CLEARWATER, Fla. - Bobby Cox remembers his immediate reaction to the news that the Phillies had acquired Roy Halladay.
"Holy [smoke]," Cox recalled yesterday.
That two-word first impression sums up the world of hurt Cox's Atlanta Braves squad faced at the prospect of Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee pitching for the division-rival Phillies. It was a scenario Cox was familiar with. Way back in 1993, the Braves added 20-game winner Greg Maddux to a rotation that included Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
That trio was together for 10 years, and except for the strike-shortened '94 season, led the Braves to a division title every year. In all, the Braves won 14 of 15 division titles during a run that ended in 2005 - after Maddux and then Glavine had left.
The Phillies are a long way from that kind of dynastic run, although they've already matched those Braves in World Series won. But the surest way to get from three division titles to double digits would be to add the likes of Halladay to a pennant-winning team.
So Cox, who plans to retire after this season, was justified in his somewhat profane reaction to the news.
And then he heard the second part. The Phillies had flipped Lee for prospects in a trade with the Seattle Mariners. The lefthander, who helped the Phillies during the stretch run and pitched brilliantly in the postseason, would be as far from bothering the Braves as possible.
"I was relieved on hearing that second part," Cox said. "The way Lee pitched last year, I thought it was kind of a trade-off [to add Halladay]."
Plenty of Phillies fans would agree with that sentiment, which has created a certain pass/fail dynamic for general manager Ruben Amaro this season. If the Phillies return to the World Series, Amaro completes his degree from the Pat Gillick Academy of Baseball Management and Cryptic Comments. If not, and it makes zero difference why, then Amaro's gamble will be seen as a failure. He will try to sleep at night with the echoes of five million "I told you so's" ringing in his ears.
The truth, though, is that the Phillies' three-year lease on the division could expire because Cox's Braves have gotten much, much better over the off-season. If the Phillies made a mild upgrade (at best) in getting Halladay and trading Lee, the Braves overhauled their lineup by adding Troy Glaus, Melky Cabrera, and the buzz of spring training, rookie rightfielder Jason Heyward.
The 20-year-old Heyward did not make the trip from Orlando to Clearwater, but that barely slowed the hype machine. Already compared to Albert Pujols by Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, Heyward received a downright amusing assessment from Cox.
"I think he's in there with Chipper Jones [as a hitter]," Cox said. "Now I'm not putting any great expectations on him, but I think he's going to be an all-star for a lot of years."
Way not to build up the expectations there, Bobby. Seriously, though, the universal acclaim for Heyward suggests he is the real deal - a franchise player for the next 15 years or so. With Glaus, Cabrera, Jones, Nate McLouth, Brian McCann and Martin Prado, Cox has the flexibility to bat Heyward sixth or seventh - less pressure - or up in the No. 2 or 3 spots, where he'd be better protected.
"He's always hit lefties better than righties," Cox said. "He doesn't give an inch. He's faster than I realized. He's a plus runner. He's a better outfielder than [Ryan] Klesko. I'd love to see him hit higher."
Cox is equally excited about Glaus and Cabrera. He thinks Prado is "as good as it gets" hitting out of the second spot. His closer is old pal Billy Wagner, who is 38 and coming back from Tommy John surgery. He's also throwing in the mid-90s, Cox said.
It's hard to imagine the Mets untangling the mess they've become in time to contend this year. The Washington Nationals are not an issue. The Florida Marlins are, however. They finished in second place, six games behind the Phillies last season. They could be ready for one of their cyclical (1997, 2003) rises to the top.
But the Braves were just a game behind Florida. They have made the most significant off-season additions. And they have that intangible element. Cox has decided to end his Hall of Fame managerial career. Jones, at 38, is nearing the end of his Hall of Fame playing career.
They'd love to see one more October before they go. It would be a terrific story everywhere except Philadelphia. It would require an uphill fight - older players staying healthy, young ones coming through - but it is a hill that looked a lot less steep when Cliff Lee went away, when "Holy smoke" gave way to relief.