However Alex Cora fares as the Red Sox’s new manager, in one way Red Sox Nation can say thank you to Manny Ramirez for at least half the likelihood that Cora got the job in the first place. Try to stop laughing.
After the Indians signed Cora as a free agent for 2005, the more than useful utility infielder was dealt to the Red Sox almost a month before the 2005 non-waiver trade deadline.
Coming off the World Series championship that ended eightysomething years of surrealistic Red Sox failure and heartbreak, the ’05 Red Sox thought they had the man to back up Edgar Renteria—the final Cardinal out of the Red Sox’s ’04 World Series sweep, whom they signed to a four-year deal in that offseason.
A year later, Mike Lowell joined the Red Sox. One of the first things to impress him as a Red Sox was Cora’s handling of Manny Ramirez, on a team for which then-manager Terry Francona not only fostered good relationships with his players but relied on them to police their own clubhouse. Which worked, until 2011.
“On the road, I lifted weights in the mornings with him and Manny Ramirez and the one guy that got on Manny’s case for showing up 10 minutes late in the lobby or not showing to workout was Alex,” Lowell told WEEI, after the Red Sox let it be known they were naming Cora to succeed John Farrell.
“And Manny took to it. I think he kind of liked a guy could relate to his situation and get on him in the sense, ‘We aren’t going to win without you Manny. We need you’,” Lowell continued. “I think he understood Manny’s personality was more that you had to put your arm around him and maybe someone else was the type you have to kick them in the butt a little bit.”
Lowell’s implication was that that was a relationship that predated the third baseman’s arrival in Boston. A guy who can figure the prickly Ramirez out that swiftly and deal that accordingly with him was probably a guy who could navigate the choppiest waters in a clubhouse sea and come into port unscathed and triumphant.
The Red Sox lost a 2005 division series and dealt Renteria to the Braves afterward. (One of Cora’s teammates on the ’05 Red Sox: Matt Clement, the former Cub pitcher he’d battled to an eighteen-pitch plate appearance ending in a two-run homer the year before.)
First thinking Cora would be their regular shortstop, they acquired Alex Gonzalez for 2006, who’d also replaced Renteria with the Marlins once upon a time. Cora remained in the utility role and survived long enough to win a World Series ring with the ’07 Red Sox. He remained a Red Sox player long enough to survive their ouster in the 2008 American League Championship Series.
“The fact that guys like David Ortiz, and Curt Schilling, and Josh [Beckett] and Manny were respectful and felt like they had to respect Alex because of the way he went about his business, I think speaks volumes of what he can do now as a manager,” Lowell said.” You can be the best X’s and O’s guy but if your players don’t feel like the manager has their backs that clubhouse can deteriorate quickly. In that sense I think Alex is prepared for it.”
Francona himself told Cora to his face that his future included major league managing well before Cora proved to able to navigate Ramirez’s tidal waves. And A.J. Hinch, the World Series-winning Astros manager for whom Cora served as this year’s bench coach, merely called Cora the best managerial prospect “on the planet.”
It’s not that Cora’s necessarily afraid—”Boston, for a lot of people, is a challenge; for me, it’s not,” he said, speaking from his experience playing there—but what does he have to look forward to?
Farrell first took the Red Sox managing job knowing he had to detoxify a clubhouse poisoned by the September 2011 collapse as it was when ill-considered Bobby Valentine detonated a season-long chemical cloud in it. He managed to dissipate the toxins and win the World Series in his first year on the job.
But a couple of dead last American League East finishes followed by back-to-back division titles and early postseason exits exposed Farrell as having lost his clubhouses gradually and dubiously. Especially when he couldn’t or wouldn’t dissipate the poison introduced when pitcher David Price verbally assaulted and humiliated pitcher-turned-Red Sox broadcaster Dennis Eckersley last June.
Practically the entire front office apologised to the Hall of Famer. Farrell never once compelled Price to do so. He also couldn’t make a clubhouse leader out of reluctant Dustin Pedroia and didn’t seem to think such young stars as Jackie Bradley, Jr., Mookie Betts, or Xander Bogaerts were ready to be guided that way. Lacking mid-to-late order lineup pop didn’t exactly help when the Red Sox were swept away by the Astros in October.
Former Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan remembers how Cora handled the original advent of Pedroia. “[Cora] had a tough role on our team, a utility infielder, didn’t get a ton of playing time. What he handled really well was 2007, when Dustin Pedroia was an everyday second baseman and Pedey was struggling bad,” Magadan says.
“And Alex was swinging the bat really good. There was a lot of clamoring to get Alex in the lineup and send Pedey down to Triple A, and Alex had none of that,” he continues. “He mentored Dustin. He didn’t take advantage of what was going on. He knew Dustin was the future of the team and did everything he could to help him. I think he was a big reason why Dustin got out of that slump.”
If only Cora could have helped make a clubhouse leader out of Pedroia, who isn’t afraid to speak when he thinks a teammate is in the wrong, but who otherwise prefers as he did from the outset to let his play do his talking and leading, which is good in some ways but dubious in others.
Cora may find himself having to negotiate a clubhouse still in need of calming in light of the Price situation, with the unhappy pitcher managing to unite the 2017 clubhouse into a united front of negativism, an us-against-the-world stance that did them no favours when the postseason began.
He’s not exactly afraid. For one thing, he also thinks of the Price he saw in the division series, the one who manhandled the Astros in Game Three with four innings of four-strikeout, four-hit, shutout relief, the one who was as close to his vintage self as has been seen in the last couple of seasons.
“The way he threw the ball with conviction, I’ll take that,” Cora says confidently. “For me, it’s unfair to talk about what happened last year. It’s in the past. I’m here to move forward. This guy is very important for me. Whatever I can do to help him out, I’m going to be there for him. And at the same time, whatever I can do for him to be successful, I have to be there for him.”
A guy who can reach Manny Ramirez and extend an olive branch to David Price, not to mention being the Hinch deputy who had to tell his longtime friend Carlos Beltran that his at-bats as a designated hitter would shrink and get Beltran to accept it and become a morale officer, isn’t going to shrivel in the Boston sports heat.
Just ask his former Boston coaches. “You knew right away, because when he wasn’t playing, he was locked into the game,” says former third base coach Dale Sveum. “And had all the attributes of being a coach and a manager in the big leagues because he was well-versed. Very professional. Just an incredible baseball mind.”
“He was always great about picking up pitchers’ tendencies or a pickoff move to first,” says Magadan. “If a guy was falling into patterns, tipping his pitches, Alex was always on top of stuff like that, so you knew he was real cerebral.” Did Magadan just give away the culprit who picked up Yu Darvish’s pitch tipping in the World Series?
If nothing else, the Red Sox promise to be a considerably less bristling clubhouse for 2018. Who knows? Maybe Cora can do for them what Hinch has done with the Astros—make baseball fun again, and make winning even more fun. He may only need the front office to bring him a couple more clubhouse-savvy veterans and maybe a middle-of-the-order bat to finish the job.