No mojo needed; Cox just hits
First baseman takes some ribbing for his obsessive routine, but Rays couldn't do without team-best numbers.
|[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Whenever the national anthem is played before games, Steve Cox takes the same spot on the field. "I just like a routine," he said.
By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 14, 2002
ST. PETERSBURG -- There is something Steve Cox wants to make perfectly clear.
Just because he likes to eat lunch by himself at the same St. Petersburg restaurant nearly every game day, and just because he wears the same postal service cap to the ballpark most days, and just because he goes on the field at practically the same time with the same teammate (Chris Gomez), and just because he stands in precisely the same position for the national anthem, and just because he keeps his bat and his helmet in the same slots in the dugout racks, and just because he waits in exactly the same spot for his turn to hit, he is not -- absolutely, positively not -- superstitious.
"I just don't like change," Cox said. "I feel bad for my wife (Sara), because she knows how I am. Once I get in a routine, I don't like mixing it up very much.
"It's not like I walk the same way every day or say the same thing. It's just that I have a routine like anybody has a routine. You wake up, brush your teeth. ... I just like a routine."
And his teammates love to tease him about it.
"Baseball players are taught to do the same thing every day, and I guess Cox lives by it," Jason Tyner said. "It's sort of like Groundhog Day."
They kid him about his schedule, his preferences, his quest for order. "He's kind of a freak in general," close buddy Ben Grieve said.
"Tyner was joking the other day how it seems like Coxsie even says hello to him at the same time every day," Brent Abernathy said.
One time, the story goes, Randy Winn invited himself along for lunch, knowing full well Cox would be uneasy with the idea. Supposedly Cox, after much wavering, agreed -- but only with the provision that Winn sit at a separate table.
"I was just kidding with him," Cox said. "These guys think everything I do is superstitious and they're wrong. Everyone thinks everything I do has a meaning behind it, but it's not true. These guys make up stuff about me all the time."
What no one disputes is how valuable Cox has been to the Rays. Six weeks into his first season as an everyday player in the big leagues, the 27-year-old has been nothing short of a hit.
"Whatever he's doing, I'd keep doing it," Tyner said.
Cox leads the Rays with a .323 average and has ranked among the league's top 10 hitters for most of the season. He is tied for second on the power-challenged team with three homers and third with 17 RBIs.
"He makes consistently good contact with the ball," said Grieve, who played with Cox in Oakland's minor-league system. "There haven't been too many at-bats in a row where it doesn't look like he's locked in."
Once during spring training, Grieve said he thought Cox one day could win a batting title. Now he says it could happen as soon as this season.
"I don't think there's a Wade Boggs or Tony Gwynn type who's going to hit .380, .370 the whole year," Grieve said. "I think .340, .350 could win a batting title, and he could do that. With the swing he has now, he definitely could do that."
Cox wants no part of that conversation. Or any suggestion he could be the Rays' All-Star representative. Not that it's a superstition or anything, but he just doesn't like to talk about doing well.
To hear Cox tell it, he's just a guy out there battling, trying to get comfortable at the plate and do what he can.
"Lately I haven't been feeling that great, but I don't feel like I don't have a chance," he said.
A November 1997 expansion draft pick from Oakland, Cox emerged with a monster 1999 season at Triple-A Durham, hitting .341 with 25 home runs and 127 RBIs, winning the league MVP and organization minor-leaguer of the year awards. (He also had an insider's view to what became the hit movie The Rookie as Cox was the player promoted to the majors that September with teacher-turned-pitcher Jim Morris, though the film makes no mention of him.)
The Rays responded by signing veteran first baseman Fred McGriff to a new two-year contract, meaning Cox would spend most of the 2000 and 2001 seasons on the bench or miscast as an outfielder or a DH.
McGriff is gone now, and Cox has become one of the key players in the lineup, with a chance to cement his future because he'll be eligible for arbitration -- and the huge raise it brings -- next season. He makes $280,000 this season.
"This is a big year to determine what kind of player he is," manager Hal McRae said. "A big year for the organization and a big year for Coxsie."
Cox has learned a few things, about being patient, about how to get himself out of slumps, about realizing he'll never find the perfect swing, while relishing the opportunity to play every day.
He even has been able to cut back on some of the specifics of his, um, routine. For example, Cox -- who was born on Halloween -- now has three restaurants in his lunch rotation.
"I'm not as bad as I used to be," he said. "If someone messes with me, it's not going to throw me for a loop."
But why take any chances?
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