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Alex Cora is well-versed for his challenge in Boston

Alex Cora played shortstop at the University of Miami from 1994-96. university of miami athletics

Within the news release announcing the hiring of Alex Cora as the 47th manager of the Red Sox, team president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski offered what seems like a self-evident claim: “The fact that he is bilingual,” Dombrowski said in the statement, “is very significant for our club.”

Yet it is one thing to appreciate the value of the trait, quite another to recognize the hard-earned — and life-changing — fashion in which it was forged. Cora’s challenging path to bilingual fluency not only allows him to relate to the diverse members of a big league roster but also offers a window into some of the character attributes that helped define him as the type of leader whom the Red Sox are willing to entrust their club.

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Cora grew up speaking Spanish in his native Puerto Rico. When he arrived at the University of Miami as a college freshman in the fall of 1993, the simultaneous language and cultural adjustments proved overwhelming.

“It’s hard for a lot of freshmen, going to college, leaving home, going from where he’d primarily spoken Spanish to the States where it was English, and it was broken English,” recalled J.D. Arteaga, a fellow freshman with Cora that year who is now the Hurricanes’ pitching coach. “Less than a month into the semester, he asked me to give him a ride to the airport, that his mom was sick or something. I said, ‘Yeah, sure. No problem.’

“I gave him a ride to the airport. He had all his bags with him. I said, ‘Where are you going with all your stuff?’ He said, ‘I’m going to do laundry when I’m home.’ I didn’t think anything of it. I dropped him off, came back to the field for workouts. As soon as I walked in, the coaches stopped me and said, ‘Where’s Alex? Where’s Alex?’ ”

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Cora’s mother wasn’t sick. The young infielder was homesick.

He returned to Puerto Rico, prepared to leave college in search of another avenue into pro ball. But after a few days, Cora changed course and returned to school.

That decision proved pivotal. Cora, who had been shy and aloof in his first weeks of school, recognized that he needed to dive into the deep end.

“He came back as a different person, like he’d been here for five years. He kind of took off from there,” said Arteaga, a bilingual Miami-area native who became roommates with Cora and whose family embraced him as something of an adopted family member. “When he came back, it was like, ‘Who cares? I’m here. I’m staying. This is Alex Cora. This is who I am.’ He just kind of took off, and everybody fell in love with him.”

Those around the Miami program quickly came to recognize aspects of Cora that distinguished him from other college players, starting with his upbringing.

His brother, Joey Cora, was in the middle of an 11-year big league career. And so as Alex Cora showed an uncommon feel for the game as a freshman, Miami coach Jim Morris was curious whether his brother had been his baseball mentor.

“He goes, ‘No, no, no, Joey was always playing, doing winter ball, whatever he was doing, he was always playing. So it was some of the old guys like Luis Aparicio,’ ” recalled Morris, whose first year at Miami was also Cora’s freshman season. “I started laughing. I said, ‘Do you even know who Luis Aparicio is?’ ”

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Cora had met Aparicio, a Hall of Famer considered one of the greatest defensive shortstops ever, during his brother’s time with the White Sox. He also became close with Ozzie Guillen, a three-time All-Star and future manager who was one of his brother’s teammates.

At Miami, it became clear that Alex Cora had been an attentive student of such luminaries. He wasn’t a standout athlete or a great hitter, yet he proved a difference-maker on the field, someone whose game awareness produced outs on defense as well as timely hits in the batter’s box.

“He saw the game in a different way, from a different angle,” Arteaga said. “He knew what was going to happen before it happened almost. As a shortstop, as a player, he wasn’t the most gifted athletically as far as foot speed, 60 times, and all that, but he was literally moving before the ball was hit. . . . He wasn’t a great hitter physically, but he learned how to hit and it was almost like he knew what was coming ahead of time by studying the game, studying the players.”

Alex Cora drove in the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth inning of the College Woirld Series championship game in 1996. University of Miami athletics

With that preparation, Cora projected a confidence that spread to teammates and defined him as a leader — someone who was unafraid to communicate with teammates in both English and Spanish — by the time he was a sophomore, a stature that continued to grow as a junior. Arteaga recalled how, in the regional tournament for the right to advance to the 1996 College World Series in Omaha, Cora made a bold proclamation.

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“He said, ‘If I get a groundball to end the game, I’m going to put my hands up in the air and then throw to first.’ I said, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” recounted Arteaga. “Sure enough, against UCLA in Austin, Texas, groundball to short, threw his hands up in the air, and threw across the infield.”

It was at that College World Series that Cora had a particularly unforgettable performance on and off the field. Miami advanced to the championship game against LSU. In the top of the ninth inning, Cora’s two-out, run-scoring single gave the Hurricanes an 8-7 lead. But with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, LSU’s Warren Morris ripped a two-run, walkoff homer down the right field line.

Cora collapsed to the turf, stunned and sobbing after seeing the title ripped away in his final college game. He wasn’t alone. A disoriented Miami team retreated to an agonized clubhouse.

Morris, the Miami coach, was at a loss for words. One player wasn’t. Less than three years removed from his struggles to find a voice in a second language, Cora commanded the room.

“Cora stands up before I can say anything and tells everybody that he loves them. [Closer] Robbie Morrison, who threw the pitch, first-team All-American, [Cora] tells him how much he loves him, that if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be there,” said Morris. “If you weren’t crying before that, you were crying after he stood up.”

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“I remember it like yesterday,” added Arteaga. “He was emotional, and that’s how he played the game. He gave it everything he had, and I think that’s what he’ll expect from his players. He’ll be a great player’s coach, but he’ll expect his players to play with heart and with love for the game.”

Cora was not a physically gifted shortstop at Miami, but he was always in the right position.University of Miami athletics

The ability to communicate that expectation with everyone, coupled with the swagger of a person who could foresee pumping his fists in triumph before making a game-winning throw, all helps to explain why those who have known Cora the longest believe he is well-suited for what awaits him in Boston.

As much as he will be challenged in baseball’s ultimate crucible, he has gone through even more dramatic adjustments in the past and emerged stronger for them.

“He’s come a long, long way from the kid who took off and went back home because he was homesick,” Arteaga said. “Alex is going to be Alex. He’s not going to be someone you want him to be. He’s going to be Alex. But the good thing is, everyone likes Alex and who he is. He doesn’t have to be fake or someone he is not to be liked. Everything you need in a leadership role, it’s truly him. He doesn’t have to change to be that guy.

“Some of those life experiences are obviously going to help him be better in relating with people. But what’s going to make him a great manager is his baseball IQ. He’s born for this. He’s going to be a manager for a long, long time.”


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexspeier.