As Alex Cora pulled into JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla., earlier this month, a wave of excitement washed over him. He was reminded of the early spring of 2018, his first season as Red Sox manager, when each day arrived with the electrifying sense of possibility.
The sense of renewal in Cora’s rehiring was hardly limited to him. He is both a reminder and promise of better times for a franchise coming off a last-place embarrassment, a dugout presence whose hand-in-glove fit with the Red Sox never went away.
“When we made the decision to bring him back, I thought there might be a little bit of an adjustment period. There was not,” assistant general manager Eddie Romero said. “From Day One, it was all systems go.”
“It feels like he never left,” pitcher Nate Eovaldi agreed. “It feels like he didn’t miss a game last year.”
Yet Cora did miss 2020, and he did for a particular reason: He and the Red Sox decided that he should abandon his managerial post in the wake of revelations about his central role in a cheating scandal by the Houston Astros in 2017, an offense that eventually resulted in a year-long suspension by Major League Baseball.
That absence, and the cause of it, will work as a kind of prism, coloring his return in numerous ways. On one hand, the sign-stealing and resulting punishment will forever stain Cora’s résumé, and will command scrutiny in the year to come.
But the time away from the game in the middle of a pandemic also created space for reflection, on the scandal and to confront past managerial challenges, particularly those that confronted him in a disappointing 2019 season. With that time came the possibility for growth — and potentially lessons that will shape whether Cora’s return is a success.
“Alex definitely has expressed that, as is typical of anyone, you learn more from when things don’t go well than when things do go well,” Red Sox GM Brian O’Halloran said.
Turning something that didn’t go well into something that does is what Cora’s return is all about. What was already one of the most visible and demanding positions in baseball will assume additional complexity as Cora must stand accountable for his past even as he tries to steer the Sox toward success in the present.
“That’s my reality,” Cora said. “I have to deal with it. I’m ready to deal with it. My family is ready to deal with it. Are we going to have obstacles or bad days? One hundred percent . . .
“But if I lost the fire to manage, I’d be home right now. If I didn’t feel like I could do this and do it with the same intensity and conviction that I did in ’18 and ’19, I’d say no, I’ll stay home, do ESPN. That was the easy way. But I still have the fire, I still have the conviction, and I still believe in the process that I have.”
Not going to hide from it
There has been a degree of frenzy to Cora’s return, as if he’s trying to condense the time he missed into his preparations for the 2021 season. The whir of activity has been constant: conversations with the coaching staff, free agent recruiting calls, catching up with players, watching video from the past year, organizing spring training while navigating the protocols of a pandemic, planning how advance scouting information and analytics will be used.
“We haven’t stopped,” Cora said just before the start of spring training. “It’s been so busy since November . . . that I haven’t been able to actually slow it down and realize where I’m at.”
Of course, that schedule is the opposite of what Cora faced from the time he left the Sox in January 2020 until the conclusion of the World Series. Last season he watched baseball, but the exercise seemed hollow and lacked purpose. Games were a reminder of his exile and its self-inflicted nature, a reminder of the magnitude of the transgressions.
Over time, Cora achieved an understanding about his suspension and departure — one that remains unaltered by the team’s decision to re-hire him.
“I was out of the game for the wrong reasons, and deservedly so,” Cora said. “Moving forward, I’m not going to hide it.”
The “wrong reasons” — participation in schemes to steal sign sequence information from opposing teams and then, more egregiously, to use a closed-circuit camera to steal the signs themselves and then communicate what was coming by banging on a trash can — cannot be erased. For that reason, Cora shoos away any suggestion that a return offers the possibility of redemption.
“I don’t see it that way. I made a mistake, I paid the price, and now I’m here . . . I just made a mistake in ’17 and paid the price in 2020. That’s it,” he said. “That’s part of my story. It’s going to be with me the rest of my career. I will deal with that. I know that. But at the same time, while I deal with it, I have to manage the Red Sox. This is a great job. I have to do my job if I want to be here for a long, long time.”
Yet part of his job is now accounting for those misdeeds. In meetings, Cora has apologized on numerous occasions to members of the organization and the position in which it put the organization. As the Sox pursued free agents this offseason, he made clear that they could confront him with any questions they had about his wrongdoing.
“If they want to know more, or if they have something to tell me, my office is open,” Cora said.
There will be more accounting to be done. Cora noted that books on the Astros scandal are scheduled for publication in 2021. Additionally, Cora expects that fans who return to ballparks this year won’t be shy about voicing their feelings.
“There are going to be people that agree with me coming back, people that don’t agree,” Cora said. “It can get loud, and it might be louder this year for obvious reasons.”
Looking to be better
Cora can do little about those external views — save for ensuring that he goes nowhere near future rules violations.
“Now that he’s gone through what he’s gone through, he realizes the importance of staying above-board,” Romero said. “That’s been one of the main topics we’ve all driven down. I think he understands it now better than ever, and I think that’s something he’s going to champion going forward.”
The understanding that another infraction could end his career is one area that will distinguish Cora’s second term as Red Sox manager. Yet there are other, more traditional aspects of his role where the team also hopes to see Cora progress, in elements that went askew in the third-place finish in 2019.
Following the 2018 World Series, the Sox wanted to permit their players a chance to rest and recover. Yet the hands-off approach seemed to backfire, with some returning in less-than-ideal shape.
Then, once the players returned to mount a title defense, the attitude had shifted. What had been a team-first focus for nearly all of 2018 turned by the spring of 2019, with players talking almost obsessively about their potential future contracts and earnings rather than collective goals.
“There was just an overwhelming sense of selfishness in ’19 that hadn’t been there in ’18,” one member of that team said.
Moreover, team officials had to navigate internal discord, particularly when it came to the incorporation of analytics into pitching game plans — a topic that often consumed the coaching staff and got in the way of time that could have been spent working with pitchers to address struggles.
Cora downplays the significance that those dynamics played in the team’s poor finish, suggesting that such issues exist on all teams and typically come to the surface only when a team falls short of expectations, and that the team’s 84-78 record was a reflection chiefly of injuries to the pitching staff.
“We had conflicts in ’18. The difference was that we won 108 games,” Cora said. “We had stuff that happened in the clubhouse and stayed in the clubhouse, which is cool. Sometimes when things don’t go right, people can point at stuff like that and make excuses. We just didn’t play well.”
Even so, members of the Red Sox suggested Cora has worked to head off the kinds of issues that accumulated during the 2019 season. Even during the pandemic, the team’s oversight of players’ offseason routines was amplified, with coaches arranging to work in-person with several players. The staff was reorganized in an effort to more seamlessly incorporate front-office data into game planning. Spring training drills were overhauled to create a more energetic atmosphere.
It’s not hard to connect the dots and see a response by Cora to the areas that proved most challenging in his first stint.
“He has been very active in addressing those,” Romero said. “We’ve been able to freely share with him where we thought he was good, where we thought we needed some improvement. He has been very engaged in that, asking questions, soliciting recommendations as to how he can improve in those areas.”
Cora remains mindful that he has been given a second crack at a dream job, that the front office and owners proved willing to bring him back into a role he loves, and one for which many believe he’s well suited. The hope of those who brought him back is that their faith will be rewarded.
“He’s continued to evolve as a person and as a professional as one would expect with what I would term multiple extreme experiences — what we’ve all gone through with COVID, certainly the investigation and suspension,” O’Halloran said. “I’m very confident that Alex will learn from 2018, from 2019, and he’ll learn from 2020, when he was at home. I feel very confident that he goes into 2021 poised to be the best manager that he’s been.”
A semi-official milestone arrives Sunday, when the Red Sox play the Twins in a spring training game — placing Cora back in the dugout for the first time since a walkoff victory over the Orioles on the final day of the 2019 season. It is an opportunity for which he’s grateful, yet also features a sense of fragility.
“This is where I wanted to be. This is where I’m at. I love every second of it. I’m not going to take it for granted,” said Cora. “I’m looking forward to being here for a lot of years, but you never know what can happen . . . I’ve lived it already.”