At the end of spring training, Alex Cora issued a challenge. In his fifth season as Red Sox manager, Cora made clear both he and his team had something to prove.
“We finished last last year. That’s not acceptable,” said Cora. “I’m not here to finish last, I’m here to win championships.”
Six months later, as Cora sat in the stands at Fenway Park on Sunday morning, the standings on the scoreboard reflected the failure of that ambition. With one week left in the season, the Sox sit in last place in the American League East.
The water-logged loss to the lowly White Sox on Sunday dropped the Red Sox to 76-80, with a second straight finish in the cellar and losing record likely. The team’s 7-19 spiral dating to late August not only destroyed any wild-card hopes (“We were right there,” Cora rued) but also led the Sox to fire chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom.
It’s been a disappointing time for everyone in the organization, Cora included. That said, the manager remains confident that considerable improvement is within reach in 2024. The year-end exit interviews that Cora is conducting alongside Red Sox coaches and front office members have crystallized his view of how to position the team to improve next year.
Cora has waved off the notion of a move to the front office and leaving a job he loves. He remains energized by the prospect of managing the Red Sox, and believes success in that role remains in reach.
“There were a few times that I was very frustrated with everything that was going on on the field, but I’m actually in a good place as far as where I’m at now and what the future holds,” said Cora. “I still believe in what I do. I still believe that we can do it here. We can win here. That’s my main goal.
“I know where I’m at contract-wise and all that, but I don’t even think about that. That house in Newton is not going up for sale. I’m actually excited about the offseason.
“I know what I want to do in the offseason. I know the conversations I’m going to have with whoever is going to run the organization, with ownership when they sit down with me. I do believe we’re not that far off.”
Team CEO/president Sam Kennedy said he expects Cora to be back and managing the team in 2024. Cora expressed both appreciation and excitement for the opportunity to continue.
A return next year would make him just the sixth manager in franchise history to work more than five seasons, and the only one besides Terry Francona in the last 60 years. But he doesn’t take his job security for granted at a time when the Sox are preparing to identify a new leader of their baseball operations department.
“I appreciate [Kennedy saying that], but at the end of the day, it’s going to be three jefes [for whom he has worked in Boston],” said Cora. “You sign that contract to get fired. That’s what [former White Sox and Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen] said a while ago. It’s the truth unless you retire, right?
“So it’s going to be a challenge, in a sense, working with somebody new. But I adjusted with [Dave Dombrowski]. I had no idea. Then I had no idea with Chaim.
“I’ll be ready for the challenge and hopefully the person that comes here . . . how can I say it? . . . the first year is going to be an adjustment for whoever. Hopefully, we can adjust right away.”
Of course, as Cora prepares for that adjustment — and assuming the new leader of baseball operations is comfortable with him as manager — there are no guarantees for him beyond the 2024 season. He’s entering the final year of his contract — a two-year deal with a two-year team option (exercised after the 2021 season) that he signed when returning to the Sox in 2020 following his one-year suspension for his role in the Astros’ 2017 sign-stealing scandal.
But Cora showed little anxiety about what the future holds beyond 2024, or whether his ability to do his job could be hindered by the nearing end of his contract.
“The lame duck? I don’t believe in that, bro,” he said. “You sign your contract and you’ve got to go to work. That’s all I can control right now.
“We’ll talk about it, probably, right? We don’t have to. We don’t have to talk about it. I’m confident in what I do. I like it. If we go that route [of discussing an extension], we go that route.
“I think [lame duck is] more a narrative. It’s been a narrative forever in baseball. But [Brewers manager] Craig Counsell is doing an outstanding job and he’s in his last year of the contract. It really doesn’t matter to me.”
Instead, Cora has taken the end of this season to appreciate what he is doing and where he’s doing it. For all of the discussion of decreased turnout as the 2023 season circles the drain, Cora doesn’t take for granted that the crowds at Fenway Park have been both larger and more engaged than in other cities where teams are still in contention for a playoff berth.
“The energy and the aura of Fenway, they’re not living it right now,” said Cora. “This is a special place.”
He received another reminder of that while eating dinner at a restaurant with a friend over the weekend. Toward the end of the meal, a Ted Lasso-like scene unfolded.
“These two ladies came up and are like, ‘Hey, keep doing what you’re doing. We’re gonna be back.’ That’s great,” said Cora. “It’s a big city but it’s a small town. Everybody’s connected.”
And at this stage of his career and life, that connection continues to fuel Cora. Though he does not envision managing the Red Sox forever, the soon-to-be 48-year-old believes he is still in exactly the right place.
He remembers in sharp relief what it felt like to win in Boston in 2018, as well as the exuberant surprise of 2021, when the Sox’ run to the ALCS defied all expectations.
“That,” Cora said, “is what I want to get back to.”