With his Red Sox three wins away from a World Series title — on the heels of a team-record 108 wins in the regular season — testaments to Alex Cora aren’t hard to come by. Players speak of his stellar communication skills; he’s their open book, in both English and Spanish. Management can crow about his acumen; he’s their modern manager, with an enviable ability to mix new-world analytics with old-school baseball instinct.
Yet the picture that continues to emerge of the 43-year-old first-time manager is not limited to who he is in a baseball uniform, but who he is out of it, too.
No one knows that better than J.D. Arteaga.
If you don’t recognize the name, take yourself back to a late-summer Red Sox game at Fenway Park, when the initials “AA” began to appear on the side of Cora’s cap. When he revealed that they were in memory of 16-year-old Ari Arteaga, he was speaking to the longtime friendship he has with Ari’s father J.D., his former teammate at the University of Miami, to the bond he shared with Ari, who was like a nephew to him, and to the grief he felt for the entire Arteaga family, which he considers an extension of his own.
Ari was killed in a car accident July 28, leaving a community stunned, a family devastated, and a friend in Boston doing anything he could to comfort those hurting in Miami.
“Alex was the first phone call I got,” Arteaga said from Florida, where he remains busy as a University of Miami baseball institution, his 15th year on a staff for which he currently serves as associate head coach and pitching coach. “He asked me if it was true. I couldn’t say it. He knew. Not much else was said.
“There are so many people that I know I saw them. I can’t tell you when and where, at the house, at the service, I know I saw the face. But I distinctly remember that phone call. And I remember him telling me, ‘I’ll be there Wednesday morning.’ ”
That’s what you do in times of crisis. You gather with your fellow Red Sox employees from the same Miami friendship tree and you board a plane on your team’s day off. You arrive in Florida sometime around 11 a.m. and attend Ari’s memorial service. You shed your tears and you gather those closest to you tightly to your chest. You hang around as long as you can at the repast. You share stories of your college days.
You remember Ari, and the amazing amount of life he packed into his 16 years, his football prowess and his baseball talent, his kind heart and generous soul. You pray for the girlfriend of Ari’s who was injured in the crash. You check on J.D., on his wife Ysha, and their 13-year-old daughter Ariana.
You are there, because you have to be, because you need to be, because you can be.
You depart about 12 hours later, and you get back to work the next day.
And ever since, you think about the value of life, about the fragility of it all, and how as magical as this postseason run is for your professional life, the real one outside of work remains largely unchanged by the outcome of the games on the field. You frame things differently than you used to, like taking the marker to put that “AA” on your hat, going over it whenever it starts to fade.
“I thought it was awesome,” J.D. said. “He did not tell us he was going to do that. It was awesome, really was. Then he was wearing the bracelet, then he gave one to [Alex Rodriguez] and then Eduardo Perez [also a television commentator] was wearing one. Of course, Cora gave them his bracelets. It was really awesome to see his initials like that.”
These are the gestures that keep Ari’s memory alive, the type of support that can help fund the foundation the Arteaga family has established, named for Ari’s personal motto on Instagram. “Be the Light,” the words imprinted on the black bracelets available through the organization’s website, came straight from a young man who brought light to everyone around him.
On the football field at Christopher Columbus High School; on the baseball field where he’d just recently realized how much he loved the game; with his girlfriend, with whom he was driving to drop the car at his home before they attended a party; with his family, whose warmth he was so proud to share with anyone needing to feel it.
“A lot of people say it’s wonderful what you’re doing, and amazing how quick, but to me a lot of good has to come out of this in order for me to sleep at night,” J.D. said. “I don’t ask why because I’m never going to know the reason.
“We are going to make sure a lot of good comes out of it. If not, then I’ll have a lot of problems with what happened, then I’ll need the why. The more people we help, the more people benefit, then OK.”
The Saturday night of the accident had been so normal. J.D. had spoken to Ari at about 8 p.m., hearing the responsible plan from his young, inexperienced driver to leave the car and use Uber after the party. But when dad got to the family driveway by 11 and the car wasn’t there, his gut told him something was wrong.
“I went looking for him,” he said. “I was at a light, I don’t know, maybe a quarter-mile from the accident. I could see the lights. I knew it was him. I got a phone call from our baseball operations guy at the University of Miami. He said, ‘You have to come home.’ I knew he was in that accident. I just knew it.
“The trooper who called it in was actually the one that travels with us at Miami. He knew me. He ran the plate and knew it was my car. They were at my house and by midnight, maybe 45 minutes later, people started to gather at the house.”
That’s when his phone buzzed. The man he calls Cora, the one he drove to the airport only two weeks into their college life believing Cora’s story that his mother was sick, only to learn later his friend was ready to quit school, the one who came back almost immediately a changed man, determined to shed his self-consciousness and be himself, the one who would come back to the Arteaga house after ever Sunday baseball game and shared the family table, he was on the other end.
That’s what friends do.