Alex Cora spent his spring calmly corralling the elephant in the room, consistently patient, contrite, and forthcoming about the season-long suspension he served away from baseball.
With the real circus just around the corner, Cora heads toward Opening Day ready to answer as many questions as there are about his role in the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme of 2017 that cost him the 2020 campaign. Exiled by Major League Baseball and the Red Sox — who parted ways with him as details of the cheating came to light — Cora could do nothing but watch from afar as the team he once managed to a championship limped through the pandemic-shortened season.
So of course it was no surprise that the spring saw him deliver many variations on the same theme: Gratitude.
“This is what I love to do,” he said. “I have a passion for the game, I enjoy it, and I’m blessed to be back.”
Yet as much as the season is framed by Cora’s second chance, his return isn’t simply a referendum on what he learned from a year outside the game. The 45-year-old manager also must answer the lingering questions about his last year in the game, when a dramatic dropoff from the 2018 World Series championship saw the Red Sox unable even to mount a defense since they didn’t make the playoffs. The third-place finish would beget the front office change from Dave Dombrowski to Chaim Bloom, which in turn begat this current chapter of cost-shedding and rebuilding.
Since Cora’s stunning managerial debut, when his magic touch was heralded for everything from bilingual communication to management of the pitching staff, the Sox have parted ways with Mookie Betts, David Price, Jackie Bradley Jr., Andrew Benintendi, and even Dustin Pedroia, who officially retired after years of chronic injuries. The failures of 2019 no doubt hastened the shift in organizational philosophy from funding lucrative contracts like those awarded to Chris Sale and Nate Eovaldi to shipping out expensive stars before they had to pay them, a la Betts.
But hindsight also exposes Cora’s 2019 effort as misguided in many ways, from a hands-off offseason with his players that allowed too many of them to report out of shape, to a hands-off spring training with his pitchers that didn’t allow enough of them to get ready for the season. The declaration Cora made at the offseason baseball writers dinner — “If you guys thought last year was special, wait till this year” — haunted him, as everything that had gone right in 2018 went wrong a year later.
And then, he cheated himself out of the chance to make it right.
So when he sits on that Fenway Park bench for Thursday’s opener against the Orioles, he isn’t just making up for one lost year, but two. He intends to do it not by ignoring the past, but by knowing that his past is his alone, and doesn’t have to apply to everyone. With a reconstructed roster and renewed purpose, it’s all eyes ahead.
“There’s no past in this group,” Cora said, “only a present and future, which is great. Where we’re at, what has happened the last few years here, we need to turn the page. That’s the nature of it. If we keep living in the past, we’re going to pay the price.”
Of course, it’s not so easy for Cora to escape his own past, and the one-season price he paid is stuck on his résumé for the rest of his baseball life. But the fact that he has accepted that so seamlessly, welcoming every chance to own up to his mistake and acknowledge his regret, is the best indication he can indeed move past it.
“If I don’t talk about it, there’s some books coming out that are going to talk about it. It’s not going away,” he acknowledged to reporters in Florida. “I’m ready for it. This is part of the process. I’m not one that hides from making mistakes or admitting mistakes, and I’ve been doing that. This is something that is going to follow me the rest of my career.
“But at the same time, I’ve got a job to do — help this team to get back to where we belong. The other stuff, that is part of my life, something that really happened and I paid the price. Maybe [talking about it] is the way for me to get it out of my system.
“At the same time, I’m pretty good about separating things. This is my story. It’s not their story. And their story is about to be written starting April 1.”
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Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.