The manager who guided the Blue Jays during their transition from expansion team to contender has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Glancing at his statistics, you might think Bobby Cox’s four-year tenure as Blue Jays manager was a blip between two stints as skipper of the Atlanta Braves. Yet Cox, who was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame yesterday alongside managing peers Tony La Russa and Joe Torre, was one of the key factors in Toronto’s transition from hapless expansion team to legitimate contender.
The team Cox inherited upon assuming the reins in October 1981 had the dubious distinction of having finished in last place six times during its five-year existence (the 1981 season was split into two halves due to a mid-season player strike). General manager Pat Gillick, who worked with Cox in the Yankees farm system during the mid-1970s, described his new manager as someone dedicated to “continually building confidence rather than trying to destroy it.” While in Atlanta, Cox had developed a reputation for respecting his players, defending them whenever they upset upper management. And along with that reputation, Cox brought a coach who would prove important to Toronto’s future: Cito Gaston.
Star sports columnist Jim Proudfoot described Cox’s restrained personality and handling of players:
As subject matter, Bobby Cox isn’t the sort of blabbermouth quote-hungry journalists dream about. He harbours the odd controversial opinion and an occasional colourful notion, assuredly, but keeps them to himself…To the outside world, Cox presents a beaming countenance. No silver lining escapes him. If somebody strikes out four times with men on base, Cox mentions a timely hit he smote two days earlier. A vanquished pitcher actually threw beautifully in the Coxian view but was the victim of atrocious misfortune…Cox is the kind of guy you’d want to work for, if you played baseball for a living.
Over four seasons, Cox oversaw the emergence of the young talent pool Gillick built up. Names like Barfield, Bell, Fernandez, Key, Moseby, Steib, and Upshaw became regulars. The results were quickly apparent—though the Jays finished last again in 1982, they tied with the Cleveland Indians and finished within a few games of the .500 mark.
The squad earned its first winning season in 1983, sitting in first place for 43 days in the tough American League East division before settling for fourth. “That summer, baseball for the first time became Toronto’s own, as those who had perhaps caught a game or two during previous seasons were suddenly glued to their televisions or radios, or were snapping up some of the nearly two million seats sold at Exhibition Stadium,” sportswriter Stephen Brunt observed in his book Diamond Dreams. “The notion of a Toronto team, a Canadian team, actually appearing in the World Series—something expansion fans can’t even dream about—suddenly seemed entirely possible.”
That possibility came tantalizingly close when the Blue Jays won their first divisional title in 1985. “The drive of ’85,” as the campaign was billed by the Star, was a tight race with the Yankees that wasn’t decided until the final week of the season. “That was as good a year as you’ll ever have in baseball,” Cox reflected years later. “Especially when you have a young team that’s never been there…The first time is the most fun. It’s the most exciting. I’ll never forget that.” Despite a heartbreaking loss to the Kansas City Royals in the first round of the playoffs (the Blue Jays were up three games to one in the series before blowing it), many observers saw great things to come.
Cox, though, wouldn’t be around to see that promise fulfilled. Braves owner Ted Turner had regretted his decision to axe Cox the moment he made it—during the 1981 press conference announcing the firing, Turner remarked that “the best guy for managing this team is Bobby Cox. But we can’t have Cox because I just fired him.” And a week after the Jays’ exit from the playoffs, Turner announced he had hired Cox as the Braves’ new general manager. Although Cox had enjoyed his time in Toronto, he said: “I love my own family more.” Cox’s wife and children had remained in the Atlanta area during his Jays tenure, and he frequently flew down to visit during his days off. “I’m full of regrets about leaving Toronto,” he told the Sun, “but the biggest one of all is the fact that we were unable bring the city its first World Series.”
Yet in a way, Cox did bring Toronto its first World Series. He returned to the Braves bench in 1990, transforming them into a perennial first-place finisher. Cox’s Braves had little luck in the playoffs, though, and the 1992 World Series was no exception—the Blue Jays took the championship in six games.
Additional material from Diamond Dreams by Stephen Brunt (Toronto: Penguin, 1997), the October 16, 1981 edition of the Globe and Mail, the April 6, 1985 edition of the Toronto Star, and the October 22, 1985 edition of the Toronto Sun.