HOUSTON — He surely would not agree, but Alex Cora emerged from the scandal surrounding the 2017 Houston Astros relatively clean given the alternatives.
Cora was suspended for the 2020 season for his prominent role in the sign-stealing scheme that helped the Astros win a championship. But that season lasted only 60 games and he returned to the Red Sox as manager shortly after.
Ron Roenicke was left managing a team that tanked after trading Mookie Betts. Cora was handed a better roster and the Sox arrived here Monday tied for the second-best record in the American League.
And while his reputation carries a stain that will never be scrubbed off, cheating to win baseball games was a bunch of nothing compared to the deadly pandemic and everything else that followed.
Carlos Beltran, who was fired as manager of the Mets before he got to spring training and remains out of baseball, suffered worse. So did Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, although he had it coming given the soulless, win-at-all-costs ethos he brought to the job.
In his return to Minute Maid Park, home of the battered trash can, Cora acknowledged not feeling much sense of accomplishment.
“Not my proudest moments, right?” he said.
That emotion was tempered by the Red Sox having played well, although Cora noted that before the Astros walloped his team, 11-2 on Monday at Minute Maid Park.
“I put myself in this situation. I handled the situation the way I’m going to handle it. I’m not afraid to talk about it,” Cora said. “It’s part of who I am. It’s part of my present; it was part of the past and part of my future.
“It’s something, I’m not proud of it but at the same time I’ve got a job to do, and my job is to manage the Boston Red Sox and hopefully get back to the World Series.”
As bench coach of the ’17 Astros, Cora had a close relationship with a number of Houston players. I asked him where those relationships stand given the fallout from the scandal.
“I really don’t want to go into that. There’s a lot of stuff that happened through the investigation that was tough to swallow,” he said. “But at the end, like I’ve been saying all along, I made a mistake. I went through the process and after that, MLB did the right thing. I’d rather stay away from personal relationships.”
Cora then made it a point to say Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron remains his best friend and that he really cares about shortstop Carlos Correa and catcher Martin Maldonado.
Correa was a prominent member of the ’17 team. Maldonado did not join the Astros until 2019.
Other relationships have fractured.
Cora was once particularly close with Astros third baseman Alex Bregman. But they grew apart following Major League Baseball’s investigation.
The league granted the players immunity and ultimately put the blame on Cora, Beltran, Luhnow, and former manager A.J. Hinch, who now manages the Tigers.
Even now, nearly 500 days since MLB issued its report on the Astros, Cora is bothered that Luhnow coldly referred to “the bench coach” as being behind it all.
Say this for Cora: at least he admits it.
“It happened. It happened,” he said. “It’s part of who I am, and this is going to be part of who I am for the rest of my life.”
Before the game, Cora was curious how the crowd at Minute Maid Park would react to him. But there were only a few boos when he was introduced before the game, nothing striking.
Cora also wonders how the Astros will be received at Fenway Park next week.
Yankees fans savaged the Houston players in the Bronx earlier this season and angry Dodgers fans jeered them at Minute Maid last week.
In 2017, the Astros beat the Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers in the postseason. But only a truly obtuse Sox fan would boo the Astros given their team was punished for sign stealing in 2017 and ’18.
Cora is sure to be booed with some fervor at Yankee Stadium this weekend and there are two books coming out about the Astros that will spark another round of questions.
“For people to judge me, I understand. There’s nothing I can do,” Cora said. “There’s nothing I can do to change the past. What I can do is be myself in the present and keep getting better.”
What hasn’t changed, and won’t change, is that the Astros were 2017 World Series champions. There’s a pennant above left center field that says so.
“People are going to ask why we did it. I don’t know, man. We just did it,” Cora said. “We just did it. We put ourselves in a bad situation and people are always going to talk about the 2017 Astros for what we did instead of actually the talent that we had.”