HOUSTON — The shadow of 2017 has nothing to do with the 2021 American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and Astros, yet it is the prism through which everything will be viewed. For Alex Cora, that reality is both undeniable and uncomfortable, but ultimately unimportant.
Cora sat in the interview room spotlight prior to the Red Sox off-day workout at Minute Maid Park on Thursday, the same venue he called home as Astros bench coach en route to a title in 2017. He spoke of the close bond he still shares with Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel, and other Astros players who were part of that championship team.
Some of the best moments of Cora’s career happened at Minute Maid, including the champagne celebration in October 2018 after the Red Sox — in Cora’s first year as Boston manager — swept three road games in Houston to advance to the World Series.
Yet those memories are intermingled with regret for the actions that led to his suspension for the entirety of the 2020 season. And whenever Cora sees crowds (including those in Boston) taunting the Astros for their misdeeds, he recognizes that the judgment falls upon not just Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Gurriel, but also him.
The ALCS against his former team brings all of that to the surface.
“I’m sorry. I made a mistake, and I’m living it. It’s uncomfortable because I know that when they get booed or [fans] scream at them, I was there. I was part of that,” Cora said. “I made a mistake and paid the consequences. I’m still paying the consequences. . . . People obviously don’t like them because of what we did in 2017, so that [booing of the Astros] for me is a little bit hard. But it’s what we did. We put ourselves in this situation.
“And for those that think it’s in the past, no. We live it every day. We live it every day. I live it every day. I mean, we made a mistake and we’re paying the price,” he continued. “I live it — not as loud as they get it, but I get it on the road all the time. It’s weird because I was part of it, but like I said, I’ve been addressing this the whole season. I haven’t hidden. I’m here.”
Indeed he is. And Cora’s presence in the ALCS in Houston not only serves as a reminder of the scandal four years ago, but also of his role in helping pull the Sox from their last-place embarrassment of a year ago.
The Red Sox were expected to be a respectable team, but not necessarily a contender this year. Yet any time it seemed they would lapse into also-ran status, they stubbornly pushed forward, finding reserves to continue on a postseason path.
With the season on the line in a season-ending three-game series in Washington, then in a Wild Card Game against the Yankees, and then in the ALDS against the Rays, the team kept conjuring new ways to win. Players credited Cora with his creative, shifting use of the roster to continue to find the right combinations that allowed the team to emerge as one of the last four standing in the playoffs.
As much as Cora has apologized and continues to acknowledge his past wrongdoing, his managerial moves remain bold. He pulled starters Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez in the first three innings against Tampa when they struggled. He stuck with Nick Pivetta and Tanner Houck beyond any scripted relief limits. He adapted both his lineup (inserting Kyle Schwarber as a leadoff hitter for the postseason) and bullpen on the fly. And now, as the Sox prepare to start the ALCS against the Astros, Cora made the surprising decision to commit to the recently struggling Sale as his Game 1 starter.
The manager’s maneuvers have worked thus far at the most critical stage of the year, and have emboldened Cora’s team.
“We’ve been up against a pretty tall order the entire year, in terms of people not thinking we were who we thought we were,” said Chris Sale. “Everything that we’ve done this entire year has been incredible because of the work, because of the drive, because of our mentality, you know, and I think A.C. has a lot to do with that. I think that he is an unbelievable leader.
“He just makes you feel a certain way, and he gives you a certain confidence going into games. Good, bad, or indifferent, it doesn’t matter who we’re facing, if we’re up 10, down 10, his steadiness is felt throughout the entire team and throughout the entire organization. All those things combined make for something pretty special, and that’s why we’re here.”
The Red Sox are on a stage in which Cora will command immense visibility. He would prefer that the conversation center around the dazzling talents on both teams, or about the baseball decisions being made by him and Houston counterpart Dusty Baker, but he understands his place in a meeting of the Red Sox and Astros in October with a World Series berth on the line.
“Hopefully, hopefully, people will talk about the players and what they do and the talent that is on the field,” said Cora. “[But] I can handle this. I’ve been doing it for 12 months or a year and a half. I’ve been able to deal with this.”