It’s easy to forget that this is not Alex Cora’s first job as a manager. In the winters of 2014-15 and 2015-16, he guided the Caguas Criollos in the Puerto Rican Winter League.
While players on those teams speak highly of their experience with Cora, at the outset of his time as Red Sox manager, he identifies the dugout experience in Puerto Rico as significant for an unexpected reason.
“I was too strict, too serious. I wanted to make sure, ‘I’m the manager and we’re going to do this the right way,’ ” Cora said. “It doesn’t work that way. Well, it doesn’t work for me. I’m 42. I’m young enough that I can still live my life, but I’m a big-league manager. Why change? I think that’s what the players appreciate. I’m real. I’m who I am. Why change because of the title?
“I promised myself a few years ago that if I ever got to manage winter ball again or in the minor leagues or the big leagues, I’m going to be myself. Being myself has put me in this position. Nobody is going to make me change.”
In his first big league camp as manager, that outlook has allowed Cora to forge wide-ranging connections and to invigorate his team’s culture. Red Sox players reel off several adjectives in characterizing this spring, whether discussing a Ping-Pong tournament that dominates the clubhouse on a daily basis, Joe Kelly’s “Jim Buchanan” shenanigans, or what they’re doing on the field.
“Spring training has been way different — real good, real fun,” said Xander Bogaerts. “It’s been great so far.”
When introduced as the Red Sox manager in November, Cora made clear his belief that there is no such thing as being too close to the players. And while he’s established clear expectations for how players approach their work, Cora remains adamant about the type of relationship he will have with the clubhouse — one that reflects who he is and one that will, he believes, help the Red Sox turn talent into productivity.
“I want to know what’s going on with them, who they are, what’s going on at home,’’ said Cora. “They’re going to respond, no doubt about it. There’s nothing wrong with [being close to the players]. It might not work for 20 other managers. Probably they’re close but they don’t say it. But [Terry Francona] was close to the players. He was playing cribbage with Dustin Pedroia. He was close to him. I think it works. It worked for us [in Houston] last year. They say the NFL is a copycat league. I was part of that and I know how they do it, so why not take the best things they do and bring it over here?”
He’s building bonds in numerous ways. Cora has taken several players out to lunches or dinners while at spring training, chiefly to talk about their lives away from the field.
“I haven’t experienced it yet with any of the three managers I’ve played for in the big leagues,” Rick Porcello noted. “The action of taking players out to dinner, he’s communicating that he cares about guys. It’s not just a job for him. It means a lot. When you’re spending this much time in the clubhouse together in a place like Boston, you’ve got to have that.”
Cora’s interest in the well-being of his players has come through in other ways. In conversations with closer Craig Kimbrel about his time away from the team to be with his hospitalized infant daughter, Lydia, Cora always made clear that baseball is secondary to his responsibilities as a parent. When Tyler Thornburg threw his first bullpen session in nearly a year, Cora’s warm embrace conveyed his understanding of what the reliever had been through.
“He cares. You can genuinely tell that he does,” said Jackie Bradley Jr. “He’s constantly trying to get to know people, learn who they are, where they come from, their families. I think that can only benefit a player-manager relationship.”
Inside the clubhouse, Cora removed a pair of high-top tables — “awful,” in Cora’s words, and rarely used by players — to open the middle of the room and make it easier for pitchers and position players on opposite sides of the room to connect. The removal of the tables also has made it easier for Cora to hold court for brief morning meetings he’s conducted throughout the spring.
The purpose of those meetings has been manifold: They touch on the schedule and purpose of the day, they allow discussion of team-wide baseball matters (defensive strategies, for instance), they foster cross-team interaction, and they allow for often humorous introductions of some of the younger players, who stand up to take questions or make presentations to teammates.
“It’s really good, a way for all of us to get together for 15 or 20 minutes, get to know guys that are new or younger guys that much better,” said David Price.
Young lefty Bobby Poyner, for instance, produced a slideshow on his time at the University of Florida that broke the ice in his first big league camp. The catchers had a presentation on switching signs — with some comical suggestions and others that the Sox plan to implement. Utility man Tzu-Wei Lin frequently is asked to stand in front of the room, something that has helped turn the Taiwan native into a beloved clubhouse figure.
“I speak English. I’m a funny guy. I’m crazy,” said Lin, who has been invited on golf outings by teammates this spring after revealing in the meetings that he’d taken up the sport this winter. “They know me now, and they try to talk to me.”
“It’s like you’re in class but you’re not in class,” said Bogaerts. “Even if you’re in class, it’s a damn good class.”
The teacher makes a point of leaving his office. When he was a young player with the Dodgers, Cora considered a trip to the manager’s office a form of detention. As the bench coach last year in Houston, he appreciated the way that A.J. Hinch navigated the clubhouse — thus making it more natural for players to come into the office.
“I was like, ‘That’s the way I wish it was when I came up.’ You get the best out of some young players,” said Cora. “Now, I’m like, if they would have done it this way, they probably would have gotten more out of certain players.”
The atmosphere created in the clubhouse has made communication seem natural rather than forced — a significant development that has made it easier for Cora to work with younger members of the team on the field as well.
Players are blitzing through the upper levels of the minors and arriving in the big leagues as unfinished products. Observers believe that Cora’s age and wide-ranging interest in players’ well-being and personality have made it more comfortable for the young players to connect with the manager not just about their lives but also about on-field matters.
“If you can’t adjust as a coach or a manager to what today’s player is, you’re not going to get the best out of them,’’ said bench coach Ron Roenicke. “I think that’s been important to GMs who have made the recent hires — maybe not getting as much experience, but knowing that that person is going to understand these players. The way you know if he’s communicating in a positive way is when players come up to him, talk to him. He’s sitting on the bench and players come up and sit next to him. That’s a really good dynamic. They do that already.”
In their work this spring, the Red Sox are also taking on-field measures to try to maximize their players’ productivity during the season. Cora compressed the team’s schedule on the back fields, seeking more focused, higher-energy work for briefer periods of time. He’s not focused on optics — he’s fine with untucked practice jerseys, and lets players play music on speakers next to the batting cage — but expects work to show focus, an expectation made clearer by his on-field, hands-on work with players.
“I learned a lot last year,’’ said Cora. “The feedback they gave me, they like intensity but they don’t like the length. We take groundballs for 10 minutes but they have to do it right. If not, we’ll do it the next time for 12 minutes. You keep them fresh but at the same time sharp to be ready for the season.”
The approach, Cora and his staff believe, is suited to the attention spans of the iPhone generation. It also reflects the current state of sport science, where teams navigate workload concerns even for younger players.
“It’s quality over quantity. The quality is high energy, and you’re getting it right, then moving on. When I came up, it was quantity. Gosh, you were out there forever,” said Roenicke. “This is coming not just from us. It’s coming from the medical staff, too — what’s the best way to keep these guys healthy? We have to think that way.”
“In my head, with the long season, that’s about as smart as you can do it. You’re not letting [traditional approaches] impact how you’re going to get your work in,’’ said Porcello.
“You’re doing what you need to do. There’s a level of focus and intensity that everyone has when it’s time to work.”
The work also reflects a more concerted application of analytics. Baseball is amidst an information revolution. Numbers and information are critical commodities — though its value is anything but simple to extract.
“You think of getting big data, having 25 millennials, taking all that information to decipher what’s important to actually give and what’s important to hold back, when to give it, that’s a science of its own,” noted former big leaguer Alex Rodriguez.
Cora believes his 2017 Astros won games based on advantages they gleaned not just from the quality of information but also from the way it was translated to the field. He’s looking to achieve something similar through the presence of in-uniform staffers who can translate data into familiar terms for players.
VP of pitching analytics Brian Bannister, a former big leaguer who has worked with the team’s pitchers since 2016, remains as the assistant pitching coach. In addition, Cora added former big leaguer Ramon Vazquez as a coach who can help position players understand data in whatever way they prefer — whether that means discussing elements such as reaction time and fielding radius or simply telling a player where he should stand in a shift. Advance scouting manager Steve Langone and advance scouting assistant J.T. Watkins, both former minor leaguers, likewise are in the Sox clubhouse and on the field in uniform before the game to help provide players with information.
“They’ve played the game,’’ said Cora. “They’ve been around. They talk the same language. But at the same they understand what’s going on in our analytic department. And they’re down to earth. It’s not like they’re above us. They just want to help us out.”
Of course, Cora himself can help inform players about the numbers that can help them.
“He’s kind of evolved with the game,” said Mitch Moreland. “He’s good with the numbers aspect, the analytical part of it. That’s something that’s been a lot more in effect this spring training. You can go up, ask him this, about a play or a shift, why are we doing this? He’s there. He’s there and he’s got the answers.”
Yet while the different ways of seeing the game can clutter a player’s mind, Cora hopes to create an environment that allows players “to disconnect from the game” when it’s over — particularly after a 2017 season in which young Red Sox players acknowledged they struggled to have fun and often carried a weight away from the field.
Last year’s Astros celebrated home victories with brief dance parties that featured a fog machine. That atmosphere bore similarities to the designated party room in Wrigley Field’s home clubhouse in 2016. Both of those championship teams featured young cores who took joy in being among their teammates at the field and who proved capable of unplugging when away from it. Cora wants his Red Sox to follow suit.
“I don’t think we have room for a party room. Game On maybe? We’ll see,” he chuckled. “When you celebrate, when you feel good about yourself, I don’t know if it’s going to change your performance, but mentally you feel better. Winning at this level is tough enough. We should celebrate. I’m not saying we’re going to pop bottles, but we will make sure that we understand that it’s a big day for us.”
Cora wants his players to celebrate possibility — to take joy in winning as part of a broader purpose. While some managers emphasize process over ultimate ambitions, Cora makes no secret of what he considers the team’s goals or potential, frequently and almost off-handedly reminding his players he believes they’re preparing to compete for a championship and that they should have fun doing so.
“Walk around like that. Talk about it,” said Cora. “We play in a city that, 93 wins is not enough. This is where we’re at. We can’t hide it. If you don’t embrace it, it’s going to be tough for you. Go ahead and embrace it, do your best, and we’ll see where we’re at in November.”
It remains to be seen how or if the environment created by Cora helps the team toward that goal, or whether his inexperience proves a detriment. But even before he has managed a single, official game, Cora’s imprint on the organization — and his connection with its brimming-with-talent young core — is palpable.