By César Augusto Márquez
A benefit of winning their division was the Red Sox having a few extra days off at the outset of the postseason. So, with the free time, Álex Cora called his players and staff together on the night of Oct. 3 to watch the American League wild-card game.
Together, the Red Sox had dinner and watched their rivals from the Bronx defeat the Oakland A’s. Knowing who they would play in the Divisional Series was part of the reason for the gathering, but it was more about camaraderie. Cora wanted to be with his team away from the diamond.
“I think that day served to take away the stress of the season and be together as a team watching the playoffs,” Cora told La Vida Baseball. “It wasn’t about studying the rival; we did that during the regular season. It was about being together as a group.”
Cora the communicator understood the pressure of a rivalry was coming under the bright lights of October, making a relaxing social time together an important departure from the long grind of the baseball season.
Over the past two decades the expectations for the Red Sox organization have climbed from trying to win a World Series to being in the Fall Classic on an annual basis. The pressure of being a first-year manager in Boston can be overwhelming for seasoned coaches, much less a rookie skipper.
But Cora has been able to rely on being a young manager to relate to his players; he is only five years older than Brandon Phillips, an infielder on Boston’s roster at the end of the regular season. The talented core of the Red Sox is younger, however, with seasoned vets like JD Martinez and Mitch Moreland surrounding the emerging young superstars like Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi.
Cora remembering how players react to decisions made by managers has helped him navigate tough decisions like taking playing time away from his young starting third baseman, Rafael Devers, in the middle of the season to create playing time for others who were performing well.
Red Sox Assistant General Manager Eddie Romero pointed to Cora’s ability to communicate as a big part of what has made Cora successful.
“One of the things we liked most about his personality when we interviewed him was his ability to communicate, either to the team or to the press, about his decisions and to admit when he is wrong, too,” Romero told La Vida Baseball. “His honesty defines him.”
That candor is also appreciated by his players. It enables them to know where they stand with their coaches, what Cora’s expectations are, and how they can better contribute to the team’s success.
When putting together a postseason roster, players want to know why individuals are (or aren’t) included in the roster for a round of play. In the Divisional Series Cora opted to carry three catchers on his roster. But his clear communication with his team kept players from wondering why.
“What more can we ask of the man?” asked Christian Vásquez, one of the three backstops on the ALDS roster. “He is bilingual, knows how to communicate his ideas, and explains his decisions to everyone on the team. He is a leader.”
A Student of the Game
Cora started preparing himself to be a manager before he realized that could be the result. As a player, he communicated with teammates and took leadership roles with different organizations throughout his career on the field, so the transition to the bench didn’t surprise former teammates.
“When I got to the Dodgers, I was a prospect and we were supposed to compete for the shortstop position,” remembered César Izturis. “Even though I was expecting a fierce competition, he practically mentored me.
“[Cora] has the gift of studying people and knows how to approach them, that demonstrates his leadership.”
Itzuris got an up-close view of Cora’s personality when the two were with the Dodgers. They became such good friends that Izturis remembers it was Cora who bought him his first tailored suit as a big league player.
That relationship and admiration continues today as Izturis watches his former mentor leading one of baseball’s marquee franchises in the AL postseason.
“He was always respectful, but you saw him with that curiosity,” Izturis added. “[He was] always asking questions to the coaching staff, and always anticipating plays when he was in the field.”
Learning New Approaches
Cora developed a bank of experience during his 14-year major league career as a player by paying attention to the moving parts off the field. He appeared in more than 100 games in only five of those 14 seasons, meaning he had a great deal of time to observe how his managers were handling players and opponents.
One of the trends that emerged during Cora’s career was a more open acceptance and wide-spread use of advanced analytics. More teams are employing deeper data today than were 20 years ago when Cora made his big league debut, and Cora has been able to participate in the mathematic evolution of the game.
“We liked his deep knowledge of sabermetrics and statistics,” Romero said. “We were surprised he knew so much. He is this era’s kind of manager, someone who can communicate with everyone and who also handles the statistical part as well.”
Romero hopes Cora can use that foundation in both on-field experience and data understanding to become the second Latino manager to win a World Series crown.
In this Divisional Series Cora has dealt with bad weather, a poor start from one of his highest paid pitchers and the need to position his players differently in two of the more unique stadiums in the majors – Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium – to stay head of his rivals in the opposite dugout.
With the Red Sox on their way to the AL Championship Series, Cora has shown that he is pushing all the right buttons.
Featured Image: Alex Trautwig / Getty Images Sport