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Alex Cora Never Lost His Edge

Leading a World Series contender in your first managerial gig might be daunting, but the Boston Red Sox manager spent his entire career making sure he was ready for anything.

by Rachael McDaniel
Oct 25 2018, 6:26pm

John G. Mabanglo/EPA-EFE

Little remains to be said about Alex Cora’s performance as manager of the 2018 Boston Red Sox—now with 117 wins on the year—that hasn’t been said already, in glowing, effusive terms, over and over again. Managers are most often in the headlines for their missteps; the work of a good manager, in making the decisions that need to be made and keeping lines of communication clear in the clubhouse, would seem to be largely invisible. But Cora has bucked that trend this postseason. He has made bold decisions—Rick Porcello and Chris Sale out of the bullpen, Brock Holt and Rafael Devers into the lineup, Craig Kimbrel for six outs, Eduardo Nuñez to pinch-hit. These decisions would have been questioned and scorned unto infinity had they backfired. None of them have.

If the Red Sox win the World Series this year, it will be because they were the best team in baseball. They had the pitching staff, headed by Sale and Price, with Kimbrel’s shadow looming in the back end of the bullpen. They had a lineup almost without flaw, with Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Xander Bogaerts, and J.D. Martinez leading the onslaught. But the best team doesn’t always win in the postseason. In the postseason, even the slightest edge can be the difference between defeat and the ultimate victory. And with rookie manager Cora at the helm, the Red Sox have seized every edge and clung to it.

Not that long ago, in 2011, Alex Cora was a light-hitting utility infielder for the Washington Nationals. When he sat down for an interview with MASN, the first line of questioning was not about his current status, nor about the 13 seasons of major league experience behind him. It was about his college days: with the University of Miami, Cora had been the top-rated defensive infielder in all of college baseball.

The 13 seasons Cora had managed to stay in the major leagues were, indeed, largely on the virtue of his defensive talents, his ability to play multiple infield positions well. His bat never quite measured up. Cora’s best season at the plate came in 2002, when he batted .291/.371/.434 with five homers: a good line, but one still too light on power. Two years later, he would slash .264/.364/.380 in his final season with the Dodgers, the team that had drafted him in 1996.

After that season, Cora never played full-time again. He had a stint in Cleveland, then in Boston. He was part of their World Series championship campaign in 2007. But he was also viewed by Red Sox fans and media members as a symptom of that team’s inability to find a real everyday shortstop. Cora was just another name passing through an endlessly revolving door. He played much the same role in his season-and-change with the Mets. The Mets released him mid-season in 2010; the Rangers picked him up, then released him less than a month later. He found his home for 2011 only with the Washington Nationals, a team coming off a 69-93 season.

Still, after all that—after almost a decade of being relegated to occasional appearances, Cora professed a belief in his ability to play every day. He prepared for every game as though he were going to be a starter; if anything, he suggested, his constantly precarious role led him to be even more prepared. “If you lose that edge,” he told MASN, “in a month or two months you’re gonna be out the door.” It was the same edge that, when the Mets went 2-9 on a July 2010 roadtrip, led him to chastise a player for joking around with reporters. It was the same edge that showed when he described his transition to a bench role in these terms: “Someone decided I wasn’t good enough.”

Cora played in 91 games for the 80-81 Nationals, finishing the season with a paper-thin .224/.287/.276 line. In January 2012, as yet unsigned by a major league team, he announced his retirement from the Puerto Rican Baseball League’s Criollos de Caguas, with whom he had played every year since the winter of 1996-1997. Los Criollos have been in Cora’s hometown of Caguas since 1938, winners of 18 league championships and five Caribbean Series championships. Cora was part of two league championships, one a decade removed from the other. His retirement from his hometown team signalled the beginning of the end. A month later, he signed with the Cardinals. They released him at the end of spring training, and thus the book closed on Alex Cora, professional baseball player.

Cora stayed around the game post-retirement. He was the general manager of Puerto Rico’s World Baseball Classic team, was both manager and general manager of Los Criollos, did analysis on ESPN. He interviewed for a few managerial positions. None materialized. Until, in November 2016, he was announced as the bench coach of the Houston Astros. A year later, in the middle of an Astros postseason run that would culminate in a World Series victory, Cora was announced as the new manager of the Boston Red Sox. He would be taking the helm of a team that had shown the talent, but failed to achieve the postseason heights expected of them. He would have the spotlight of the Boston media on every decision he made. It was a challenging situation for any manager, let alone someone managing for the first time. With the World Series as a goal, the decision to hire a rookie was questionable.

What has Cora done in his year as manager? He’s advanced the team’s use of analytics in their game-planning. He relaxed limitations on self-expression. He used his platform to deliver desperately-needed aid to his hurricane-stricken hometown in Puerto Rico, and spoke out when the devastation the island experienced was dismissed by the President. The Red Sox have had dynamic, charismatic young stars for a few years now. Under Cora, they have finally seemed to embrace the full extent of the talent they have—both on the field and off. Even the doubters and Sox-haters have to have been converted somewhat by this postseason run: the stunning catches, the clutch home runs, the two-out magic. They are a special team. It will take some kind of comeback from the currently listless Dodgers to knock them out of this groove.

And guiding them, putting the pieces in place for the Red Sox to succeed as brilliantly as they have, has been Cora. He, the 43-year-old first-time manager, has already led the Red Sox to the best season in franchise history. No matter how this series ends—should the magic run out, the decisions start to backfire, the Dodgers offense regain its pulse—that alone is worth celebrating. A World Series title would only put a crown on that achievement.

Less than a decade ago, sitting on the bench, Cora continued to prepare as though he were a starter. To believe that he was good enough, that he deserved to be playing and winning. Now, sitting on the bench, he gives the Red Sox the edge he nurtured as a player all those years. Now everyone knows just how good he is.

Alex Cora’s most memorable moment as a player was in 2004, that final season before he was permanently relegated to the bench. On a May evening at Dodger Stadium, batting in the bottom of the seventh, he battled Cubs pitcher Matt Clement for 17 pitches before sending the MLB-record 18th out of the ballpark. Throughout the entire ordeal—through foul ball after foul ball, the crowd’s anticipation rising after each pitch—Cora’s expression remained the same. Cool and focused, mouth set, he barely seemed to be breaking a sweat.

When he connected on that 18th pitch, Cora tossed the bat aside with an ease that was almost casual. It was only when he’d rounded the bases, turning to face his teammates waiting for him at the top of the dugout steps, that he finally smiled.

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