Puerto Rico: the new cradle of coaches

As Puerto Rico gets ready to serve as host of two games between the Cleveland Indians and the Minnesota Twins next week, it can bask in the satisfaction that baseball is booming despite an enormous debt crisis and a painfully slow recovery from Hurricane María.

While there was no World Baseball Classic this year, the Criollos de Caguas won the Caribbean Series for the second straight winter. And for the first time, two Puerto Ricans are managing in the major leagues in the same season, skippering teams so loaded with talent that it’s conceivable that they could meet in the World Series.

In fact, Álex Cora, the Boston Red Sox’s first minority manager, has already cemented himself in team lore, leading the club to an 8-1 start — its best ever in a history that dates to the founding of the American League in 1901.

Cora and his Washington Nationals counterpart, Dave Martínez, are just the tip of the iceberg. This season, a record 16 Puerto Ricans are managing and coaching in the major leagues.

This group stands out because they are filling all the positions on the staff, from veterans like Cleveland Indians first base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. and St. Louis Cardinals third base coach José Oquendo to newcomers José David Flores, who is making his debut as a first base coach for the Philadelphia Phillies, and Ramón Vázquez, whom Cora hired to be his quality control coach. That’s analytics-speak for the person in charge of disseminating information from advance scouts and statistical analysis to the players and rest of the staff.

“We’re finally getting opportunities,” Oquendo said in Spanish during an interview with La Vida Baseball last week. “Puerto Rico has always had men with the ability to manage in the major leagues. Now, after so many years, [teams] are giving them a chance.”

Poster Boy

Not surprisingly, the Caguas-born Cora is the poster boy for this group from Puerto Rico. Eleven years after winning the 2007 World Series with the Red Sox and one season after serving as A.J. Hinch’s bench coach during the Houston Astros’ championship run, he’s back in Boston, running a team that has won back-to-back AL East titles and is renowned for its demanding fans and high expectations.

Cora, 42, was hired partly for his knowledge of analytics and new-school approach. He impressed Boston’s management by preaching about the importance of cohesion and connectivity, from the front office down to the clubhouse attendant, hence his need for a quality control coach.

But the Red Sox also made a statement by selecting a skipper with an easy-going demeanor capable of communicating with players in English and Spanish.

“I know I’m going to have good days, bad days, horrible days, I know that. But I’ll keep it simple,” Cora told Boston reporters last week after the Red Sox’s home opener.

“This is a place where the experience is awesome… But you can’t get caught up in it,” Cora added. “Playing in this place, this is my office. Fenway Park. Not everybody can say that. The other 29 managers can’t say that. I can. It’s a special place. I’m having fun with it.”

Cora, whose older brother Joey is the Pittsburgh Pirates’ third base coach, played 14 years in the major leagues, an utility infielder who hit .243 lifetime. Similar to Flores and other younger coaches, he understood his limitations and took advantage of his time on the bench observing and listening. He is so comfortable in his own skin that on his first day off in Boston, he went to Target to buy diapers for his months-old twins. Possibly because it’s early in his tenure, he said that he wasn’t recognized.

New School Latino

Like Álex Cora, Martínez is a former major leaguer without managing experience who was handed a team with enormous talent and expectations. While the Nationals have made the playoffs four times in the last six seasons, they have yet to advance past the first round, a shortcoming that cost the two previous managers their jobs.

Born in New York to Puerto Rican parents and raised in Florida, the 53-year-old Martínez played winter ball in Puerto Rico. He spans two cultures, but after serving the past decade as Chicago Cubs manager Joe Madden’s bench coach, he is considered New School Latino.

Under Martínez, the Nationals won their first four games of the season. Then last Saturday, while in the midst of a five-game losing streak, Martínez pulled off an old school move, rushing out of the dugout to defend vociferously and vigorously third baseman Anthony Rendón, who got ejected for tossing his bat after a called third strike.

Martínez pleaded, gestured with his hands and pointed to the plate, complaining that the strike zone was too wide. And when plate umpire Marty Foster also threw him out, Martínez ramped up his protest, tossing his hat and kicking dirt before storming off.

It was Martínez’s first ejection of his career. It might have won over the most important star on the Nationals, right fielder Bryce Harper.

“Awesome. That’s what it’s all about,” Harper told The Washington Post. “I was talking to my dad yesterday, and [Martínez is] a manager that you want to fight for, you want to win for, and just the little things that he does that makes you want to run through a wall for him and want to win ballgames for him.”

Puerto Rican managers and coaches

Class of 2018

  • Santos “Sandy” Alomar Jr. — Cleveland Indians first base coach
  • Ricky Bones — New York Mets bullpen coach
  • Álex Cintrón — Houston Astros first base coach
  • Álex Cora — Boston Red Sox manager
  • Joey Cora — Pittsburg Pirates third base coach
  • Josue “Joe” Espada — Houston Astros bench coach
  • José David Flores — Philadelphia Phillies first base coach
  • Dave Martínez — Washington Nationals manager
  • Édgar Martínez — Seattle Mariners hitting coach
  • José Carlos “Charlie” Montoyo — Tampa Bay Rays bench coach
  • Juan Nieves — Miami Marlins pitching coach
  • José Oquendo — St. Louis Cardinals third base coach
  • Héctor Ortiz — Texas Rangers bullpen coach
  • Luis Rivera — Toronto Blue Jays third base coach
  • Víctor Rodríguez — Cleveland Indians assistant hitting coach
  • Ramón Vázquez — Boston Red Sox quality control coach

Speaking the players’ language

In a game that is increasingly diverse, there’s a clear benefit to hiring a Latino coach. They can speak to players in so many different ways.

“One of the biggest advantages that we have is that we can communicate with [Latino] players in their language,” Flores, 47, said in an interview with La Vida Baseball during spring training. “And that we’re able to help the English players communicate with the Latino players.

“That helps a lot. It makes the Latino players’ career a hell of a lot easier when they can actually adjust to the American culture fast and they don’t have to feel scared that the Latino coaches are not there to help them.”

Thanks in part by their willingness to embrace analytics, this new generation is coming to the fore less than a decade after the first — and last — two Puerto Ricans got their chance to manage in the major leagues.

There were winter league legends like Max “Mako” Oliveras, who never got to be first. That honor instead went to Edwin Rodríguez, who after a brief major league career as an infielder paid his dues by becoming a minor league coach and skipper.

On June 23, 2010, Rodríguez took over the Florida Marlins, replacing another Latino, the Cuban Fredi González. On a team bereft of talent except for a young Giancarlo Stanton, Rodriguez endured until the following summer, a total of 163 games. Stuck in last place in the NL East seven games under .500, he resigned on June 19, 2011.

Alomar Jr.’s cup of coffee

And in 2012, Alomar Jr. got to lead the Cleveland Indians on an interim basis for the last six games of the season after the club fired the Dominican Manny Acta.

Alomar Jr. went 3-3. But since then, despite interviewing for managerial openings with at least four teams, including the Indians, the 51-year-old Alomar Jr. has yet to receive an offer.

At least he got the proverbial cup of coffee. The dean of Puerto Rican coaches, the 54-year-old Oquendo has never managed in the major leagues even though he had worked on the St. Louis Cardinals staff in one capacity or the other since 1999. After a two-year absence initiated by medical reasons, Oquendo is back coaching third base, which ironically is considered one of the stepping stones to a manager’s job.

“I hope that in the future, the doors keep opening,” said Oquendo, who managed Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic in 2006 and 2009. “I think that there are so many coaches, not only Puerto Ricans, but also Latin Americans who are up and coming and capable of doing a good job if given the chance.”

Rodríguez, 57, takes comfort in being a trailblazer and giving others the motivation and confidence to become managers. He predicts that both St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina and the recently retired Carlos Beltrán will both become major league skippers sooner than later.

“We paved the way and we can feel good about that,” Rodríguez said in Spanish in an interview with La Vida Baseball.

“I think that having Latino players, in this case Puerto Ricans, become managers at the highest stage is huge,” Flores said. “I think that it opens a lot of doors, not only for guys from Puerto Rico, but also guys from Venezuela, for guys from the Dominican, for guys out of the country, even from Japan.

“Who knows? The game is evolving so much right now that organizations are willing to give opportunities to these types of coaches. I think that Latino players and coaches right now have a lot to offer.”

Featured Image:  Billie Weiss / Getty Images Sport

Inset Image: Philadelphia Phillies