LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Bobby Cox is wearing an Atlanta Braves jacket, but the rest of his outfit is as follows: untucked knit shirt, olive slacks, brown loafers, white socks. Cup of coffee. Stubbly beard. Like a million other Florida retirees.
But he's here on the top step of the dugout, watching the team he used to run.
"That Simmons -- wow," he says as shortstop Andrelton Simmons snatches up a short-hop grounder. "He's as good as it gets."
This is the preseason of the preseason, the workouts before spring training games start. On Friday, the Braves open against Detroit, and Champion Stadium will fill with 9,500 fans. When the real season starts in Atlanta, they'll get 50,000 at Turner Field. But on Monday, the unofficial attendance for the morning workout is 32. There are more people watching a youth soccer tournament two fields over.
Truth is, there's not a lot to see. The Braves set up a ball machine in shallow center to shoot fly balls toward the fence -- the idea is to have the outfielders practice robbing potential home runs, I guess. But the machine is hard to calibrate. Some balls smack off the video screen. Others die on the warning track. The outfielders don't seem to mind. Nobody wants to pop a hamstring in February.
But if you're a Braves fan of a certain age, you can taste the sweetness of memory. Terry Pendleton is cracking grounders to the infielders. Fred McGriff is lounging off to the side of the batting cage. Chipper Jones, newly retired, is running around in a camo cap. And Bobby Cox is in the dugout.
The workout breaks up, and the players split into groups and head for other fields. Cox turns to two friends about his age. "Let's go see what they're up to," he says.
Cox is 71 now. He's still a consultant with the Braves, but this marks the third season since he retired as the Braves' manager. His career in four words: So much, not enough. His Braves went to the playoffs 15 times, won 14 division titles in a row, won five National League pennants… but just one World Series. People forget just how terrible the Braves were before Cox arrived. I was there for all those years of Rick Mahler and Jerry Royster and oceans of empty seats at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. But now what most people remember is how many times the Braves got close and didn't make it.
I remember that night in 1995 when the Braves won it all.
Bobby Cox is fourth in wins, all-time.
One group of players has wandered over to Field 3. The hitters take their turns, like in batting practice, but they're facing real Braves pitchers, throwing hard. Nobody talks much. All you hear is the wooden slap of the bat on the ball, or the whip-crack of the pitch in the catcher's mitt.
Bobby Cox has found a golf cart. He and his buddies park right on the field, near the third base on-deck circle.
"Hey J, our dogs played together this morning!" he says to outfielder Jason Heyward. Fredi Gonzalez, who replaced Cox as manager, comes over to say hello. McGriff stops by for a word.
Out on the mound, a Braves middle reliever named Cristhian Martinez is pitching.
Heyward and B.J. Upton rotate at-bats for a little while, then Justin Upton and Chris Johnson do the same. The Braves acquired the Upton brothers in the offseason, and along with Heyward, they have the potential to be the best outfield in baseball. Right now they're just getting loose. But Martinez is sweating, pushing hard. Johnson -- a third baseman who came along with Justin Upton in a trade with Arizona -- leaves the cage looking at his bat. Martinez has a career record of 7-8 with a 3.98 ERA and one save. But for 20 minutes on a chilly morning, in the preseason of the preseason, he looks great. There aren't any fielders to make it official, but the four batters -- including three who are among the Braves' stars -- get just one obvious hit.
All that happened while Bobby Cox chatted with his buddies and asked after players' families and listened to Gonzalez explain the schedule for the rest of the workouts.
Martinez finished up on the mound and walked over toward the third base line to get his gear. And then Bobby Cox looked up.
"Good job, Marty," Cox said. "You only gave up one hit."
Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tommytomlinson. Sometimes, it's fun just to spend a little time watching Bobby Cox ejection videos.