Back in playoffs, Fredi making mentor Cox proud
Division title in tow, Braves manager takes iconic skipper's lessons into October
ATLANTA -- After including him on his staff as a graduate assistant for two years at the University of Tennessee, Rod Delmonico called Fredi Gonzalez into his office and told him he did not believe he was a good fit to coach in the Southeastern Conference.
Nearly 25 years later, it turns out Delmonico was right. Had Gonzalez remained at the collegiate level, he would never have had the opportunity to gain the respect of Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and other prominent figures who have come to admire him as a Major League manager.
"That conversation [with Delmonico] is one I have never forgotten -- and we are still friends," Gonzalez said. "But it was one of those conversations that makes you go, 'Really?' I don't know if it motivated me. But it's something I will never forget."
Nor will Gonzalez ever forget the joy he has felt since the Braves clinched the National League East title on Sept. 22. Over the week that has followed, he has received congratulatory calls from Cox, La Russa, NFL Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy and many other influential figures from the sports world who have helped mold his career.
"When La Russa called, he said congratulations and told me that everything else is gravy after winning the division," Gonzalez said. "The division is what we all fight for every year. Bobby said basically the same thing. He said some of his best teams never reached the World Series and some of the teams he took to the World Series were far from his best."
Whatever happens once postseason play begins, Gonzalez has reason to be proud about what he, his coaches and players accomplished. The journey the Braves navigated on the way to their first division title since 2005 was anything but smooth. Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Tim Hudson sustained season-ending injuries, and Jason Heyward missed a total of two months while recovering from two injuries.
Gonzalez also faced the challenge of enduring difficult seasons from B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, who proved to be two of the game's most disappointing players this year. But despite all of this, his club led the NL East by at least eight games at the end of every day that elapsed during the regular season's final two months.
"It was extreme conditions," Cox said. "It was a little hurricane going on for me. Fredi is in the top couple of managers in all of baseball. He doesn't miss a beat on anything. I don't know how he did it this year. He, the coaches and the players all held together."
When Cox ended his long, storied reign as Atlanta's manager at the end of the 2010 season, he was thrilled the team granted his wish by hiring Gonzalez to serve as his successor.
There was certainly not reason to envy Gonzalez as he succeeded a legendary manager who had won 14 consecutive division titles, five NL pennants and a World Series championship over the previous 20 years in Atlanta.
But Gonzalez has proven more than capable of accepting the challenge. The Braves have won more games than any other NL team since the start of the 2011 season and would be preparing for a third consecutive postseason appearance had they not experienced a painful September collapse two years ago.
"I hope with what he has done this year, he will get some recognition for the quality managing he has done ever since he became [the Marlins' manager] and then took over for a legend here," Braves bench coach Carlos Tosca said. "I don't think he gets enough credit for that, that he replaced a guy that was basically irreplaceable."
Long before becoming known as Cox's successor, Gonzalez was an 18-year-old catcher playing for the Yankees' Rookie Level team managed by Tosca. After his six-year Minor League playing career was complete, he experienced a brief stint at Tennessee and took the motivation supplied by Delmonico back to his hometown of Miami to manage the unaffiliated Miami Miracle of the Florida State League.
This opened the door for Gonzalez to spend 10 years in the Marlins organization as a Minor League manager and coach. He joined the Braves organization as a Triple-A manager in 2002, then spent four years on Cox's coaching staff before returning to Miami for his first job as a Major League manager.
During his 3 1/2-year stint as the Marlins' manager, Gonzalez developed a friendship with Parcells and Ron Wolf, who is widely recognized as one of the best executives in NFL history. Both Parcells and Wolf owned homes near the Spring Training complex the Marlins and Cardinals share in Jupiter, Fla.
"[Parcells] loves baseball," Gonzalez said. "I always feel bad because he can talk baseball like he has been in it his whole life, and I can't talk football like he can talk baseball to me."
When facing a pressing issue such as how to deal with a player or other situations that would be universally understood in the professional coaching world, Gonzalez has had the comfort of knowing he can call Cox, Parcells or Van Gundy to receive guidance.
"It's great to be able to hear from those kinds of voices, and you know they are going to give you an honest answer," Gonzalez said. "They're not going to just tell you what you want to hear."
After he experienced the painful disappointing final month that concluded his first season as Atlanta's manager, Gonzalez could have crumbled and allowed himself to be further crushed by the pressure of succeeding a legend.
Instead, he has spent the two years that have followed making Cox proud and feeding off some of the motivation that Delmonico fueled more than two decades ago.
"Fredi is always upbeat and ready to go the next day, no matter what happened the day before," Cox said. "He's as good as it gets."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.