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Make no mistake about it: Braves general manager Bobby Cox didn't want to return to managing when Atlanta fired Russ Nixon last Friday. Club president Stan Kasten pressured Cox, who is in the last year of his contract, into accepting the position. Cox has an ulcer, and after leaving his field job with the Blue Jays to rejoin the Braves in October 1985, he told friends and family that he would prefer not to manage again. But Kasten knows a good manager when he sees one, and Cox is good.
Cox will need every ounce of his ability to revive Atlanta. Nixon's managerial record—231-347 in 4½ seasons with the Braves and a last-place finish every year—is difficult to defend. But he was saddled with an atrocious bullpen and a starting rotation of pitchers who have not yet matured.
Cox had wanted advance scout Pat Corrales to take over as skipper, but now it appears that Cox will manage the Braves this year as well as next. As for replacing Cox as general manager, Syd Thrift, who held that job with the Pirates and Yankees, was in Atlanta last Saturday and is interested in the job. Former Reds, Expo and Yankee general manager Murray Cook has also been mentioned as a possible successor to Cox.
As good a field manager and evaluator of talent as Cox is, his record as general manager isn't overly impressive. He was burned on his first major trade—reliever Steve Bedrosian and outfielder Milt Thompson to the Phillies for catcher Ozzie Virgil and pitcher Pete Smith in 1985—and some observers believe he got gun-shy after that. Cox had a chance during the 1988 winter meetings to deal outfielder Dale Murphy to the Mets for third baseman Howard Johnson, outfielder Lenny Dykstra and pitcher Rick Aguilera. Now Murphy, is on the downside of a standout career, and those three are going strong.
Atlanta hasn't reached the .500 mark since 1983, when Joe Torre was manager. After his firing the following year, the club has been run, in succession, by Eddie Haas, Bobby Wine, Chuck Tanner and Nixon. This was supposed to have been the year the Braves became respectable. If any manager can make them winners, it's Cox.
THE BUDDY SYSTEM
The Mets seem to have benefited from an in-season managerial change. As of Sunday, they had won 16 of 23 games since Buddy Harrelson took over as skipper, including 13 of their last 15, to move within two games of first-place Pittsburgh in the National League East. In those 15 games, New York hit .333 with 25 homers. More important, the Mets' pitching is coming around. I Exhibit A: Doc Gooden's two-hit shutout of the Phillies last Saturday that put Gooden over .500 for the first time this season, at 6-5. Says pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, "I think I'm going to be a happy man in September."
That is something Stottlemyre's Pirate counterpart, Ray Miller, certainly hasn't been of late. On June 23, Pittsburgh lost 6-1 to the second-place Expos to fall briefly out of first place for the first time since May 25. The main reason for the Pirate slide: a banged-up staff. Ted Power (strained right triceps) is due back this week, but John Smiley (broken left hand) and Bob Walk (groin pull) are not due back until sometime close to the All-Star break.
But pitching isn't the Pirates' only shortcoming, according to outfielder R.J. Reynolds. "We're playing stupid," said Reynolds after a 7-2 loss to Philly. "We're good, but we're not that good. We're in first place, and we act like we're scared to lose. We're scared about who's pitching. We say, 'Oh, he's got good [stuff].' We fall behind, and somebody says, 'Montreal lost. We're O.K.' I wish we'd get some fire in our butts."