For you who do not know baseball, and who are thus far east of Eden, and way beyond Paradise, let me deliver the sad news that Bobby Cox has retired from his job as manager of the Atlanta Braves baseball club. Those of us who follow baseball knew this day would come; indeed, Cox announced it almost a year ago. Nevertheless, the day is sad and sober. I pause to salute Bobby Cox and the game of baseball, with an abiding tribute to A. Bartlett Giamatti.
When the Braves arrived in Atlanta in 1966, I was ten years old, the perfect age to become a baseball fan. I fell in love with Tony Cloninger after that first major league baseball game in Atlanta when he pitched ten innings – far too long for the first game of the season, his arm was never the same—and then, later, when he became the only pitcher in history to hit two grand slam home runs in the same game. I will always revere Henry Aaron –Hammerin’ Hank Aaron—who still is the best athlete this city has ever known.
I was somewhat of an athlete, certainly not a great one. And I was a fan of math of science. Though I won the science fair award in the seventh grade, I was not great at those disciplines either. Baseball became my passion because it combined the life of sports with the life of the mind.
But the Braves were a truly dreadful baseball team during most of their first years here. 1969 and 1982 were strange aberrations (when they won their division). There were moments of hope, and some occasional great players, but little else of interest except the antics of one Ted Turner, an entertainer if there ever was one, and who entertained us one day by naming himself as the manager of the forlorn Atlanta Braves.
Their woeful performance did not deter me. My wife, Boog, and I, serving our first church in Smyrna, Georgia, would often get to the stadium at around four in the afternoon, a full three hours before the game was scheduled to start. We bought two tickets and got a whole section to ourselves. Nobody else was there.
It was during those lean and losing years that I really did learn to love the game of baseball. In fact, love and loss go together in baseball. Baseball is about loss, and no one truly understands baseball until he or she knows how to lose. And no one truly loves baseball until he or she knows how to lose.
In fact, baseball is actually a game for losers. The sheer odds reveal it. The best batters get hits only three out of every ten tries. The best teams still lose thirty to forty per cent of their games during a season. Baseball teaches us how to lose, how to lose gracefully, and how to return the next day with a new record, with the attitude that nothing is impossible, with the glory of resurrection! (Baseball has much more to teach us about the beauty, elegance, and humility of life; but that’s another story.)
It was around the mid-1980s that one of my other baseball heroes entered the game. His is the only autograph I have truly treasured in my sports life, but it does not adorn a baseball or a bat or a souvenir program. He signed my diploma from the School of Divinity at Yale University, where I graduated in 1982, and where he was President of Yale University. He resigned the presidency of Yale in order to become President of the National League and then Commissioner of (all) Baseball. From glory to greater glory; I believe in that progression.
When he became President of Yale in 1978, he was, at forty years old, the youngest president Yale had ever had; he still holds that record. When it was rumored that he might be named president of Yale he said, “The only thing I want to be president of is the American League.” He was a Renaissance scholar, and a truly renaissance man. He loved baseball.
In fact, he is the only person in history ever to go from being president of a major university to being the Commissioner of Baseball. I thought that was wonderful! But he was tough. He dealt forcefully with unions at Yale, and he dealt forcefully with Pete Rose in baseball. It was while he was Commissioner of Baseball that the great player, Pete Rose, admitted to gambling on baseball.
Now, remember that baseball is really a metaphor for life. Baseball teaches us about life. Even though baseball teaches us about human frailty and futility, Giamatti would condone no easy penalty for betting on baseball. He arranged for Pete Rose, one of the greatest players of all time, to be banned from baseball for life. Eight days after that arrangement, Bart Giamatti suffered a massive heart attack and died at Martha’s Vineyard. He was fifty-one years old.
His was a death reminiscent of tragic literature. But it was Bart Giamatti who had already written so eloquently about the inherent tragedy of baseball. “It’s designed to break your heart,” he wrote in an essay called “The Green Fields of the Heart.” (in A Great And Glorious Game, 1998). Listen to this great passage:
“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.
…Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.”
In another book of his, a little masterpiece called Take Time For Paradise, Giamatti developed the lovely theme that baseball is the narrative of epic romance and of the Odyssey of Homer; home –home plate—is where the adventure both begins and ends.
“Virtually innumerable are the dangers, the faces of failure one can meet if one is fortunate enough even to leave home. Most efforts fail, Failure to achieve the first leg of the voyage is extremely likely. In no game of ours is failure so omnipresent as it is for the batter who would be the runner...The tale of leaving and seeking home is told in as many ways as one can imagine, and there still occur every season plays on the field that even the most experienced baseball people say they have never seen before.” (p. 94, Giamatti, Take Time For Paradise).
It is the Odyssey of Homer. Baseball is the Odyssey. My point is this: the Atlanta Braves, from 1966 through 1990, could not get home. They were adrift and aimless. They helped us learn about loss and life, but they were terrible.
Then, from 1991 through 2005, Bobby Cox led the Atlanta Braves to fourteen straight division titles – a feat no other professional sports team, in any sport, has ever matched. Bobby Cox became their hero, and he became my hero. It was a beautiful run, but it has no meaning without the previous futility of the Braves’ first years in Atlanta.
The Atlanta Braves played their heart out because they knew Bobby Cox valued them. The greatest strength of Bobby Cox (besides his sheer knowledge of the game), and maybe also greatest weakness, is that he was loyal to his players. Cox stayed with his players, even if it was a split second too long.
Of course, Bobby Cox has been criticized for winning so few World Series championships, only one, in 1995. I think this has something to do with his ability to create a winning team atmosphere, a true team, which values every single one of its players and not just the super stars. Players loved playing for Bobby Cox because he valued them and played them.
Essentially, Bobby Cox played to win over the long season, one hundred and sixty-two games. He did not manage for the short series which depends upon only a few of the great players. He depended on the entire team, and time after time, they rewarded him. Even this year, 2010, when the Atlanta Braves were surely not one of the most talented teams in the major leagues, and when their most talented players fell, one by one, by the wayside to injury –even this year!—they were in first place much of the season. They played their hearts out for Bobby Cox, who, in turn, had them playing far above their stature.
This is why he did not win the short series championships, and only one World Series. But that fact does not bother me, nor does it damage my respect for his managerial genius. I would much rather have a fine manager and a winning team over a season, with day-in and day-out good baseball. Fourteen straight division titles are testimony to quality baseball over time. His success has been proven over time, just like baseball always teaches us. Talent in baseball can be measured only in small ways, but over a season – and over fourteen seasons—those small ways add up to stardom. What a ride it has been.
But, “it’s designed to break your heart.” That’s what Bart Giamatti, the great renaissance scholar, said about baseball. And he’s right. Our hearts were broken again this year when the Braves fell to a very good San Francisco Giants team. Our hearts were breaking all year whenever we remembered this would be Bobby Cox’s last season.
But so be it. Here’s to Bobby Cox and to green fields in the sun, and even to the summer having slipped by. Things do change over time, and our illusions always meet reality. On the other hand, we all do get home one day, too. Bobby Cox has taken us around the bases, around the basepaths of both jubilation and defeat, success and loss. His greatness is measured in all the small things done well, over and over again, and in an amazing loyalty to his players. He has exemplified baseball at its finest and loyalty at its most stubborn. Now, he is safe at home, and so are we.
23 October 2010