CLEVELAND — For Alex Cora, the allure of Boston as his first managerial outpost was compelling. Once the Red Sox made clear their desire to hire him, there wasn’t much need to spend much time contemplating the interest of the Mets, Nationals, or any other potential suitor.
Boston represented everything about where he wanted to be. He couldn’t imagine a more desirable destination, to the point that he turned down chances to interview with other clubs this offseason while trying to launch his managerial career in Boston.
“Here was kind of the perfect fit,” said Cora. “This is the place I wanted to be.”
Yet the idea of the unmistakable pull of Boston and the Red Sox, of a hand-in-glove fit for his personality, wasn’t always present. In fact, when he first joined the Red Sox in 2005, Cora joined the team at a time that proved jarring, one in which it seemed anything but easy to settle into the Red Sox.
“It was a weird vibe. I was like, ‘Holy [expletive]! What is this?’ ” Cora recalled with a laugh of his first exposure to the Red Sox.
What does he mean? Rewind 13 years.
Cora had a strong 2004 season for the Dodgers, the organization with whom he’d spent his entire career. As the primary Los Angeles second baseman, he contributed strong middle infield defense and solid offensive numbers (.264/.364/.380 with 10 homers).
Yet that offseason, he was blindsided when the Dodgers elected in late-December to non-tender him, thus making him a free agent. He signed a two-year deal with Cleveland, thinking he’d be the primary second baseman. Instead, he served chiefly as a backup middle infielder, with playing time proving less steady than he or Cleveland expected at the time of his signing.
“We thought Alex could not only help us with what he could contribute on the field and his versatility but just the way he understood the game, his baseball IQ, his reputation in the clubhouse for being able to unify a clubhouse. There were a lot of reasons we were attracted to him at that time and thought he would be a good fit,” recalled Cleveland president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti. “In the end, we ultimately didn’t have the role we envisioned for him.”
Cora struggled in the 2005 season with the sporadic playing time and the disappointment that the role for which he thought he’d signed wasn’t the one that was available to him.
“It was very difficult. I had a hard time dealing with it,” said Cora. “I actually went to [then-Cleveland manager Eric Wedge] and talked to him about it.”
The conversation took place in early July. Almost immediately, Cleveland explored potential landing spots for Cora and found a willing taker in the Red Sox, who were getting poor middle infield production from Edgar Renteria and Mark Bellhorn, and whose seldom-used backup — Ramon Vazquez — was both struggling and limited by a hip injury at a time when the Sox wanted to change their playing time allocation.
So, a deal was struck: Cora for Vazquez. The two players, acquaintances from winter ball in Puerto Rico, agreed to a house swap, with Cora finding himself in a shoebox-sized apartment near Fenway and Vazquez landing a large house in Cleveland.
Cora joined the first-place Red Sox, still theoretically basking in the afterglow of their first World Series in 86 years, on July 7 in Baltimore for the final series before the All-Star break — and found himself dropped into an unexpectedly chaotic clubhouse.
“I’m like, ‘I’m going to the Red Sox — everything should be fine. It’s the world champs and everyone gets along,’ ” said Cora. “It was a lot different than I was expecting.”
One night earlier, fourth outfielder Jay Payton initially refused to enter the late innings of a Red Sox victory in Texas.
“He said, ‘I’m not going in,’ ” recalled bench coach Brad Mills. “I said, ‘We need you in,’ and he said it again, ‘I’m not going in.’ ”
That precipitated a dugout blowup between Payton and manager Terry Francona.
“Jay just wasn’t happy in that role. It had kind of come to a head,” recalled Francona. “[GM Theo Epstein] was trying to move him, and then we had that issue in the dugout. I called Theo and was like, ‘Theo, I think I might have forced your hand a little.’ ”
Payton was designated for assignment in the wake of one of the most brazen in-game challenges that Francona endured in his Red Sox tenure. Yet even with Payton’s departure, Cora discovered that there was an ongoing unsettled sense.
Key contributors — Kevin Millar and Bellhorn among them — to the World Series run were seeing their playing time dwindle due to poor performance. Keith Foulke had just undergone surgery. Curt Schilling was getting ready to move to the bullpen with his ankle still recovering from post-bloody-sock surgery. Some members of the Red Sox fuming that Francona had “failed” to use his position as the manager of the AL team to name his own players — foremost, reliever Mike Timlin — to the All-Star Game.
“You sensed the fact that something was going on and it wasn’t real good,” said Dave Wallace, the pitching coach of that team. “Walking around, you were going to look over your shoulder and it was, ‘OK, what’s going to happen next?’ ”
The Sox thought Cora could help them — but for him to do so, they needed the sort of buy-in that had been difficult for him to offer with his limited role in Cleveland. Cora appreciated the candor of both Francona and Wallace (with whom Cora had a long history dating to his time in the Dodgers system, where Wallace was a coach and then later an assistant GM) in outlining exactly how they saw him fitting in.
Though Wallace didn’t recall the exact details of a conversation that occurred 13 years ago, what he does recall served as a blueprint for his next three and a half years in Boston and three subsequent years in the big leagues with the Mets, Rangers, and Nationals.
“I’m sure that came up: ‘You’re a winning player. Do you want to be an everyday player on a second-division club, or do you want to really be part of winning and a winning culture, and what we’ve got going on here in Boston? We’ve just won and we’re going to win again,’ ” Wallace recalled. “My guess is that Tito explained that to him as well.
“Knowing Alex the way I do, and did, when he understood how important that role was, he was going to embrace it and do the best he could with it, and continue to build his résumé — which ended up being pretty damn good,” he continued. “He was such a professional, such a good baseball guy. Yet when you’re kind of told that you’re going to be a utility player, we’re not sure you’re an everyday player, that’s tough to swallow. But at the end of the day, they appreciate the fact that you told them the truth.”
Cora took that initial series in Baltimore to process that message about his future, and continued to mull it while he packed his belongings in Cleveland during the break.
“I decided, ‘Yeah, so be it. I’m in a winning situation,’ ” Cora said. “I accepted my role and moved on. I think that made me stick in the game for a long time. I was able to do a few things on the field that would help championship-caliber teams and I became a guy in the clubhouse who could help other guys.”
The decision to accept that role helped to establish one of the most important relationships of Cora’s career. Francona quickly came to rely on Cora, and to share with him the sort of team perspective on decisions that continues to inform how Cora sees the game. And, for his part, Cora served a vital role for Francona in rebuilding a strong clubhouse culture that helped the Red Sox over the coming years, particularly in the championship season of 2007.
“He was immediately a guy that you could trust,” said Francona. “I remember how much trust I put into him with Pedroia. I told him, ‘This kid is going to play, and you’ve got to help him.’ He handled it. [Pedroia] was hitting about .330, but he understood.”
As a player, Cora proved a catalyst for change in the clubhouse culture, and was rewarded with delight in the Boston baseball experience. From the most unlikely of circumstances — personal dissatisfaction with his role in Cleveland, resulting in his relocation to a strangely unsettled Red Sox clubhouse — his future took shape.