Alex Cora, prodigal manager

Red Sox manager Alex Cora (right) in a 2018 ALCS handshake with his Houston counterpart A.J. Hinch. Cora’s been re-hired by the Red Sox, while his fellow Astrogater Hinch gets his second chance in Detroit.

Well, I was wrong. About Sam Fuld possibly having the faster track to the job and Alex Cora finding a new one elsewhere. The Red Sox rehired Cora to manage them Friday. Have they let a cheater come back to the scene of the crime?

Cora’s Astro Intelligence Agency culpability was deep enough it was too easy to believe he had a hand or at least a fingertip in the 2018 (and maybe 2019) Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring. It’s also a truism oft repeated (including by me) that when you lead you take responsibility for what’s done by the troops.

But baseball’s government pinned that replay reconnaissance responsibility on Red Sox video room operator J.T. Watkins. Pinned it on him or scapegoated him for it, depending on your point of view. Either he or someone he allowed decoded opposing signs and signaled them to Red Sox baserunners to send home to the hitters at the plate.

Watkins took the fall. The MLB investigation that discovered the Astros went above and beyond just using what MLB itself provided in the replay rooms behind all dugouts but that the Rogue Sox just got caught doing what a few other teams at minimum must have been doing likewise.

“I know J.T. and how he works,” Cora said when Watkins was taken on the perp walk. “I trust the guy. Was I surprised at what came out? Yes, I was.”

Whether Cora beat the Rogue Sox rap on a technicality, or really didn’t have any clue as to what Watkins and who knows which Red Sox players were up to, Cora has his old job back. His Astrogate suspension ended the moment the World Series did. Officially, anyone with the opening was free to hire him.

If he was in it up to his neck in Houston he was found caught pants down with everyone else in Boston, officially. Unofficially, suspicions will cling. That’s the nature of the human beast. Begging the question for many as to why the Red Sox elected to bring back someone who’d been caught dead to right cheating above and beyond in one town even if he just might have been innocent enough in theirs.

“Forgiveness comes a little easier,” writes The Athletic‘s Chad Jennings, “when there’s a [World Series] ring involved.”

In that sense, Cora was the Red Sox safest choice. Any other manager would have faced an inevitable comparison. Early losing streak? Cora could have stopped it. Under-performing player? Cora would have known what to say. Disappointing season? Not on Cora’s watch. He maintains some benefit of the doubt, even beneath the weight of his past transgressions.

In other words, the hapless Ron Roenicke—handed the bridge after Cora’s exit, but helpless to keep the Red Sox together following their winter trade of franchise player Mookie Betts, the ownership’s greater concern for staying beneath the luxury tax threshold over fortifying the team’s compromised pitching staff, and several key injuries (Andrew Benintendi, Eduardo Rodriguez, Chris Sale)—didn’t stand a chance.

According to Jennings, Roenicke might have felt Cora’s “spectre” hovering overhead—except that he denies it. “No, never,” the skipper who’d been Cora’s bench coach said. “And the reason I can say that is because Alex should be managing . . . I’m hoping he does this again, whether it’s here or somewhere else, he should be managing.”

“At the time that we parted ways with Alex,” says Chaim Bloom, the Red Sox GM/chief baseball officer, whose longtime knowledge of Fuld—former outfielder turned Phillies player information coordinator—helped drive speculation of Fuld taking the bridge, “we were clear that that was a result of his role and what happened with the Astros and everything the investigation over there revealed. It had nothing to do with what may or may not have occurred in Boston.”

It’s enough to make you wonder whether bringing Cora back was Bloom’s ultimate choice or whether—the way then-GM Ben Cherington had Bobby Valentine jammed down his throat after the 2011 collapse—the Red Sox ownership likewise stuck Cora down Bloom’s throat.

Valentine, of course, took on a fragmented team and detonated a season-long bomb worth of divide-and-conquer dissipation. His firing after that 2012 disaster practically detonated block parties around New England. Cora’s departure practically detonated mass mourning that a guy with his brains and his ability to keep his players on board had to go.

Players and others within the Red Sox organisation couldn’t bear to let Cora go entirely even as the Red Sox leadership pushed him away with little choice following the affirmation of his Astrogate culpability. For those players partaking of Watkins’s replay room espionage, it must have felt like Dad going to the calaboose unfairly for the kiddies’ breaking the neighbourhood.

Hinch was popular with his Astros players, too, but once the Astros fired him and GM Jeff Luhnow upon their Astrogate suspensions the Astros showed little inclination or longing to bring him back. Even as the Red Sox put distance between themselves and Cora, they kept their eye on him a little longingly in the distance, ultimately re-narrowing it.

“[O]nce he departed,” writes NBC Sports Boston’s John Tomase, that opened the door for Bloom to make his own hire, since the manager-GM relationship is the most important in baseball operations”

And Bloom sent consistent signals that he planned to look elsewhere, a point reinforced by the process that ultimately led us back where we started.

With Cora available and ready to be rehired, Bloom still conducted a lengthy search, interviewing multiple candidates and eventually identifying five finalists. The choice reportedly came down to Cora vs. . . . Fuld, whom Bloom knew from Tampa.

The Red Sox will insist that at the end of this process, Bloom and Bloom alone chose Cora, and that had better be true. Because otherwise it means that ownership either tacitly or explicitly overruled its baseball boss on his most consequential hire . . . Imagine bypassing a beloved figure for a first-timer like Fuld? The last thing a rookie manager needs to be greeted with is resentment.

Surely Tomase isn’t alone in pondering what might have been if the White Sox had reached out for Cora instead of Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, who was only too clearly an ownership move instead of their GM’s. Would Bloom have felt free to hand Fuld the Red Sox bridge after all? We’ll never know.

It’s not that cheaters haven’t been forgiven before. The New York Giants’ leadership may have been well aware of Leo Durocher’s telescopically-buzzing cheating scheme down the 1951 stretch, but it was a third-place finish the year after they swept the Indians in the World Series that got Durocher fired.

Fred Hutchinson may or may not have sanctioned scoreboard-based sign-stealing by his pennant-winning 1961 Reds, but it took 1964’s courageous but fatal battle with lung cancer, not 1961’s telescopic cheating, to seal Hutch’s fate.

Cora’s culpability in the Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring isn’t even close to being as cut and dried as his Astro Intelligence Agency activities proved to be. For now, no matter. Officially, Watkins paid for any and all Rogue Sox sins. Unofficially, Lucy, they’ve still got some splainin’ to do.

Every baseball eye in and away from Boston will put Cora and the Olde Towne Team under the most acute microscope since Zachariah Janssen invented the thing—in the year Urban VII became the shortest-reigning Pope (three months) in the history of the Catholic Church. It won’t necessarily be inappropriate.

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