By Paul Newberry
KISSIMMEE, Fla. - Bobby Cox spent the first few days of spring training trying to fight off a cold. And what about the future? He'll shoo away those questions with even more fervor.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," he insists over and over again. "Right now, I want to manage. We'll see how it plays out."
After hinting a year ago that 2008 might be his final season, the longtime Atlanta Braves manager is coy about the issue this spring, which isn't too surprising. Cox isn't the type to put up with a schmaltzy farewell season, with all those speeches and ceremonies and people giving him rocking chairs to enjoy in retirement. But the future of the 66-year-old manager will likely be an underlying theme for the Braves all year.
Will this be his final season? Stay tuned.
"It would weird not having him in the dugout," outfielder Jeff Francoeur said. "But it's going to happen one day. It's inevitable."
This will be Cox's 27th year as a manager, a stellar career that includes 15 division titles (14 in a row with the Braves, one during the 1980s at Toronto), a World Series championship in 1995 and the most ejections in baseball history - a badge of honor to his players, who know most times he's only sticking up for them when he gets the heave-ho.
But perhaps his greatest accomplishment is remaining relevant after all those years. Cox is still the dominant figure in the Braves clubhouse without even trying. No one complains about his ban on loud music. Everyone shows up on time and plays hard because they know their manager expects it.
"He's the one who takes all the hits," said pitcher John Smoltz, entering the 21st year of a career spent entirely with the Braves. "He's the reason I stayed here."
The Cox Commandments are passed down from one generation to the next, as readily accepted by the 300-game winner (the Braves have one of those in Tom Glavine) as they are by the players who weren't even born when he managed his first big league game in 1978.
It's almost impossible to envision Cox wearing anything other than a cap, a pair of cleats and a jersey with "Braves" written across the chest. This is who he is. This is how he's lived virtually his entire life.
Sure, it's only natural for someone who's passed retirement age and can see 70 on the horizon to start considering the next phase of his life. But Cox talks about the future with a tinge of dread in his voice, as if he, too, can't imagine not waking up every day and heading to a baseball park.
"I don't know what I would do," he said. "You can only mow your lawn so much. You can only play so many rounds of golf. You can only go fishing so many times. I've been doing this my whole life. There's no substitute for it."
The years are catching up with him. He waddles around slower and slower on those two surgically replaced knees. The dark hair of youth has gone gray. Every year brings a new wrinkle or two to that weathered face.
Cox used to grab his mitt and take a turn at first base during batting practice, but he now sticks to a safe spot in the dugout or behind the cage.
"I can't get on the field as much as I once did," Cox conceded. "I can't lift my left arm anymore. I've torn it up. I miss that part of the game. I was having fun out there."
But his eyes light up with the promise of each new season. The passion to win another World Series is as strong as ever, especially with the Braves coming off a second straight year of not making the playoffs.
Some thought Cox might fade away in tandem with John Schuerholz, the team's general manager for 17 seasons. Theirs was one of the great partnerships in baseball history, resulting in an unprecedented run of playoff appearances, but it ended when Schuerholz - who's less than a year older than Cox - moved upstairs to team president last fall.
Cox remains in the dugout, getting ready for another season.
The Braves have made it clear to Cox that another job in the organization awaits him whenever he wants to quit managing. But they aren't pushing him for a decision, and they certainly aren't considering the idea of naming a successor while Cox is still in the dugout.
Hitting coach Terry Pendleton is probably the most likely successor if the Braves wanted to keep it in-house, but no one is comfortable talking even in the vaguest of terms about a manager-in-waiting as long as Cox is around.
How long might that be? No one knows, maybe not even Cox himself.
"I really gave retiring more thought the last few years than I have this year," he said. "It's really not on my mind right now."