Experiences have Gonzalez ready as ever
Cox's mentoring, stint with Marlins molded Braves skipper
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As he prepared to serve as Bobby Cox's successor, Fredi Gonzalez looked back on his professional coaching career and couldn't help but reminisce about the good fortune he has encountered.
"You know how people tell you everything happens for a reason, and you have to be lucky and be at the right place at the right time?" Gonzalez said. "If you look at my career, all of that stuff has happened to me."
The Braves' new manager seems to have great respect for the opportunity he has been presented. Instead of seeing himself as Cox's successor, he views himself as the man who has been given the responsibility to procure and protect what Cox built during his 20-year second managerial reign, which concluded with his retirement last October.
"It's going to be different, just because we're two different people," Gonzalez said. "Believe me, a lot of my baseball savvy, or whatever you want to call it, a lot of it came from Bobby. If you spent four years with Picasso, you better have learned."
Gonzalez's great respect for Cox is entrenched in a relationship that began shortly after the 2002 season, when Ned Yost's departure to Milwaukee opened the door for Gonzalez to begin what ended up being a four-year stint as Atlanta's third-base coach.
It was then that Cox took Gonzalez under his wing, and regularly introduced himself to different aspects of the role of a Major League manager. But the legendary skipper couldn't prepare his pupil for everything he would experience when the Marlins called at the conclusion of the 2006 season and gave him his first gig as a big league manager.
"Nothing prepares you until you sit in that chair," Gonzalez said. "You don't realize everything about the relationship with the media, the front office and all the other stuff that comes through your office that you don't know about. You're just five feet away as a coach, really. But you really don't know until you sit there. Nothing prepares you unless you do it."
While quickly realizing that pitching changes could prove much less stressful than dealing with some of the family-related, off-the-field issues that are occasionally introduced to managers, Gonzalez experienced some success. His 2008 squad produced a winning record, and in '09, the 87 wins Gonzalez led them to ranked as the third most in franchise history.
"The bottom line is he got the opportunity in a small market and made them competitive," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "That's kind of how you make your name. You've got to start out at a smaller rung and kind of prove yourself in the smaller markets."
Jack McKeon and Gonzalez are the only managers in Marlins history to have posted consecutive winning seasons. But while McKeon's legacy will live through his guidance of the 2003 World Series champions, Gonzalez's legacy in Miami will likely center around what occurred on May 17 of last season. That night, he removed Hanley Ramirez from the lineup after the All-Star shortstop kicked a ball in the outfield and then lackadaisically pursued it toward the left-field corner.
"You need a guy who isn't afraid to sit a superstar on his [butt]," Jones said. "That's what I like. That's big time. You take a superstar and show 'em that ain't going to cut it, and then don't play them for a couple of days. That garnered Fredi respect throughout the whole game, just not Florida. It might have got him fired."
When the Marlins dismissed Gonzalez on June 23, there was wide speculation that they had pulled the plug because of the way he handled the Ramirez situation. After confronting his shortstop in the dugout and removing him from the game, Gonzalez demanded Ramirez apologize to his teammates.
When Ramirez subsequently bashed him in the media, Gonzalez didn't back down. In fact, he stayed true to his word and kept the shortstop out of the lineup the next day.
"That opened a lot of people's minds," Jones said. "A lot of people were watching to see how that situation would be handled. I thought he handled it with class and grace. He tried to handle it in-house. Unfortunately, the other party wouldn't allow it to be handled in-house. He did everything Bobby would have done in that situation."
Having spent those four years on Cox's coaching staff and each of the subsequent years as one of the legendary skipper's closest friends, Gonzalez is bound to occasionally manage in a manner that will be deemed similar to that of Cox.
But when Gonzalez was named the Braves' manager just two days after the club was eliminated from the playoffs last October, it was Cox who made a point to say that Gonzalez would take his own approach to the role, and that it might just prove to be more successful than his own.
"We haven't won a lot in the past couple years," Cox said. "We've come close. Fredi is younger. He's got more ideas, better ideas maybe, and can get this team going again."
After his dismissal in Florida, Gonzalez returned to his suburban Atlanta home and occasionally made the short treks to watch some of the Braves' Minor Leaguers playing for Class A Rome and Triple-A Gwinnett.
While those trips gave him a chance to see some of the players that he could soon see in Atlanta, Gonzalez contends he never bought into the widespread assumption that he would be named Cox's successor.
"When I got let go by the Marlins, I didn't have that ego to think I'm going to get a job with the Braves," Gonzalez said. "First of all, I never expected to be able to manage in the Major Leagues. When I walked out of that room on [June 23], I wasn't confident I was going to get another Major League managerial job. I'm real fortunate to have the opportunity to get it here."
Cox has predicted that Braves fans will soon forget about him, like Dodgers fans forgot about the legendary Walter Alston once Tommy Lasorda began his reign in Los Angeles 34 years ago.
That obviously seems quite hard to believe. But there's no doubt that Gonzalez will ever forget what Cox has provided him, or the lessons he learned during his invaluable 3 1/2-year stint with the Marlins.
"I feel more prepared, and maybe that's why I'm more excited now to manage a Major League team than I was when I first went to Florida," Gonzalez said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.