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10/02/10 11:10 PM ET

Cox classy as usual in face of adversity

Braves' skipper calm while striving for one last postseason

ATLANTA -- Bobby Cox sat almost alone in the Braves dugout the other night staring out at Turner Field's lush grass, the familiar twinkle in his eyes. The non-stop interviews were nearing an end and it was almost time to play baseball.

"Legacy?" He repeated my question.

"I don't really know," he finally said. "I am who I am. Whatever you think about me is what you think about me. I've always tried to be a respectful person. I learned that from my family growing up, and that's the way I basically have lived my life."

Trying to define the Bobby Cox legacy is not easy, but his words "I am who I am" are accurate. What makes him so special is that he handles the highs and lows virtually the same.

That was never more evident as a glorious Saturday afternoon turned into a gloomy Saturday evening.

Cox, who's retiring once the Braves end play this year, has been praised and feted and presented a myriad of gifts at every baseball stop as his final days in uniform dwindle to a mere few.

Saturday afternoon in what had to be the most meaningful moment in this long farewell took place at Turner Field. The Braves honored their beloved manager during an elaborate pregame ceremony.

Nearly 100 former players, baseball executives, friends and family took part during the compelling 30-minute appreciation, and Bobby even shed a tear when Chipper Jones said something to his manager as the program was ending.

Sadly, the baseball gods didn't shine down on Bobby Cox this day.

An Atlanta victory and a San Diego setback would have sent the Braves to the playoffs for the 15th time during Cox's illustrious regime. It didn't happen.

The Phillies, tuning up for their postseason, thrashed the Braves, 7-0, to the horror of 54,296, the largest crowd in Atlanta baseball history.

Maybe it had to happen this way to give us a glimpse of the vintage Bobby Cox -- why he's such a superb manager and an even greater human being.

I cannot imagine a person being on such a high, then crashing down several hours later and not reacting differently.

The Braves were dreadful Saturday. After Tommy Hanson pitched five scoreless innings, they collapsed.

But Cox didn't.

He sat behind his desk after the game as calm and methodical as if his team had just won.

"I felt like we could have won both [Friday and Saturday]," Cox said without a hint of desperation in his voice. "Tomorrow, we need to score early and give the pitcher [Tim Hudson] a little breathing room.

"We're still breathing, San Diego is still breathing and the Giants are breathing hard. [The Giants] have done what we've done -- lost two in a row to the wrong teams. We need to win."

Cox was almost mellow when he talked about the ceremony.

"It was unbelievably great," he said, that twinkle showing again. "It was more than one could ever expect -- somebody to put on a tribute like that. I'm thankful to the fans and the Braves. I just wish we had given them a better game."

On Friday afternoon, I ran into former umpire Charlie Reliford and mentioned something about the record 158 times Cox has been ejected from games.

"I've kicked him out several times," said Reliford. "The next day it was as if it never happened. That's Bobby. Once, he even told me what a great game I called -- a game in which I tossed him."

On Sunday, if Atlanta beats Philadelphia and San Diego loses to San Francisco, the Braves go to the postseason as the National League Wild Card. That's the cleanest route to the Division Series for them. Other scenarios are more complicated, the worst being Atlanta not making it.

That would be heartbreaking for the Braves and their fans who want to return the 69-year-old Cox back to the postseason.

When Jones announced the team is giving Bobby and his wife, Pam, an 11-day Mediterranean cruise, it seemed like the reality of retirement began to sink in.

"The focus has been on the team and winning and trying to get back in the playoffs, but I'm starting to feel it because I've been interviewed about it so much," Cox said.

From the moment he announced plans to retire at season's end, I always thought he might reconsider. After 51 years, it's hard to take off the uniform and not go to the ballpark each morning.

"There's no turning back now," he said. "My wife has some trips planned for us -- in April, too! They're prepaid, so we have to go.

"I just want to take her away for awhile, away from baseball, and do some things we've never been able to do before."

It was too bad Saturday couldn't have had the perfect ending -- an Atlanta victory and a San Diego loss.

"We led our division for almost 3 1/2 months," Cox said. "Philly got very strong and moved ahead. They were hard to catch, but we knew there are always two races -- the Wild Card and the division. The Wild Card is what we're trying for now. I told our players from Day 1 it doesn't make any difference how we get there. Our priority is always the division title, but you can have success as a Wild Card."

That's what's left for Cox and the Braves now.

Sunday will be another of those special days.

For Cox, it will be excruciating if his managerial career abruptly ends by sundown.

If it does, the hurt will be deep. But he'll swallow hard and tell his players how proud he is of them.

And he'll move on to his next life, but baseball will never be the same.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.