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Alex Cora believes managers and players can be BFFs. But will that work in Boston?

"[Being] too close to players," rookie Red Sox skipper Alex Cora said, "that doesn't exist." While that philosophy has worked for him in the past, cynics abound in Boston. Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Amid all the pleasantries and platitudes that tend to be standard fare at introductory news conferences, one line from Alex Cora’s first media availability as manager of the Boston Red Sox stood out for its apparent naiveté.

“[Being] too close to players,” Cora said nearly three months ago in Fenway Park, “that doesn’t exist.”

Cue the eye-rolls and the shaking of heads. To the most cynical in a press corps and fan base teeming with cynics, Cora sounded like a rookie manager who did not yet grasp the reality of his new job. Even the most player-friendly manager can’t really be friends with his players. Not when he has the final say over who gets the at-bats and pitches the most important innings and occupies the 25 spots on the roster. There’s a good reason the manager’s office in every big league clubhouse comes with a door. Difficult conversations tend to take place behind it.

But Cora, bless his heart, believes he can thread that needle. And what if he really can? It is, after all, part of the reason the Red Sox hired him after only one season as the Houston Astros' bench coach.

Cora, 42, lasted 14 years in the big leagues as a backup infielder because he was regarded as a team leader and expert communicator -- in two languages, no less. He related as easily to young Dustin Pedroia as he did to eccentric star Manny Ramirez. Upon observing Cora’s interactions with teammates, then-Red Sox skipper Terry Francona once told him, “Alex, you’re going to be a big league manager.”

Now that he is, Cora plans to lean on those interpersonal skills more than ever. His philosophy: Get to know the players as well as possible and earn their trust. The closer he can get to them, the easier it will be to stick together when times get tough.

“[Player-manager] relationships, they can’t be only baseball relationships,” Cora said. “The whole thing about drawing a line, [players] understand that. But you’ve got to care about each other. That’s the most important thing. They’re human beings, man, and you’ve got to talk to them. You’ve got to see how they feel.”

To Ryan Kalish, it is that abiding sense of empathy that sets Cora apart. And Kalish, one of the few players who can count Cora among his former managers, has played for Francona, Torey Lovullo, Bobby Valentine and Joe Maddon.

Cora’s managerial experience is limited to two roughly 40-game seasons with Criollos de Caguas, a winter ball team based in his hometown in eastern Puerto Rico. Kalish, a former Red Sox prospect whose career has been pocked by a string of injuries, came to Caguas in 2015 after missing a full season with the Chicago Cubs while recovering from multiple surgeries on both knees. The rust was evident. In 20 games, Kalish went 10-for-69 (.145) with one extra-base hit and 15 strikeouts.

Winter ball is serious business, with fans flocking to ballparks and teams playing to win. At-bats are earned, not promised. But Cora didn’t consign Kalish to the end of the bench and forget about him. He didn’t underestimate the difficulty of Kalish’s long road back or patronizingly reassure him that, in time, everything would be OK.

Instead, Cora recognized what Kalish was going through and commiserated with him, making time to listen to how out of sorts he felt at the plate and in the outfield. Cora even put Kalish in touch with a sports psychologist who he saw during his career.

“Alex had a really good idea of what I had been through to get to that point, and he was always so positive with me,” Kalish said. “We didn’t make the playoffs, and I didn’t hit very well. It’s not like I did anything special for him other than giving him 100 percent effort. But every day was just another positive day for him, even if I had a bad day.

“When a manager has all the dynamics of being your friend and being your business associate, which he very much is, and then also having the ability to let you know when you’re not doing things correctly, that’s really unique. You don’t come across that all the time. And Alex has that.”

Cora grew up in baseball-crazed Puerto Rico and learned by watching his brother, Joey, 10 years his elder. His knowledge of the game and its history was evident during a recruiting visit to the University of Miami when he floored the coaching staff by citing Venezuelan shortstop Luis Aparicio, whose Baseball Hall of Fame career ended two years before Cora was born, as his baseball mentor.

"[Being] too close to players, that doesn't exist." New Red Sox manager Alex Cora
As a freshman, he threatened in the middle of a game to go back to Puerto Rico after Miami coach Jim Morris benched him for throwing his helmet. When Morris sent the pitching coach into the locker room after him, Cora kicked a hole in a door.

“That’s how mad he got at me,” Morris said. “He had to put a poster over the door to hide [the hole]. But by the end of the night, he hugged me and he was crying. That’s Cora. He wears his heart on his sleeve, always.”

Two years later, Cora cried on the field after LSU beat Miami on a walk-off homer in the championship game of the 1996 College World Series. But he also delivered a moving epilogue to his teammates a few minutes later, making a point to console freshman closer Robbie Morrison, the All-American who gave up the home run. It was an early sign of Cora’s innate ability to read a room and say the right thing at the precise time.

“We’re in the locker room, just in shock; everyone was incredibly disappointed, and Alex gives this emotional speech,” said Red Sox mental skills coach Laz Gutierrez, Cora’s teammate for one season at Miami. “He was able to express this comforting message of, ‘We’ll be back; we’re a great club.’ And then he starts telling Robbie he’s a great pitcher and he’s going to do great things. It was way, way ahead of what you expect from a college guy at that level. His emotional intelligence is through the roof.”

There are other examples. In four seasons as a Red Sox reserve, Cora’s most meaningful role was keeping Ramirez in line. He would work out with the slugger on the road and use positive reinforcement to keep him motivated. Unlike many, Cora seemed to understand Manny’s moods and what made him tick.

In 2010, his second-to-last season as a player, Cora asked a few excessively jocular New York Mets teammates for “a little respect” in the clubhouse after a tough midseason loss. Likewise, he rarely pulled punches in four years as an ESPN commentator. After Chris Sale defied his Chicago White Sox bosses by cutting up throwback jerseys in 2016, Cora excoriated the ace, calling his actions “not the way you act as a big leaguer.”

And then there was the time Cora pulled Gutierrez aside in a hallway leading to the locker room after an intrasquad game at Miami and sternly told the freshman pitcher that the team expected more from him, while also offering to help him improve.

“That was the first time I had a teammate or a peer of my age speak to me in that manner where it was as if a coach was speaking to me, or an older brother figure,” Gutierrez said. “If it came out of his mouth, you gave it a lot of importance. He has this way of delivering an authentic message in a manner that comes across as caring a great deal for a person at a great depth.”

Morris offered his take on Cora.

“I think the players will learn very quick that he talks from his heart to them," Morris said. "He’s going to be able to talk to any player about anything, on the field or off. They’re going to want to play for him.”

That approach worked for Cora as a bench coach last year.

Cora developed a brotherly relationship with Alex Bregman, which enabled him to deliver a pep talk to the Astros’ young third baseman before his eighth-inning homer off Sale in Game 4 of the American League Division Series. And although Cora has known Carlos Beltran for more than 20 years, he helped Astros manager A.J. Hinch break it to the 40-year-old designated hitter that he would be losing at-bats to more productive players.

The experience with Beltran should serve as Cora’s road map for managing Pedroia, his ex-teammate and good friend who will need to be handled with greater care at age 34 and coming off serious knee surgery. Never a natural leader, Pedroia might benefit from Cora’s positivity, just as the Red Sox are counting on Cora to draw out whatever leadership qualities exist within star right fielder Mookie Betts, shortstop Xander Bogaerts and outfielders Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi.

Overall, the Sox could stand to be transfused with Cora’s passion after joylessly slogging through a 93-win, first-place season under former manager John Farrell. If Cora ends up having that effect, he insists it will be because he demonstrates what Gutierrez calls “social agility,” the ability to strike the delicate balance between befriending players and being firm with them.

“Listen, that’s one of the reasons he’s our new manager, because he’s able to do that,” Gutierrez said. “That’s something that was either inherent in his personality or developed through his experiences. Guys like Alex that are able to show that empathy, that can connect with players without hesitation and without barriers but are able to deliver a difficult message or make a difficult decision, those are guys that end up being very successful in this game.”

If Kalish didn’t already know how much Cora cares, he found out Oct. 31. With the Astros set to play a World Series game that night at Dodger Stadium and Cora spending his mornings on conference calls with Red Sox officials after having been hired a few days earlier, he still found time to reach out to Kalish.

“It was Game 6, day of, and this guy is texting me phone numbers of people in winter ball to try and get me a job. Tell me how many people are doing that,” Kalish said. “That’s not typical. That’s just not normal. I was with my dad in North Carolina out on his boat, and both of us were blown away by it. To give me, a guy who’s not helping him in any way, shape or form at that moment, to be concerned about my career, it’s like, wow.

“There’s going to be times, in the job he has now, when he has to send people down and do all that kind of stuff. But he recognizes it’s more than just the performance, and that’s something that I think can get lost, especially at the big league level. Obviously, it’s about performing and winning, but I don’t think anyone’s going to come through his managing and not feel touched by him.”

The way Cora sees it, that’s the idea.