WASHINGTON — For Alex Cora, emotions swirled when the Red Sox clinched their wild-card berth Sunday.
The accomplishment of a 92-win season that wildly surpassed expectations and secured a playoff game at Fenway Park against the Yankees Tuesday night represented something significant. Yet for Cora, amidst praise from members of the team for his stewardship through a turbulent season, there was unavoidably more.
A year earlier, he sat in exile, suspended by MLB during the 2020 season for his role as the bench coach of the 2017 Astros in an industry-roiling sign-stealing scandal. During the final series of the season, thoughts of that time away from the game — particularly its impact on his family — loomed.
“I put them in such a horrible spot,” said Cora. “Obviously, we all know where I was [in 2020] and why, but we decided as a family to give it a shot again. Sometimes I think about them, all the sacrifices and everything that went on because of what I did … They suffered a lot and I know they’re enjoying this, they’re having a blast and love this team. That’s what I was thinking about [when clinching].”
Cora delighted in the late-season excitement of his baseball-obsessed family with the nightly dynamics of the playoff race. So, too, did he remain mindful of the privilege found in the day-to-day task of working in a team setting to achieve a common goal.
During still moments in the dugout, he took time to appreciate the ground beneath him. Between the suspension and the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down not just the sport but the world for so much of 2020, he came to look at his position differently.
“I get locked in half an hour before the game in the dugout, but at the same time, I reflect, ‘OK, this is cool’ — for all the right reasons,” said Cora. “I’m not thinking back to what happened, but it’s like, ‘Don’t take it for granted. This is cool, regardless of the situation.’ I still enjoy it. I still have passion.
“From my end, I appreciate everything,” he said. “I’m not taking any day for granted. I love it. I love what I’m doing.”
He possesses a different perspective not only at the field but away from it. The combination of unemployment and the pandemic reset the dimensions of his life.
When Cora went back to work, he did not want to lose the sense of connectedness to his family — particularly his longtime girlfriend, Angelica; their twin sons; and his daughter, Camila, who is in her first year in college — that he gained through the most difficult time of his career.
“I’ve done a better job off the field. The computer most of the time stays in the clubhouse. The iPads most of the time stay in the clubhouse,” said Cora. “That’s created balance — understanding how much they mean to me, to give them their time, to go to the playground during the day before I go to Fenway. Before, I was like, ‘You’ve got to be locked in — grind, grind, grind.’ I’m locked in and I’m grinding, but I’m doing a better job as far as time management.”
His perspective on the job is different. But the job itself has also changed from the one he held in 2018 (when the Sox won the World Series) and 2019 (when they finished a disappointing 84-78).
For starters, there’s been considerable turnover on a young coaching staff, with Cora surrounded by a new group of confidantes. Instead of a bench coach with prior big league managing experience (Ron Roenicke, who became Red Sox manager in 2020 with Cora gone), Will Venable — a rising star in the coaching ranks — is in his first year as bench coach. While pitching coach Dave Bush, bullpen coach Kevin Walker, and assistant hitting coach Pete Fatse were on the staff in 2020, Cora notes that this is the first full (non-pandemic-shortened) season for all, and the first time he’s worked alongside them.
Meanwhile, though some longtime pillars of the roster remain — Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, J.D. Martinez, Christian Vázquez, Chris Sale once he returned from Tommy John surgery — the roster turnover of the last two years has been far-reaching.
Mookie Betts, David Price, Rick Porcello, Mitch Moreland, Brock Holt, and Andrew Benintendi are gone. Kiké Hernández, Hunter Renfroe, Garrett Richards, and Kyle Schwarber are among those who are new to the club in 2021, a contrast to the pre-established group that awaited Cora upon his initial arrival in 2018.
“That group was together for so long,” said Cora. “This is a good group, a different group, but they’ve been amazing … We added some guys throughout the process that they actually feel like they’ve been here forever.”
There has been a shared purpose and sense of toughness in the group, with the word “resilient” used freely by many players in discussing their collective identity. That trait certainly proved necessary on a team for which winning did not come easily, particularly in the final three months of the season.
The 2018 title team had been a juggernaut. They thrived on taking early leads and proved unrelenting in maintaining them. They broke away from the pack early and never endured a prolonged performance dip, allowing the team to cruise across the regular-season finish line with a franchise-record 108 victories, a steady race that allowed the team to be at full strength in October.
Those elements weren’t present in 2021, particularly after the first three months of the season. The Sox had a major league-leading 47 comeback victories — meaning they trailed in more than half of their wins. Their bullpen proved inconsistent throughout the year, requiring day-to-day reinvention of roles down the stretch. Their offense, while featuring more settled roles, found it difficult to sustain performance levels. In the field and on the bases, careless errors proved costly.
The wins came, but they came with a much higher degree of difficulty. The season proved a grind.
“We went from what we did early in the season to a lot of uncertainty,” Cora said on Saturday. “We’re still living that. But at the end of day, I always tell people a big league win is a big league win regardless of if it’s easy or tough or ugly or whatever. It’s been different. I honestly haven’t been able to sit back and say, ‘Oh, [expletive]! We can win [90-plus] games!’ I’m so locked into the moment, but at one point, I’m going to look back and say, ‘It was a really good season.’ ”
Now, improbably, a team for which most best-case preseason forecasts suggested slightly more wins than losses has a chance to make it a really good postseason.
The Sox looked like a team that is running on fumes for the final weeks of the season. Yet for Cora, the opportunity to see whether there is anything in reserve is one to appreciate.
“I loved ‘18. That’s the perfect way, right? Sit and reset guys in September, be ready for a cool run in October. But this is more fun than ‘19,” said Cora. “Hopefully I’m beat up in a month. If somehow, some way we pull this off and we have that trophy at the end of the month, there’s no parades at home, there’s nothing — absolutely nothing: no TV shows, no interviews, nothing. Just be at the house, be with the family, get back to working out, eat healthy and just recharge and be ready for [next] February.”
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