Alex Cora came tantalizingly close to becoming the first manager in major league history to reach a World Series a season after being banished for cheating.
But one of his former managers, Davey Johnson, who gave Cora his first big break as a player with the Dodgers in 2000, believes he never should have been punished in the first place for his role in a sign-stealing conspiracy the Astros exploited en route to winning the 2017 World Series while he was their bench coach.
“It was ridiculous that he got suspended,” Johnson said by telephone from Florida. “Everybody steals signs, and we never considered it cheating. Now people are acting like it’s some kind of moral decrepitude.”
Fair or not, Cora’s punishment struck Johnson as further evidence of his former shortstop’s resilience. Life comes with indelible loss: lost innocence, lost loved ones, broken bonds, broken hearts, faulty choices, fractured dreams.
In Cora’s case, he is a former Boy Scout turned baseball journeyman who carries the lessons of his troubles as a traveling companion, as if they were his means of finding true north in the wilderness without a compass.
People close to Cora say the lessons he learned in his darkest hours, from losing his father as a boy to the humiliation of losing his livelihood in the sign-stealing scandal, helped him emerge from the woods this year and advance to within two wins of the American League pennant and a World Series berth.
His longtime friends as well as major league managers and executives who opened doors for him as a player and manager say those lessons will serve Cora well as he moves on from his near-miss in 2021 and prepares for another title run in 2022.
“Alex has bounced back from a lot of different things in his life, and he has learned from those things in ways that keep making him stronger all the time,” said Henry “Turtle” Thomas, who recruited Cora to play at the University of Miami and has remained a friend.
A Red Sox spokesman said Cora was not available to be interviewed for this story. But Cora has made no secret that he has grown from the pain and shame he caused himself, his family, and others who employed him and believed in him.
“What really hurt me was for them to suffer because of my mistakes,” he said tearfully after the Sox eliminated Tampa Bay in the Division Series.
As Johnson noted, no one disputes that sign stealing has been part of baseball as long as peanuts and Cracker Jack. Many teams have lived by versions of the refrain, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t competing.”
Johnson, now 78, managed the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series, which ended with the Red Sox losing Games 6 and 7 at Shea Stadium in one of the most devastating postseason collapses in franchise history, and he said, “We knew they were stealing signs in Boston and flashing them on the scoreboard. Everybody knew what was going on because everybody was trying to get that little extra edge on the other guy.
“In my estimation, that was never cheating. It was pushing the rulebook as far as you can.”
Dwight Evans, who with Marty Barrett was considered the most adept sign stealer for the Sox in the 1980s and figured prominently in the 1986 World Series, said by telephone from Florida that Johnson’s assertion is “totally false.”
“We didn’t have their signs,” said Evans. “I wish we did, but we didn’t.”
Johnson, whose ‘86 Mets were described in Jeff Pearlman’s 2005 book, “The Bad Guys Won!,” as “the rowdiest team ever to put on a New York uniform,” said it’s not the fault of today’s baseball teams that modern technology has opened new frontiers in sign stealing.
“The higher the tech, the more you can do,” he said. “I guarantee you, everybody in the game is trying to get every little edge.”
But MLB, having in recent years banned the use of technology to steal signs, has cracked down on the practice, disciplining not only the Astros but the Red Sox and Yankees. In Cora’s case, he has said he deeply regrets the anguish he caused his 18-year-old daughter, Camila, who like Cora himself was born the child of a widely respected baseball lifer in Puerto Rico.
By now, Cora’s story is familiar to many. His father, Jose, was a founder of the Little League program in their mountain valley town of Caguas, 20 miles south of San Juan. Jose, also a baseball writer and scout for the San Diego Padres, taught the game to Cora and his older brother, Joey, who at 21 made his major league debut with the Padres in 1987, when Alex was 11.
A year earlier, while Alex was still playing Little League, Jose was diagnosed with colon cancer. Alex entered the sixth grade believing his father’s treatment had defeated the cancer, but Jose succumbed to the disease on Oct. 5, 1989, at the age of 52, when Alex was 13.
In death, Jose Cora remained a guiding light for his sons. Alex, like Joey, who attended Vanderbilt, followed his father’s advice by entering college, the University of Miami, rather than sign with the Minnesota Twins after they selected him in the 12th round of the 1993 draft.
But Miami proved too much for Cora, a mostly Spanish-speaking teenager, unmoored from his family and struggling in English-speaking classes. He soon retreated to Puerto Rico, homesick and all but defeated.
“The first thing he did when he went home was try to sign with the Twins, but it wasn’t a possibility at that point,” said J.D. Arteaga, his Miami teammate and closest college friend, now the university’s pitching coach. “Also, Joey wasn’t going to allow that to happen. He made sure Alex was on the next flight back to Miami.”
Cora returned stronger and wiser, as he would nearly 30 years later after his suspension. A slick-fielding infielder, he quickly established himself as a leader and served as an unofficial player-coach throughout his three years at Miami — an experience that culminated in one of the most crushing defeats of his baseball life.
On an unforgiving Nebraska night in the spring of 1996, Cora broke a tie score with a go-ahead single with two outs in the top of the ninth inning in the final game of the College World Series against Louisiana State.
“We all thought it was the game-winning RBI,” Arteaga recalled.
But Miami’s All-American closer, Robbie Morrison, retired the first two batters in the bottom of the ninth, only to surrender a two-run walkoff home run in the last game of Cora’s collegiate career.
Cora collapsed in the sod, sobbing inconsolably. He was still sobbing when a teammate lifted him from the grass, and still crying, choking on his words, when he addressed the team afterward, expressing love for his teammates, none more than Morrison.
“That’s Alex,” Arteaga said. “That’s how much he cares.”
Cora later was enshrined in the school’s Hall of Fame.
“Alex had that ‘it’ factor,” Thomas said. “He wasn’t a great hitter and he maybe wasn’t the best student in the classroom, but in my 39 years of coaching college baseball, he was the smartest player and the best defender in the infield I’ve ever seen.”
Manager in the making
Cora was selected in the third round of the 1996 draft by the Dodgers but would have gone higher if not for his bat. He made his way with other skills, the most tangible being his defensive wizardry, the most intangible his baseball intellect.
In 2000, Johnson chose the 24-year-old Cora as his starting shortstop over Mark Grudzielanek, a proven veteran who had hit .326 the previous season.
“Alex was short of physical abilities, but when you looked at his makeup and mental approach, he was the kind of player you want to have on your team,” Johnson said.
A former major leaguer himself — he played 13 seasons as a second baseman, mostly with the Baltimore Orioles — Johnson said Cora reminded him of his Hall of Fame teammates Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson in how hard he worked to become the best player he could be.
By the time Cora’s athleticism ebbed around age 30, he had established the leadership qualities that enabled him to spend the second half of his 14-year career as a valued utility player.
Cora left his mark in Boston by helping the Sox win the 2007 World Series, while mentoring the likes of Dustin Pedroia. Afterward, Cora later told the New York Post, he sat alone in a private room and “just started crying, because that’s something I would have loved to share with my dad.”
Cora was 36 when the St. Louis Cardinals released him in spring training in 2011, ending his playing career. He spent a few years as an ESPN analyst before the Sox managerial job opened in 2017. The opening prompted Cora’s former Dodgers teammate Paul Lo Duca to tweet a sentiment shared by many in baseball.
“The smartest player I ever played with was Alex Cora,” Lo Duca said. “It was inevitable that he was going to manage.”
Dave Dombrowski, then Boston’s president of baseball operations, came to agree.
Welcomed back in Boston
Cora had weathered other personal challenges between winning a World Series as a player with Boston and returning in 2018 as the franchise’s first minority manager. They included divorcing Camila’s mother and making minor headlines in 2008 when he was booked for a second time at a Florida jail for alleged probation violations stemming from his conviction on a 1999 charge of driving under the influence when he was a 23-year-old Dodgers prospect.
Cora resolved his legal issues, and his probation was terminated in June 2008, during his final season playing for the Sox.
Dombrowski said his research on Cora confirmed Lo Duca’s evaluation.
“Many people I talked to said he was always the smartest guy on the team and always a leader,” Dombrowski said. “He also was a great communicator, both in English and Spanish.”
‘Many people I talked to said he was always the smartest guy on the team and always a leader.’
Dave Dombrowski on Alex Cora
Cora’s only drawback was a lack of major league managerial experience. Dombrowski said the Sox signed him on the conditions that he hire a veteran bench coach (Cora chose former Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke) and agree to work with Dombrowski’s special assistant, Tony La Russa, who had 33 years of managerial experience.
The arrangement proved to be historic. The Sox won 17 of their first 19 games under Cora and a franchise-record 108 games overall in the regular season before they blew away the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers in the postseason.
Cora’s catchphrase for Boston’s offense was “doing damage,” and he gleefully boasted about the Sox obliterating the Yankees, 16-1, in Game 3 of the ALDS.
“We scored 16 at Yankee Stadium,” he shouted at Fenway Park before the duck boat parade. “Suck on it.”
After Cora’s suspension and self-imposed exile in Puerto Rico, Red Sox executives wasted little time hiring him once they interviewed him in an airport hangar on the island. If the Sox hadn’t hired him, Dombrowski said, another team inevitably would have.
Read more: The inside story of how the Red Sox decided to rehire Alex Cora
“Alex is a tremendous individual, and the Red Sox are very fortunate to have him back,” Dombrowski said.
Cora said he became a better person during his suspension, a better father to Camila, his ex-wife’s son Jeriel, his 4-year-old twin sons, Islander and Xander, and a better partner to the twins’ mother, Angelica.
His watchword for the Sox in 2021 shifted to “humility.” He refrained from telling anyone to “suck on it” after the Sox eliminated the Yankees in the Wild Card Game on the 32nd anniversary of his father’s death. And he criticized his pitcher, Eduardo Rodriguez, for pointing at an imaginary watch on his wrist in Game 3 of the ALCS to mock Houston shortstop Carlos Correa’s signature move, which is meant to signify “it’s our time.”
Houston swept the next three games after Rodriguez’s stunt, and time was up for Cora and the 2021 Sox. On Thursday, he returned home to Puerto Rico, with more to learn about baseball and life.
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.