cleanup hitter (Gary Sheffield) and their all-star catcher (Javy Lopez) to free agency before the season, they also saw key players Marcus Giles, Horacio Ramirez and Mark DeRosa go down to injuries that would keep them out for large chunks of the season.
Nonetheless, the Braves went 96-66 and won the NL East by 10 games, going 63-27 over their final 90 games, before losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Houston Astros. The Braves' lone World Series title under Cox remains 1995.
"This was a tough year," Cox said. "A lot of the fans probably thought we weren't going to make it this year, but we did. I think I'm as thrilled with this one as with any single team."
Likewise, Showalter led Texas to its first winning season since 1999, battling Anaheim and Oakland to the final week in the tough AL West division.
And this came after a tumultuous winter in which the Rangers traded away their franchise player, shortstop Alex Rodriguez, to the New York Yankees, and watched sluggers Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez leave via free agency; those three players had accounted for 109 homers and 300 RBI the year before.
"There was such a feeling that everyone had a part in [the success]. This is an organizational award," Showalter said.
"I was just along for the ride, trying not to mess it up."