If you can’t beat him, hire him

The Astros' bench coach will manage the Red Sox in 2018. First, though, there's a World Series to win . . .

The Astros’ bench coach will manage the Red Sox in 2018. First, though, there’s a World Series to win . . .

If Alex Cora ever needs to remind himself about determination, he has only to look at an at-bat he had as a Dodger against the Cubs 12 May 2004. On that date, at 9:23 Pacific time, in that at-bat, he graduated from utilityman to mini-legend.

With Matt Clement on the mound, Cora looked at ball one up and away. Then it went: called strike. Ball two. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Foul. Two-run homer.

One of Cora’s Dodger teammates that night now manages the Dodgers. The man who managed the Cubs that night, Dusty Baker, was uninvited to a contract renewal by the Nationals last Friday. Now Cora, this season’s bench coach for the Astros, will become the new manager of the Red Sox—whom the Astros shoved out of this year’s division series. Call it a case of if you can’t beat him, hire him.

You may or may not see a Red Sox hitter wear a pitcher down with fourteen consecutive fouls on 2-2 before hitting one over the right field fence, but you may see the Red Sox filling in a few blanks, ironing out a few kinks, and maybe even coming up with a few heretofore unexpected clubhouse leaders with Cora on the bridge.

“He’s all about the competition and small advantages within the game,” says Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “One of the brightest baseball intellects that I’ve ever been around. He challenges people. He challenges me. He’s someone who’s all about winning.

“And to watch our players respond to him,” Hinch continued, “he’s got a lot of respect in that clubhouse because of the work he puts in and the attention to detail that he brings. That’s why he’s the hottest managerial candidate on the planet, and deservedly so.”

You won’t get any argument from Carlos Beltran, the Astros’ veteran designated hitter.

“Alex brings a lot to the table, my friend,” Beltran told ESPN’s Scott Lauber. “He’s a guy that always is looking for information that he could use against the opposite team. He has good communication with the guys, respects the guys. He’s always in the clubhouse getting to know the players, getting to know which buttons he could push on each player to make them go out there and play the game hard, which is great.”

Cora’s hard managing experience is limited to winter ball in his native Puerto Rico. That doesn’t seem to faze the Red Sox, who signed Cora to a three-year deal. Nor should it.

The former utility infielder becomes the 22nd former Red Sox player to become their skipper and the third youngest major league manager behind the Rays’ Kevin Cash and the Padres’ Andy Green. Cora is also only a month older than retired star David Ortiz, his Red Sox teammate for four seasons.

Cora is said to like taking over a team who’s “ready-made to win,” the Red Sox having won back-to-back American League Easts. Lauber says the Red Sox like the idea of Cora’s upbeat personality dissipating the sour atmosphere in the Red Sox clubhouse in 2017.

An atmosphere in which veteran second baseman Dustin Pedroia probably exposed himself as less than a true clubhouse leader; in which pitcher David Price’s idea of unifying the clubhouse was to foster an us-versus-them attitude while starting a futile battle of wits with the overqualified Hall of Famer turned broadcaster Dennis Eckersley; in which young stars like Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley, Jr. seemed uncertain when or whether to step forward and begin to lead.

But Cora is said to be close to Pedroia from their days as playing teammates. And his success in navigating the Astros’ youthful core including Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa probably helped convince Red Sox general manager Dave Dombrowski that Cora was the Red Sox’s man as much as Hinch’s endorsement did.

So did Cora’s ability to work six parts analytical information and half a dozen parts relating to players as men. “He came to us as a highly regarded candidate, and from speaking with him throughout this process, we found him to be very knowledgeable, driven, and deserving of this opportunity,” Dombrowski said.

Cora was a competent major league utility infielder, a student of the game even then, a better man with the glove than his statistics bore out but who was probably hobbled by his inability to settle at a single infield position. He was a near-classic little-things player who wasn’t destined for the big moments but who was indispensable in his way to four postseason entrants and the Red Sox’s 2007 World Series winner.

The Red Sox also interviewed both former Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and former Tigers manager Brad Ausmus. The Nationals showed interest in Cora, too. Gardenhire ended up taking the Tigers’ job; Boston Globe reporter Peter Abraham says Cora was the Red Sox’s first choice from the beginning of their hunt. Perhaps especially after watching the Astros wipe them out of the division series almost in a blink.

First, of course, Cora has a job to finish with the Astros. They’d love nothing more than to send him off to his new job a World Series winner. And he won’t even have to foul off fourteen straight 2-2 pitches before hitting a two-run homer to do it.

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