LOS ANGELES — Alex Cora hit .400. Really. If baseball managers could be assigned a batting average, then Cora would be Ted Williams, the last player to hit .400. That’s how good he was in leading the Red Sox to a World Series championship in his first season as a manager.
The crowd of Red Sox fans at Dodger Stadium on Sunday night chanted, “Cora! Cora!” as he hoisted the Commissioner’s Trophy in the air.
Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess, but what he did in leading the Red Sox to a championship will go down as one of the best managerial jobs in the modern era. It’s one thing to win 108 games in the regular season, but for his team to dominate like this, win seven out of eight postseason games on the road, and not even need the home-field advantage they earned, was pretty shocking.
“The funnest year of my life and [Cora’s] a part of it. He welcomed me into that clubhouse. It was awesome,” said World Series MVP Steve Pearce, who was acquired in June. “He’s an amazing man. He always seemed to make the right moves. Whatever he says, we listen and we do it. We jelled together behind him and everybody knew their roles because he was such a great leader.
“We followed him. I couldn’t have asked for a better manager to play for. In this great moment that we’ve had, it’s been a great season and he’s definitely been the head of it, and it’s great playing for him.”
There were many more testimonials just like that. The players liked — no, loved — their manager. We know that all managers are hired to be fired. It would be tough to imagine there could ever be a better year than the one just completed. Even owner John Henry called it “the greatest Red Sox team.” Maybe there’ll be a greater one, but there are simply times when the universe aligns, and this was one of those years.
Cora, who addressed the team before the champagne party began in the clubhouse, said, “[The players] gave me a chance. They saw me as a capable manager and they gave me a chance. Somebody asked me a week ago what was better, to win as a player, a coach or a manager. As a player I was just a utility guy, last year I was a bench coach. This feels better,” he said.
To backtrack, understand what awaited Cora when he took the job. His predecessor, John Farrell, had won a World Series and then won two straight division titles, but was fired when he couldn’t get his team beyond the first round of the playoffs. Cora’s task was to get Boston to a World Series, and win a World Series. It was similar to what Terry Francona faced when he replaced Grady Little in 2004. It was Francona’s first year with the Sox but his second managerial stint, the first an unsuccessful one in Philadelphia.
But Cora came right out of the studios of ESPN, then one season as a bench coach for the 2017 World Series champion Astros, and after Sunday night’s 5-1 win over the Dodgers he’s a World Series-winning manager, the first rookie to do so since Bob Brenly with the Diamondbacks in 2001.
What Cora did was nothing short of remarkable. His decisions were impeccable, even though you might have disagreed with them at times. Most of the time, the ones you disagreed with turned out OK. For instance, who wasn’t at least a little skeptical about going with David Price over Chris Sale in Game 5? But Price pitched a gem, didn’t he?
You could argue about lineups, and giving players extra days off, and all of that stuff, but in the end Cora’s team won 119 games, including the postseason. His teams were incredible playing on the road. And we’re talking about winning in New York, Houston, and Los Angeles.
When Cora sat at the podium following the Sox’ 3-2, 18-inning loss in Game 3 against the Dodgers, he downplayed the effect it would have on his team. He called it just another loss. Many teams would have been devastated. And then to be behind, 4-0, in the seventh inning of Game 4 and to rally to beat the Dodgers, 9-6, it really sunk in that Cora’s leadership, not Chris Sale’s tirade or anything else, was the real catalyst in the team not getting down and snatching the momentum the Dodgers had gained right back.
There was a proud, confident attitude that always pervaded the Red Sox clubhouse. Cora kept emphasizing to his players that they were very talented. And that they needed to show that swagger. It wasn’t that he wanted them to rub anything in anyone’s face, but when the game starts play it like you’re good and that you think you’re unbeatable.
It was certainly obvious to many people in the baseball community that the Dodgers were not as good as the Yankees or Astros, and that the Red Sox were the favorites to win the World Series. And they did. It’s one thing to be great on paper, but the Red Sox were great on the field. And they did it without super contributions from their superstars. Until Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez homered in Game 5, neither had done much in the World Series, and Betts hadn’t shown anywhere near the MVP talent he had during the regular season. Sale was barely a factor, but even then Cora made him feel a part of the clinching game by having him close out the ninth.
Craig Kimbrel gave everyone a heart attack, but here again Cora showed faith in his closer even in the most trying times, showing how much he believed in him.
Cora outmanaged Dave Roberts and the Dodgers’ front office. While Cora is also a big believer in analytics, he has authority to run his team as he sees fit. Dave Dombrowski, to our knowledge, never told Cora a lineup to put out, or which reliever should be used in a certain situation. It was Cora’s team. He managed it on his own, with obvious statistical data to guide him but not to own him.
And while he always emphasized that the players need to celebrate, and that he should step aside, Cora needed to take a bow this time. He needed to have champagne poured over his head and he needed to revel in the World Series championship. It’s remarkable that in his first two years back in uniform as a coach or manager he won the World Series each year.
The players shared their feelings about Cora all season. Even recently Brock Holt, when asked about Cora vs. Farrell, indicated the communication was exceptional under Cora and the players always felt they were in the loop.
The other great trait Cora exhibited was never being afraid to admit a mistake. He did so after the 9-6 win in Game 4, admitting that he wished he had taken Eduardo Rodriguez out of the game a bit sooner, kicking himself for not doing so with Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes warming up.
“It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever been a part of,” Cora said after Game 5. “I believed this could happen. I believed in our guys. I always told them we’re a talented team and they went out and showed how talented they were from spring training always through to the end.”
And Cora proved how talented he was. In his first year as a manager, he had the time of his life.