Team of '90s might have top manager, too, in Cox

On Baseball

September 28, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

When the Atlanta Braves uncorked the champagne for an unprecedented sixth straight division title Monday, the baseball world bowed again to the power of great pitching and the importance of a big payroll in the 1990s. But it would be unfair to overlook the accomplishment of manager Bobby Cox.

He is too quiet to blow his own horn, but Cox has emerged as one of the best managers of his generation. He now owns seven division titles, equaling Hall of Fame manager Tom Lasorda for the most by a manager since the beginning of divisional play in 1969.

"I'm a one-year-at-a-time guy, although I know what's happened," Cox said. "I'm not oblivious to it."

Of course, like Lasorda, Cox will always have to battle the notion that he was merely the caretaker of a talent-laden team, but he deserves his share of the credit. Granted, you don't win that many titles without talent, but plenty of managers have had great talent and not had great success.

There is something to be said for keeping a good club focused for knowing when the best button to push is none at all for just not screwing it up. Cox is a good, solid manager who has had success in both leagues and probably is going to have a lot more.

The Braves have spent a ton to keep baseball's best starting rotation largely intact for the rest of the decade. The club already is "The team of the '90s," -- no one is in range of equaling six titles -- and is in excellent position to remain on top. Cox has been rumored to be headed back to Toronto to help return the Blue Jays to prominence, but don't bet on him walking away from the near-perfect environment he has helped develop in Atlanta.

Fearsome foursome

The 1971 Orioles own the distinction of being the only team since 1920 to have four 20-game winners on the same staff, but this year's Braves rotation might be just as good, even though only Denny Neagle reached 20 victories.

Keep in mind that today's starters work in five-man rotations and get significantly fewer starts than Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson did in the early '70s, yet Neagle won 20, Greg Maddux came close and Tom Glavine had a combined 2.84 ERA in his 11 no-decisions. Even John Smoltz, who appeared to have a disappointing year after last year's Cy Young performance, pitched well enough to win a lot more games if he had gotten sufficient run support.

"You've got to catch an awful lot of breaks to win 20 games," Maddux said recently. "To see four guys in the whole league do it, let alone four guys on the same team [is rare]. Everybody here has certainly pitched well enough to do it."

Avery's $3.9 million game

Did Boston Red Sox manager Jimy Williams unilaterally take a stand for the credibility of the organization when he decided this week to put struggling left-hander Steve Avery back in the rotation for Thursday night's start against the Detroit Tigers?

Williams sent Avery to the mound even though his start would cost the Red Sox $3.9 million, the amount the club would have to guarantee next year if Avery made his 18th start of the season. He made the decision after consultation with both GM Dan Duquette and CEO John Harrington, but there was speculation that the decision was made over Duquette's objections.

Williams indicated that he wanted to remove the stigma that has been attached to the Red Sox organization by the unhappy departure of Roger Clemens and the feud between Mo Vaughn and the front office. He cited no-trade-to-Boston clauses in the contracts of Cleveland Indians veterans Marquis Grissom and David Justice as proof that the club has an image problem.

"I believe you've got to have good credibility," Williams said. "Free agents. I want them to come here. We don't need these stipulations in their contracts. There are 26-27 other teams. Why pick on us? That bothers me. I want them to come to Boston. Trust and credibility I think are important."

There is one other possible explanation. The Red Sox may have agreed behind closed doors to start Avery and put a positive spin on it rather than end up giving him the $3.9 million anyway after the players union files a grievance charging he was improperly denied the right to fulfill his contract.

Oh, by the way, Avery turned in his best performance of the year Thursday night, giving up two hits over five scoreless innings, but it only dropped his ERA to 6.42.

Sandberg's last day

Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg is scheduled to play his final game today at Busch Stadium, and says that this time -- even though he's batting over .300 since June 1 -- he's retiring for good.

"I never said I couldn't play," he said. "Other people have said I couldn't play. I have other things that have changed my life. It's just time. I feel like I've put in my years and have had my fun with it. Time to do something else."

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