Peter Gammons: Red Sox make a seismic shift with manager Alex Cora

LOS ANGELES—Alex Cora is who the Red Sox wanted from the beginning, knowing that once the Astros ended another New England baseball season two weeks ago that they would have to wait until the end of Houston’s run before they could have a show-and-tell presentation at Fenway Park. Knowing that if they waited the Nationals or someone else could well swoop in and sign him away.

Dave Dombrowski, Sam Kennedy, John Henry and Tom Werner were decisive on this decision. Cora blew them away in his interview. He understands the landscape in Red Sox Nation, where, as Mike Barnicle wrote in 1975, “baseball is not a life and death matter, but the Red Sox.”

Since Pumpsie Green arrived at Fenway, Cora is the 19th Red Sox manager, the first minority. He was born on one of the rainout days leading to Game Six of the 1975 World Series. He is younger than John F. Kennedy was the day he uttered “ask what you can do for your country…” He was a member of the 2007 World Champion Red Sox, working out each morning on the road games with Mike Lowell and Manny Ramirez as he and Lowell helped maintain Manny’s focus.

I remember being in Vero Beach in spring training with the Dodgers in 2004—a team that included Dave Roberts, David Ross, Adrian Beltre—and having Cesar Izturis, Paul Lo Duca, Jayson Werth and manager Jim Tracy all tell me Cora was the smartest player in the game. He was Dustin Pedroia’s sidekick as Pedroia broke in, part of what Ben Cherington called “The Breakfast Club,” a bunch of players who usually gathered in the home dugout at 2-2:30, a group that at times included Pedroia, Kevin Cash, Mark KotsayEric (Mr. October) Hinske, all baseball lifers, thinkers. He was brought to the Mets and Nationals as a GPS for young, mercurial players, he has fiercely led the revival of baseball in Puerto Rico, where he has managed and run the Caguas team and the World Baseball Classic club that made it to the finals last spring.

He is a man of boundless energy, a man whose people skills are immense. I remember him calling from the Puerto Rican Acadamy graduation when a 16-year old mentee named Carlos Correa graduated first in his class. I know what it has meant to Rusney Castillo to have Cora sitting next to him on the road trip bus rides across Puerto Rico.

In many ways, this is a seismic shift for the Red Sox, who now must deal with the reality that the Yankees have become the Theo Epstein Red Sox and may be a major power for the next few years as Boston faces tough, critical decisions between now and 2019 to avoid the American League East resembling what it was from 1996-2001. Big Papi will walk back through that door, to support Cora. Don’t be surprised to see Lowell and Jason Varitek, as well.

But the wires that bound this franchise from 2004-2013 are frayed, requiring. John Farrell was a critical figure in Red Sox history, as pitching coach on a world champion, returning to manage the club to a title a year after the Bobby Valentine debacle. He overcame cancer, he fought, but in the end, once Cherington was gone, the organization’s metabolism slowed, and by 2017, when Mike Hazen, Amiel Sawdaye, Jared Porter, Galen Carr and so many of Theo’s management base had left, it seemed as if it all that remained from the three world championships in a decade were Pedroia and guys who filled in on NESN.

Pedroia will dive even harder for anything he sees, do anything for Cora, anything he physically can do. Otherwise, these are not your Mike Higgins Red Sox. If Hanley Ramirez bounces back and can hit for 125 games, a lot of days there will be minority players at short, third, catcher, center field, right field and either first base or DH. Five of them will be 26 or younger. The 2018 is critical in figuring out who these young, and exceptionally talented young players are, and they need an energy reboot to move forward. Cora is that guy. Hanging out with him in the victorious visiting clubhouse on Columbus Day and how Correa and Yuli Gurriel, George Springer and all the players engaged with him was fascinating, and a testament to what the Dodgers said about him that spring training day.

But Cora will need help, and Red Sox management should look no further than here in Los Angeles to see how someone who had never managed in the big leagues—Dave Roberts, one of those Dodgers in Vero that day—completely changed the Dodger culture. When one watches how Roberts relates to players, it is a waterfall of trust and enthusiasm. Watch him manage, with offensive and defensive matchups, and one sees the collaborative minds and creativity from Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi to the dozens of upstairs analytics to the scouts, and, most important, the coaches and players that Roberts manages.

Every coach from Josh Bard in the bullpen to George Lombard—perhaps the first coach on a World Series team whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower—to hitting coach Turner Ward and digest and distribute daily preparation. This is the 21st Century reality, not the days when the press notes were used as prep.

Watch how Roberts uses his bullpen. For example, in Game Four of the NLCS last week, Joe Maddon strung three righthanded batters—Willson Contreras, Addison Russell, Javier Baez—together in the order. Before the game, Kenta Maeda knew his role that night would be those three, given an important situation. Seventh inning, down a run, Maeda came in, knowing what he wanted to do, executed, and while they did not score, the fact that it was a one run game required Wade Davis to throw 48 pitches to hold onto the 3-2 Cubs win, 48 pitches that meant that if Game Five were close, he could not be used.

Managing is an organizational thing. Brian O’Halloran, Eddie Romero, Gus Quattlebaum and Ben Crockett are strong leaders capable of continuing such a cooperative; to his credit, Dombrowski has never pretended to be someone versed in Pitch F/X or analytics, but when he got to Boston, he made it clear he respected all Cherington had in place, immediately hiring Brian Bannister to a longterm contract.

Cora needs a strong coaching staff to empower. We don’t know who is coming back. Alex and Pedroia are big Brian Butterfield admirers, and Butter is one of the best coaches anywhere. In an era where the bullpen coach is a huge part of pre- and in-game reliever preparation—as opposed to the days when Darrell Johnson’s bullpen coach’s main job was cutting hair—Dana Levangie looms important; he’s smart, he’s been an advance scout, bench coach and catching professor.

He also needs time on the field with the players, which might necessitate an alteration in the daily press conference requirement as the face of the franchise. He will be honest, he will be forthright, he cannot throw players under the train, but most important, Dombrowski and Kennedy hired him and they are going to have his back.

I make no bones about it: I think Alex Cora can be a great manager, especially in an increasingly international era when in August the eight top prospects in the minor leagues were international signings. Theo Epstein Thursday night said, “AC’s been your manager for ten years. I’m happy for him. Everyone is happy for him. It can be a great hiring.”

Comments

  1. Danny Pena says:

    I discovered your site through a mention on weei.com of an article on Alex Cora written by the one and only Peter Gammons. For several years as a 12 to 14 year old I would go religiously to the library , living in Tampa Florida, so that I could read the Sunday Baseball notes written by Peter Gammons that covered a whole pages wirth..lthat was 1980 to 1982. I grew up in Peabody and have been a fan of the Six since I was 5 and could understand who was number 8 and that he was called Yaz. Thank you Peter Gammons. I am a lifelong admirer of your love for the gane- Danny Pena Sox fan in Chattanooga 4 Eva!

  2. Glen Bergendahl says:

    But who wrote it before Barnicle – Jimmy Breslin? John Updike? David Halberstam? George Carlin?

  3. I believe it was Grantland Rice… of course when he was off attending a Groton, I mean Vandy, reunion; Ring Lardner filled in!

    Those were the days… we’d rush home from school to catch the latest scores from Vin Scully on the telegraph and he’d often quote SBN 😉

  4. Rick Katze says:

    Hope your right about Cora. I tend to agree with what you said. But John Henry has to open the bank account. The RS need some fixes including that power hitter who is going to cost them big bucks. They can absorb the penalties for 2 years before having to make a hard decision. Maybe longer depending on who is coming off the payroll in 2 years. Right now Castillo does not count against the payroll but in 2018 they either need to play him or trade him.

  5. Any chance Rusney Castillo could still contribute to the Sox? He had a very good year at AAA – .314/.350/.507 with 14 steals in 16 attempts and 15 homers in 369 plate appearances. Given the Cora relationship, you wonder about it – he’s only 30, might have been rushed up initially . . . obviously, could be one of those AAAA guys who never make it, but he can play the field, and has skills. Might be worth a look, although I don’t know if his salary would be prohibitive for a 4th OF, considering luxury tax implications, etc. If so, you’d wonder if they could move him . . .

  6. i am very happy that alex cora is the new manager…..now the sox need to go out and get big bat for the 4 slot.