FORT MYERS, Fla. — A sloppy 7-6 loss in a seven-inning exhibition game played in front of a socially-distanced crowd of 2,154 on Sunday was not a particularly grand stage for Alex Cora to make his return to the dugout as a manager.
But it was meaningful just the same after a 17-month hiatus, most of it the result of his season-long suspension from baseball for helping the Houston Astros cheat their way to a championship when he was their bench coach in 2017.
Cora crossed the line and paid the price. Unless you’re an angry sort who doesn’t believe in second chances, he was back where he belongs, and with the right team, too.
“This is what I do,” Cora said.
Managing the Red Sox requires an understanding of what baseball means to Boston and the ability not to let that overwhelm you. Cora has those qualities along with the teaching skills required for what is an increasingly younger roster put together by Chaim Bloom.
“I’m excited to have him back. I really missed him. Everybody missed having him around,” said Nate Eovaldi, who hit 99 miles per hour three times but lacked command. “His baseball mind is unbelievable. It seems like he doesn’t miss anything.”
There wasn’t much time for Cora to reflect on the significance of the day. The Sox had eight pitchers throwing live batting practice at Fenway South in the morning and going on the road, even just a few miles down Daniels Parkway, meant adhering to another set of pandemic protocols.
“It’s a challenge. But who am I to complain?” Cora said. “It’s a good day for me, honestly. That’s the way I see it.”
There was no reaction from the crowd when Cora was introduced before the game or when he went to home plate to meet with the umpires and wave at Twins manager Rocco Baldelli.
Cora is sure to run into some hecklers along the way this season, especially in the Bronx. But this was a day everybody seemed thrilled just to be at a game.
“I’m not going to be paying attention to that,” Cora said. “I’m happy to be in the dugout. It was a great day just to be around and talking baseball.”
Cora said his goal was for the Sox to play a clean game. That will have to wait for Monday.
The Sox allowed five runs in a 35-pitch second inning that included Eovaldi hitting a batter, Kiké Hernández throwing the ball away on a rundown, and a nervous prospect named Caleb Simpson walking three of the five batters he faced.
A new rule allows managers to end the inning if their pitcher has thrown 20 pitches and Cora ran up the white flag with the Sox down, 5-1, after Simpson allowed a two-run double by Miguel Sano.
“We have to take care of players, but it’s weird,” Cora said.
The Sox came back to take a 6-5 lead, scoring twice in the sixth inning. Jonathan Araúz had an RBI triple and scored on a single by Jeter Downs.
Araúz threw away a double-play ball in the bottom of the sixth inning, the error helping the Twins score twice.
In another oddity of pandemic rules, the bottom of the seventh inning was played even though the Twins were leading. The Red Sox were able to get righthander Kaleb Ort an inning and the Twins some more at-bats for their players.
Spring training standings are always meaningless, but never more so than they will be this season. Good luck to anybody bringing their scorebook to the game.
Cora is looking forward to returning to Fenway Park and games that count. Sunday was another welcome step on that road.
“It was amazing. Just to walk around, talk baseball, teach the game,” he said. “I put myself in that situation last year and now I’m back.
“I thank Chaim for the opportunity to give me a shot at the job and them to trust me that I can do the job.”