Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

April 29, 2011

Bobby Cox and Me

Basketball writer Lang Whitaker looks back on his life and finds it intertwined with the career of the longtime manager of his beloved baseball team.

Justin Adler

Lang Whitaker conservatively estimates he's watched 1,000 Bobby Cox-managed Atlanta Braves baseball games. For more than 20 summers SLAM Magazine's former executive editor would put his girlfriend-turned-fiancé-turned-wife to bed, then park himself on the couch alongside a glowing computer and a grumbling dog to obsessively watch Braves baseball. Whitaker admired Cox's patience and persistence through 40-pitch innings and the even longer late July afternoons. He came to anticipate Cox's every move.

Lang Whitaker. Photo by Atiba Jefferson.
"A couple months before the book came out, I was thinking that maybe I was too honest."

Lang Whitaker. Photo by Atiba Jefferson.

"When you watch baseball, you spend so much time" with your team's players, said Whitaker, who admits to wearing his Braves hat like a security blanket in his own home. "They're on every single night—they're a much more constant presence in your life than basketball or football."


Listen to Lang Whitaker's talk at Varsity Letters on May 5, 2011


Ultimately, Whitaker couldn't separate the stories of his life from his boyhood team. So, as any sensible fan would do, he decided to outline his relationship with Cox's Braves in a memoir, In the Time of Bobby Cox: The Atlanta Braves, Their Manager, My Couch, Two Decades, and Me.

"I met Cox at the beginning of the book-writing process, when I was still trying to figure out what exactly the book would be and how I was going to do it," Whitaker recalls of his encounter with Cox during spring training in Florida. "Meeting him was like meeting Santa Claus. I felt like I knew him really well, but he had really only existed in my mind up until that day. So it was kind of odd to see him actually standing there in front of me. I figured the more time I spent with him, the more he would change my memories. So the next day I left Florida."

Whitaker wanted to make sure his first book kept to the fan's perspective, so he paid careful attention to not letting his traditional journalism background seep into the writing.

"My fulltime job is to write about basketball and I do a lot of reporting," said Whitaker, in reference to his position at SLAM Magazine. "I did not want to lose being a fan. If I was in the clubhouse and dugout, I thought it could change my perspective, and I did not want to take that chance."

After opting out of the press box, Whitaker returned to his couch and began mapping out the connections between the milestones of his own life and corresponding major moments in Braves history. This meant paralleling life lesson he learned from Greg Maddux with those he learned from his grandfather and relating his sobering experience trying to start a family to Bobby Cox's final game.

The middle of the book features a list of 405 Braves players from the Cox era ranked by Whitaker's own preference. "I came up with a list of Braves players that over the past 20 years have meant the most to the Braves and me," he said. "There were some guys I could not fit in there, like John Smoltz, and I did not want to force it." The list is truly Whitaker's, as Deion Sanders cracks the top 10 and other players earn their rank from 15-year old inside jokes.

"The most fun part of the process was the Maddux chapter," Whitaker said. "I got to reread old articles about him in Sports Illustrated's vault and Baseball Digest. There were a few stories about how 'normal' he was. Reporters would note finding his car's trunk full of McDonald's and Burger King wrappers. Or how he'd watch game film while eating a large pizza and bucket of buffalo wings by himself. This was perhaps the most dominant pitcher of our time, and he just ate whatever he wanted."

As much as Whitaker loves the archetype of the hardworking, conservative baseball player, epitomized in the managerial sense by Cox, he also has an affinity for flamboyant, offbeat players. For example, Sanders earned a spot in Whitaker's heart, and high on his list, by carving a dollar sign in the dirt before he entered the batter's box. And while the book highlights eccentric athletes whose lifestyles differ greatly from his own, Whitaker does not shy away from connecting these often-whimsical athletes to deep, personal issues—such as his and his wife's struggles to have a kid. "I tried to be as honest as I could," Whitaker said. "A couple months before the book came out, I was thinking that maybe I was too honest."

This April, Whitaker resigned from the executive editor position at SLAM, a position he's held for the last 11 years, to pursue other projects that he is still developing. But he is quick to point out he is not taking a sabbatical from sports. "On my first day off, the Braves played the Brewers," Whitaker said. "I sat and watched the whole game. It was great."

He will continue writing for SLAM as an editor at large, while freelancing for other outlets such as FoodRepublic.com, a site co-founded by chef Marcus Samuelson where Whitaker writes a column on his favorite meal of the week. Aside from a few other writing-based passion projects that have been on his backburner for far too long, Whitaker is unsure what the future holds for him. Surely, though, wherever he is, TBS will be flickering in the background with the Braves faithful chopping merrily along.

Whitaker is not deluding himself into believing his love for the Braves is reciprocal. When asked if he thought Cox or any player mentioned in the book would perhaps read his ode to all things Braves, Whitaker responded in earnest, "I kinda hope they have better things to do. I expect they do."

Front-page image of Bobby Cox courtesy of SD Dirk's flickr via Creative Commons.

Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.







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Article by Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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