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Cox going all-out for Braves in swan song

There's no reason to believe Bobby Cox will change his mind about retiring after this season -- he says the decision is final, non-negotiable and not up for discussion with Braves' ownership or his family. So any discussion about a surprise comeback in 2011 would just be wish-casting.

Still, the Braves might want to consider making Cox an offer he can't refuse. Or maybe they can just beg. Granted, it's not a dignified way to do business, but Cox is having one of the best seasons of his 30-year career, as the Braves have exceeded just about everyone's expectations in the East.

They're not just sitting atop the division, they're out-pacing the Mets and Phillies without many of the physical assets of some of the Braves' teams of the past.

One baseball executive recently said, "Talent-wise, I wouldn't call this one of Bobby's best teams, but you can see they're feeding off him and starting to believe in themselves. He makes them dangerous."

The Braves are taking advantage of the wide-open East, as the Phillies have struggled with injuries and the Mets' mercurial trends. They're 20 games over .500 (35-15) since May 10, and although it's obviously too early to call the race, this is the latest Atlanta has been in first place since 2005.

And so begins a critical week for the Braves, whose next six games are against the Phillies and Mets, beginning with Roy Halladay tonight. Cox, of course, is too modest and too old-school to take credit for any of this, but the Braves have his fingerprints all over them. He runs a classic National League offense that's 12th in HRs and 13th in slugging percentage. But the Braves are fourth in the league in runs, primarily because they create offense out of thin air -- first in the league in walks, second in sacrifices.

Still, it's more than just strategy that sets Cox apart from new-millennium managers. He has that John Wayne quality that exudes strength and conviction without the need for in-your-face histrionics.

If that analogy doesn't resonate, try this one from Eric Hinkse.

"He's kind of like a mob boss," Hinske told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution recently. "Everybody brings him stuff -- chairs, coffee, water. Then he makes the decision. He's like our own Tony Soprano."

The Braves have needed that wisdom, since they've spent parts of the season without Jair Jurrjens and Jason Heyward, not to mention struggling with under-production from Chipper Jones, who's currently 57 points under his career average.

All of which says a lot for a manager who could've easily coasted to the finish line. But as early as spring training, the Braves spoke about giving Cox the ultimate going-away present, sending Cox to the postseason one last time. The question is who'll replace him -- Fredi Gonzalez and Terry Pendleton are two immediate possibilities -- or whether any of this success has influenced Cox to re-think his future.

The Braves would obviously welcome Cox back if he were to change his mind. But there's no reason to believe he's wavering. Unlike Joe Torre, who keeps putting off retirement -- and still hasn't ruled out another season with the Dodgers -- Cox's decision appears to be final.

Once he leaves, the game will lose one of its most precious resources, a connection to an era before managers were slick and media savvy, or afraid of hurting their players' feelings. Today's fraternity might look better in front of a TV camera, but not many dare to move chess pieces with Cox. He'll be missed.

THE BOSS' 80TH B-DAY

The Yankees' owner spent his birthday on the Fourth in similar fashion to the rest of his days: at his Florida home, out of the spotlight, fighting a long-term battle with declining health.

The Yankees made sure to pay their respects, although there's only a handful of players -- notably Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera -- who remember what it was like to play for such a volatile owner. Steinbrenner as The Boss turned the Yankees into a controversy machine and made it hard for casual fans to root for them.

Say this much for Steinbrenner, though: he poured his profits back into the team's day-to-day operation, even if the bloated payroll invoked the wrath of other owners and the commissioner's office.

Today, with Steinbrenner all but invisible, the Yankees operate more like a Wall Street corporation. No one loses their temper, no one, except for Alex Rodriguez, makes news off the playing field. And the Bombers are certainly no less profitable; the value of the team now exceeds $1 billion, according to some estimates.

As Steinbrenner ages, it's fair to ask if his sons, Hal and Hank, will still be interested in owning and operating the team in the years to come. Some insiders believe the Yankees will be sold soon after the elder Steinbrenner's passing, although one member of the organization cautioned against thinking too far ahead.

He said, "George is a machine. He's not going anywhere."