Alex Cora’s return to Yankee Stadium on Friday was not going to go unnoticed.
The Red Sox manager was facing the Yankees for the first time since his yearlong suspension that followed revelations of a sign-stealing scheme in which he was a key figure as Astros bench coach in 2017 — when Houston beat the Yankees in a seven-game ALCS on the way to a title.
A separate MLB investigation also discovered sign-sequence code-cracking (a lesser but still prohibited offense) by the 2018 Red Sox, a team helmed by Cora that beat the Yankees in the Division Series en route to a championship.
So what did it mean for Cora to be back in the Bronx?
“Having him back in the dugout obviously makes me want to beat them more,” said Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner, who later clarified that he was “halfway joking.”
Whether or not Gardner was joking, Cora was likely to face heightened scrutiny in Yankee Stadium, where the Astros were subjected to boos and choreographed profanities in their visit last month.
So what might it be like for Cora to play the role of the villain?
Alex Rodriguez has some familiarity with that. Between 2004 and 2016 (with a one-year interruption for his yearlong suspension in 2014 for his connection to Biogenesis), he spent 12 seasons with the Yankees as a target of Fenway Park’s ire.
To Rodriguez, who will be part of ESPN’s remote “Sunday Night Baseball” broadcast team in Bristol, Conn., for the finale of this series, Cora’s job limits the degree to which he’s turned into a focal point.
“It’s different when you’re a player and fans get to get on you a little bit; it’s different for a manager,” said Rodriguez, who has known Cora since both were teenagers. “I don’t think it compares because you’re in the dugout where nobody’s watching you.”
That said, Cora’s presence was a looming story line for the first meeting of the Red Sox and Yankees this year. The return of the Red Sox to contention in 2021 after they finished in last place in 2020 points to Cora’s impact, suggested Rodriguez.
“I think Alex Cora is the best manager in the game,” Rodriguez said. “He’s a world champion and he understands the game, 360. Obviously it’s paying dividends. I knew he would improve the team but I didn’t know it would be this paradigm shift.
“Look at the record. That shows great leadership. The Red Sox are back on the map and very competitive. The players are playing better. Alex did a difficult thing in the way that he kind of went away, kept his head down, served his time, and came back even better.”
The crowd at Yankee Stadium this weekend — the first to attend a Red Sox-Yankees game since 2019 — may not share that enthusiastic perspective.