The Friendship That Shapes Atlanta Baseball

ATLANTA — The ranch-style house is maybe 15 minutes from the ballpark. During almost every homestand these days, Brian Snitker, the Atlanta Braves manager, makes a detour to visit.

He is there to talk to Bobby Cox. Sometimes, Cox says something back.

Cox is 80 now, 11 years removed from a managerial career that earned him a place in the Hall of Fame, and more than two years into recovery from a devastating stroke. The man who spent decades coaxing players and chirping at umpires and clacking in his cleats through dugouts from San Diego to Boston is unable to make it to the ballpark these days.

So Snitker goes to him.

It is a balm for Cox, who won more games than all but three managers. But it is also a steadying ritual for Snitker, one that players, coaches and executives believe shapes his approach to the club that Cox led for 25 seasons. In nine of those years, Cox steered Atlanta to the National League Championship Series, where Snitker now has the franchise for a second consecutive season. Atlanta leads the best-of-seven series, 2-1, after a stunning loss to the Dodgers on Tuesday. Game 4 is scheduled for Wednesday in Los Angeles.

No playoff team benefited from a midyear makeover more than Atlanta, which wheezed early and then went 36-18 over the regular season’s final 54 games. Some of its July acquisitions, including the outfielders Joc Pederson and Eddie Rosario, have enjoyed star turns this month. But much of Atlanta’s architecture — starting with Snitker’s hiring in 2016 and extending to the composition of his staff and the clubhouse atmosphere — can be traced to its manager’s relationship with Cox.

“Everything he knows is from Bobby,” said Eddie Pérez, who was a catcher for Cox and coached under both Cox and Snitker. “He spent so many years in the minor leagues, and guess who was in the big league? Bobby Cox, teaching everybody how to do everything.”

Snitker, 66, began watching Cox closely about 40 years ago, when Cox was first managing in Atlanta and Snitker was starting to construct a coaching career in the franchise’s farm system. At the time, Snitker recalled, he was taken less by Cox’s baseball savvy than his welcoming demeanor around the lowest profile people in the sprawling Atlanta organization.

Although Snitker sporadically worked with the major league team over the years, he spent most of his time in the minors. Cox, who came back to the team for good in 1990, hired Snitker as his third base coach in 2007 and soon found himself with something of a shadow.

“At 6:30, I’d be down in the radar room talking because I just so looked forward to that time of day,” Snitker said in an interview in the home dugout at Atlanta’s Truist Park. “We’d talk about the game, but we talked about everything. It was just a really cool time, one of those priceless times, every afternoon or every evening.”

Widely known in the game as “Snit,” the coach became a day-to-day student of Cox: watching how he navigated baseball conundrums, how he soothed supersize talents and how he kept them in check, even how he chatted with reporters.

Cox entered semiretirement in 2010, when he stepped down as manager but assumed a front office role. Fredi Gonzalez, Cox’s immediate successor, kept Snitker for several more seasons.

Snitker was leading Atlanta’s Class AAA team in the suburbs in May 2016 when the club fired Gonzalez, whose middling record had disappointed a city that had become accustomed to the playoffs. Snitker drove across town to become the interim manager while Atlanta considered a range of candidates, including Pérez, to take the job permanently. In talks with team executives, Cox made his preference conspicuous.

“Bobby’s not a shrinking violet, and Bobby made it extremely clear who he supported and why he supported him,” said Terry McGuirk, the team’s chairman and a decades-long fixture of sports management in Atlanta.

Cox got his way and, by design or happenstance, a standing role in the new manager’s head.

“If I called, he answered, and when I first got this job, I was calling him all the time and asking what do I do here or how do I do this,” said Snitker, who was suddenly the one hosting Cox for pregame coffee sessions. “He was my sounding board.”

Cox appeared at Truist Park in April 2019, dressed in a jersey, and called “play ball!” to start the season. He had his stroke the next day. Snitker headed to the hospital, he said, “because I didn’t want to be anywhere else.”

It was soon clear that the Cox whom Snitker had known for decades was gone. His speech largely vanished, and his right arm was paralyzed. He did not leave the hospital for more than a month, before he transferred to a rehabilitation center and, at last, home.

Snitker’s visits there became regular events, leading Cox to erupt with delight, especially if his latest successor arrived with a peach milkshake.

“Sometimes, he doesn’t remember my name, the kids’ names, the grandkids’ names, but someone from baseball can come in and they can start talking about playoff or World Series games from years ago, and he can tell you who was pitching in the third inning,” said Pam Cox, who has been married to Bobby Cox for almost 43 years. “Baseball was his life, and he lived for that.”

Cox last visited the ballpark in 2020, when he watched a game from McGuirk’s suite in a stadium kept empty by the coronavirus pandemic. Now, though, Snitker only sees him at home, where they sit in recliners and reminisce over games, or contemplate analytics or the wildness of playoff schedules. Snitker, who offers a hug and shake of Cox’s left hand and an “I love you,” does almost all of the talking, because he very often must.

“I just get emotional sometimes watching,” said Pam Cox, who said that John Schuerholz, Atlanta’s general manager during Cox’s tenure, and Leo Mazzone, the pitching coach in Atlanta’s heyday, also visit often. “It’s just like watching your father and son bonding.”

In the immediate afterglow of Atlanta’s victory over Milwaukee in a division series, McGuirk said, Snitker was in the clubhouse, mapping out a plan to visit Cox the next day with a load of postseason hats and shirts. He had already stopped by earlier in the week on an off-day in the series.

There is a sense around Atlanta that the club is in its present position because of Cox’s sustained influence. Pérez, the hero of the 1999 N.L.C.S., the last time Atlanta won the pennant, and Jesse Chavez, who pitched under Cox for part of 2010 and returned to Atlanta’s bullpen this year, said they believed Cox’s style surfaces daily in Snitker’s managing.

“I see a lot of similarities as far as watching the game, letting the game control itself until they have to make a decision,” Chavez said. Pérez said Snitker’s faith in his players mirrored Cox’s.

Baseball officials struggled recently to come up with a manager who had maintained the kind of sway that Cox has had, even indirectly, over Atlanta. Chavez, who has played for eight other teams, thought Cox’s ongoing ties to the franchise rivaled only those of Tommy Lasorda’s longstanding relationship with the Dodgers before his death in January.

Although few people see Cox these days, Freddie Freeman, the first baseman who appeared in 20 games for Atlanta during Cox’s last season, said that Snitker delivers regular updates from his visits.

“We know he’s watching every game and sure he has his cleats on and he’s managing right there on TV,” Freeman said. (Indeed, Snitker said that Pam Cox will sometimes report, “Oh, he got mad last night.”)

Now the one in charge in Atlanta, Snitker accepts that Cox’s most glorious era is in the past, that “Skipper” can only summon so much now. He can sometimes still glimpse what Cox was like in his prime. Other times are far more difficult, the phone now quiet, the office now empty.

“It’s hard not having him there to talk to and bounce things off of,” Snitker said softly. “I lost a huge mentor there. I know he’s still my biggest fan, still roots like hell for me.”

Proving that point, Cox was up the next night, peering at the television to watch Snitker and the club that, it turned out, he had been helping build all along.

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