Rumors buzzed around Fenway Park early Monday. Major League Baseball’s months-long investigation into the Astros — including its findings about the role of Red Sox manager Alex Cora, the Astros’ bench coach in 2017, in Houston’s sign-stealing scheme — could come out at any moment.
Still, that investigation wasn’t the focus of Cora or other members of the Red Sox early Monday afternoon. Instead, Cora and other members of the baseball operations staff were kibitzing with Celtics coach Brad Stevens, a visiting dignitary to Fenway in one of the organization’s busiest — and in some ways, most exciting — weeks of the year.
The week represented a meaningful opportunity to reshape the culture of the organization as it headed into a new season under a new leader, chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. Dozens of players, scouts, and coaches descended on Boston starting last Sunday for a series of meetings and events over the week.
A dozen top prospects viewed as near-term big league contributors arrived Sunday night. On Monday, the organization’s amateur scouts convened to begin planning for the 2020 draft. And on Tuesday, members of the big league coaching staff were set to kick off meetings with Cora to prepare for the coming season.
And the end of the week featured two of the most visible events of the offseason: the Boston Baseball Writers dinner on Thursday, and Winter Weekend, a series of events for fans at the MGM casino in Springfield, both of which would bring several more players to Boston.
Stevens was at Fenway to speak to players as part of the Red Sox Rookie Development Program. Afterward, the players adjourned to the batting cage, and as Bloom watched them hit, the MLB report on the Astros was released, sending a shock wave through baseball and pitching the Red Sox into a crisis that dramatically changed the team.
This account of the events and how the team responded is based on interviews of numerous members of the Red Sox organization.
During MLB’s investigation into possible sign-stealing by the 2017 Astros, members of the Red Sox were well aware that Cora had been interviewed by the Department of Investigations and understood there was a chance he could face discipline.
But none had anticipated how prominently and frequently Cora would be mentioned in the report — MLB characterized him as the chief non-player architect of the scheme. Nor did they anticipate the magnitude of the consequences, chiefly one-year suspensions for Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, both of whom were fired almost immediately after by Astros owner Jim Crane.
It didn’t take long for a pit to form in the stomachs of many members of the Red Sox as they started reading the report: This was bad.
While meetings proceeded with the scouts and the Rookie Development Program continued, many members of the organization tabled their plans and spent the afternoon digesting the report, setting in motion an atmosphere that was, in the words of one front office member, “quietly chaotic.”
“It became a distraction,” said team president and chief executive Sam Kennedy. “This is an unprecedented event. We began to read the ruling. We knew immediately that we needed to address it.”
There wasn’t much gray area about Houston’s scheme: MLB said the team used a camera in center field to steal signs, and conveyed them to hitters by banging on trash cans. Beyond the violation of MLB rules, the findings suggested that the morals and ethics of professional sport had been breached in inexcusable fashion. Cora’s involvement obviously would have serious consequences for him and for the Red Sox.
Michael Chavis had been scheduled to appear as a guest host on MLB Network Radio on Monday at 3 p.m. That was scuttled out of concern that it wouldn’t be fair to the player to serve as the spokesman of an organization suddenly under a cloud.
Cora, still at Fenway, texted Bloom and Kennedy to suggest meeting in his office shortly after the report came out, where the three agreed to meet in a more formal capacity with principal owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner. (Henry is also the owner of The Boston Globe.)
Kennedy and Bloom then met with General Manager Brian O’Halloran and connected with Henry and Werner. Werner arranged to fly to Boston for meetings on Tuesday. The senior front office staff, including Bloom, O’Halloran, and assistant GMs Raquel Ferreira, Eddie Romero, and Zack Scott, continued to discuss options, but nothing as definitive as scenario planning if, for instance, Cora was suspended or had to leave the organization.
Various front office members reached out to Cora throughout the afternoon and evening to see how he was doing. Many kept to their work schedule; the scouts went to dinner with several front office members — with Cora’s status an obvious topic.
The clouds continued to gather over the Red Sox. Seemingly with each passing minute, the crisis took on added dimensions. The team’s decision-makers tried not to reach any conclusions until they had a chance to meet with Cora on Tuesday.
Cora’s future seemed at best tenuous as a sense of scandal consumed baseball and then fanned beyond it. With MLB having started an investigation, based on a report in The Athletic, about whether the Red Sox, too, had used video to steal signs during their 2018 championship season, calls for Cora’s ouster spread quickly.
The baseball operations so-called Gang of Five — Bloom, O’Halloran, Ferreira, Romero, Scott — met in the morning to identify the many unknowns facing the team and to digest potential scenarios: When would MLB’s investigation into the Red Sox conclude? What if Cora was suspended for a year? For two years? In those conversations, the range of outcomes looked far more severe than anything that had been anticipated two months — or just 24 hours — earlier.
Still, Cora met with the team’s amateur scouts around midday. For about 10 minutes, he emphasized the impact their efforts could have on the organization, citing, for example, how the long road trips of scout Danny Watkins in Tennessee years earlier resulted in the fifth-round selection of Mookie Betts and helped to transform the team.
“Unreal,” one attendee said of Cora’s address.
Around 1 p.m., Cora met with Henry, Werner, Kennedy, Bloom, and O’Halloran in Kennedy’s office. The affection for Cora was considerable; he was seen as a remarkable, unifying leader with incredibly strong bonds within the organization. None of this, though, diminished the severity of the situation in their eyes.
Cora told them that he understood — and expressed remorse for — the situation the Red Sox were in. He immediately made clear he respected that the organization had to do what was in its best interests, regardless of what that meant for him. He did not dispute MLB’s findings, nor did he defend or try to justify any of the sign-stealing activity.
Red Sox executives appreciated that Cora acknowledged how the organization was going to suffer as a result of his actions. And from there they began to discuss what comes next, including whether it was possible for Cora to continue as manager.
After about an hour, the meeting broke up as Kennedy had another meeting. By that point, it seemed fairly obvious where the path forward led.
Before reconvening at roughly 3 p.m., Bloom, O’Halloran, and the owners — who had yet to reach a conclusion — discussed what to do if Cora was indeed to depart, and how the message would be handled inside the organization before an announcement.
Cora met separately with O’Halloran to discuss scenarios: Did he think it was possible to return from a two-year or one-year suspension to manage the Red Sox? Was there any way forward?
To Cora — whose confidence as manager had seemed limitless — it was clear. The growing shadow from what he’d been part of in Houston was too great for him to lead without being a distraction or detriment. When he rejoined Bloom, O’Halloran, Kennedy, and the owners, Cora was direct: It wasn’t in the organization’s best interests for him to continue as manager.
The decision “was more so on Alex’s side of it, not wanting to be a distraction,” relayed outfielder J.D. Martinez, based on his conversation with Cora. “I respect him for it. He doesn’t want to bring that on us.”
The owners and front office members agreed.
“It became increasingly clear throughout the course of the day that it just wasn’t going to be possible for him to lead the organization in 2020 or beyond,” said Kennedy.
Still, it was a painful moment — a “gut punch” in the words of multiple team officials, “brutal” in the words of others. The conclusion was emotional, with Cora embracing his colleagues.
“It was a sad day because we all have such respect for Alex,” said Werner. “He admitted that what he did was wrong, but that doesn’t mitigate in our opinion the extraordinary talent that he has.”
By late afternoon, Cora went to his office to communicate with his coaching staff — some face to face, some by phone. He also reached out to players.
In Aruba, Xander Bogaerts had been working out on a baseball field; a teammate’s simple text of a disconsolate emoji conveyed the news.
Bloom and O’Halloran returned to the baseball operations department, where they met with Ferreira, Romero, and Scott. That group was responsible for disseminating the news throughout the organization. (Two dinners in Boston — one of the scouts, the other of the big league coaches and minor league coordinators — simplified the task.)
At 7:27 p.m., the Red Sox issued a statement announcing the team “mutually agreed to part ways” with Cora — a phrase they knew would invite considerable skepticism, but one they felt accurately portrayed the day’s dialogue. The news traveled quickly among the minor leaguers in town for the Rookie Development Program, who had broken up for the night while staying with host families in Boston.
“I was here when [Dave] Dombrowski left, too. Maybe it’s me,” mused infielder Bobby Dalbec. “We were all kind of scattered, but all kind of found out at the same time.”
Cora remained in his office for several hours, his door open to a steady stream of visitors who wanted to spend time with him before he departed.
On Tuesday evening, Cora offered his own message to his former colleagues: Keep working; move forward; don’t lose sight of the talent on the roster and in the organization; and don’t lose focus on preparations for 2020.
On Wednesday morning, the team started doing just that. The major league coaching staff had been scheduled to meet mid-morning with members of the baseball operations staff about advance scouting and the information flow that would inform game plans for the coming season. There was some concern, or at least curiosity, that the group might be in shock and find it difficult to focus.
Instead, after the meeting opened with Bloom and O’Halloran outlining how the decision on Cora had unfolded and taking questions, there were several hours of substantive — if somewhat somber — discussion.
“We have to turn the page quickly,” said one member of the organization. “This is where we are. Where are we going from here?”
The Red Sox — who discussed Cora’s departure publicly on Wednesday and then met Thursday to begin the managerial search — will confront that question for some time to come.