The Red Sox are off to Florida, happy to put the Massachusetts snow and cold in their rear-view mirror, ready to turn the page on a terrible 2020.
They take their first sun-drenched steps into what they hope is a better 2021 with a World Series-winning manager back in the dugout. As Alex Cora opened spring by sharing his optimism for a return to championship form, the backdrop of a new baseball order was drawn.
But before the Sox completely erase the memory of a disappointing, COVID-altered, drama-filled 2020 season, they should give one final nod of thanks to a different manager. Ron Roenicke has moved on, recently joining the Dodgers as a front office special assistant and spring training instructor, but the quiet, unassuming career baseball man who shepherded the Sox through the strangest year in recent memory leaves a trail of dignity in his wake.
An unexpected second chance for the 64-year-old to manage in the majors dawned amid a trail of hurdles and complications, ultimately ending with Roenicke not being retained and Cora returning in his place. And he remembers it all well.
“Last year was the hardest year,” Roenicke said in a phone interview from Arizona, where the Dodgers also opened spring training. “Those two months felt like six months.
“It was really about trying to survive, trying to do the right things by everybody, and just getting through the season. I know that’s not how it’s supposed to be. Your focus should be to win, and obviously you still want to win, and my focus was still on getting players to play the best they can. That helped me get through it.”
And helped the Sox get through it. As Sox president Sam Kennedy put it, “He did the right thing at every turn and was such a great role model for the coaching staff and the players. He kept everything together during a period of time where everything around us was falling apart, literally in the country, and also in the baseball world.
“He’s just such a class act.”
Normally, words like “hard,” “long,” “challenging,” “strange,” “disappointing,” and “frustrating” would not be ones to fuel a happy memory. But even with hindsight, Roenicke looks at his year behind the manager’s desk with no regrets, no rancor.
“My wife asked me, ‘If you knew you were going to be let go and you’d have to go through all you did, would you still do the job?’ and I said yes,” Roenicke said. “As hard as it was, I really enjoyed the challenge of it.
“I knew taking over from Alex was going to be weird, but I truly believed last year I was the right person to put in that job and get us through that season. I felt it was best for the organization, for the players, for everyone, that I was the right person. The big opportunity to manage again, that wasn’t really in my thoughts.
“It was just the right thing to do. And I think when we go through tough times and then come out of them, we learn from it, get stronger from it, and I think you’re able to help other people somewhere else down the line with the things that happened.”
The Dodgers now get the benefit of that wisdom, much of it provided by the 2020 experience.
Begin with Cora and the Red Sox parting ways last January once his role in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal of 2017 came to light — an offense for which he would later be suspended one season by MLB. That opened the void Roenicke was asked to fill when he was named manager in February.
That was challenging enough, but new chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and ownership were in cost-cutting mode, having traded two of the team’s best players, Mookie Betts and David Price, to the Dodgers. Roenicke then saw another star head for the surgeon’s table when Chris Sale needed Tommy John surgery.
In addition, the COVID crisis was shattering norms in a sports world built on routines. The virus would claim another key piece of the roster when Eduardo Rodríguez was shut down for the season after his COVID infection led to myocarditis.
Meanwhile, a roiling, national social justice movement had followed in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, exposing raw nerves and racial issues across baseball.
“It wasn’t like ‘if’ something is going to happen next, it was ‘what is going to happen after this?’ ” Roenicke said.
“It was a long season. It was every day, having to not only talk about COVID, but something would come up that I had to make sure was done right, almost daily. Chaim and I were going through the same thing; it was his first year and he really did a good job staying positive. We were talking all day about what to do.
“It was nonstop because we were really concerned about doing this in a way players felt comfortable and safe. That’s why it was so difficult.
“Usually I’m concerned about the media and then the players, and that’s it — that’s all I have to be concerned about. And those I’m used to, I can handle; they don’t bother me at all. But when you throw in something that you’re not good at — which I’m not a very good doctor, I’m not good at social injustice issues — all these things added to the challenge.”
He met it. And now, he hands it back to his friend Cora, a man he believes is back where he belongs and with whom he maintains a strong connection.
Roenicke considered staying with the Sox in some capacity (not as bench coach again, with all the travel that goes with it), but the native Californian and former Dodger outfielder jumped at the chance when his hometown team called.
“Alex did such a great job in those first couple of years,” said Roenicke, “and with Chaim there now and for a long time to come, he should hire who he wants to hire, someone for the long term, and I think Alex is the perfect fit. No matter what, I wasn’t going to be there for five years.”
He was there for one really important one, and that was more than enough.