FORT MYERS, Fla. — After reaching the playoffs last October, a glamour team in the American League East replaced the manager who won the club’s last championship. The choice was someone who had never managed in the majors, but had played for the team in the World Series. He was in his 40s, with a college education. He had recent experience as an ESPN analyst, and a brother who also played in the majors.
All of that applied to the New York Yankees and Aaron Boone. It also applied to the Boston Red Sox and Alex Cora. Just as both teams have a new right-handed slugger in the middle of their lineups — Giancarlo Stanton for the Yankees, J.D. Martinez for the Red Sox — they also have managers with strikingly similar backgrounds.
“You have to have such a multitude of skills for that job, and the more experiences you can have in different areas is extremely important,” said Dave Dombrowski, Boston’s president of baseball operations. “Guys with that type of background — when they’ve played in the World Series, been around the game their whole lives, when they have leadership skills, when they can communicate well — I think that gives them a much better opportunity to be successful.”
Like the Yankees with Joe Girardi, the Red Sox had succeeded with John Farrell, who won a championship in 2013 and division titles the last two years. But last season was oddly joyless for many of the players, who acknowledged this as they reported to spring training.
The Red Sox missed the presence of David Ortiz, the retired designated hitter, and Torey Lovullo, the bench coach who left to manage the Arizona Diamondbacks. Controversies festered, and Dustin Pedroia, the veteran second baseman, said players wasted too much emotional energy fretting over each day’s result.
Sometimes Pedroia would reach out to Cora, who had dressed in the next locker as a fellow Red Sox infielder in Pedroia’s first three seasons, from 2006 to 2008. “Everything I do in baseball, he showed me how to do,” Pedroia said.
But Cora could not help his friend last season. He had left ESPN to be the Houston Astros’ bench coach, and in that job, he said, it would not have been appropriate to counsel a member of another team.
Now it is Cora’s job, officially, to help Pedroia and the Red Sox maintain and enhance their winning ways. Pedroia said Cora’s perspective was exactly what the players needed.
“He always said if you’re a .300 hitter and the last day of the year you’re hitting .270, you’ll probably play a 30-inning game and go 30-for-30,” Pedroia said. “You are who you are. You’ve just got to fix the process and understand that in the end, you’ll be right where you need to be.”
The Red Sox and the Yankees lost to Cora’s Astros in the playoffs last fall, but the Yankees got much farther, reaching Game 7 of the AL Championship Series. Cora said he learned a lot from the Astros and their manager, A.J. Hinch, mostly about the need for cohesion throughout an organization.
“The most important thing is you have to connect,” Cora said. “The baseball operations, the analytics department, the medical staff — if they don’t get together, what’s the point? How are we going to filter the information from these departments to the coaches and to the players? If you can’t accomplish that, then you’re in trouble.”
Read that again. In four sentences, Cora distilled the most important task for the modern manager. All teams use analytics to help guide in-game strategy, and managers must clearly communicate that vision to players.
Like Boone, Cora worked closely with statisticians at ESPN and came to value their expertise. His lineage gives him a seasoned sensibility — Cora was 11 when his brother, Joey, reached the majors — but his television work helped him appreciate baseball through another lens.
“This is where the game has gone, and there’s more acceptance from us, because we see it,” said the former major leaguer Eduardo Perez, the son of the Hall of Famer Tony Perez, who worked with Cora at ESPN and coached for the Astros in 2013.
“When they started to implement a lot of analytics, people thought, ‘What are they doing?’” he continued. “But that was the beginning of where the Astros ended up, as world champions, and Alex had a taste of that last year. When you’re able to accept it and interpret it and use it on the field, you can get those players to believe in it, too.”
Cora is 42; he was born on the original date of the fabled Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, before rainouts pushed it back. He played in the majors from 1998 to 2011, winning a championship ring with Boston in 2007. He is 13 years younger than Farrell, an even bigger age gap than the one between Girardi and Boone. (Girardi is 53, and Boone turns 45 in March.)
Dombrowski was careful not to criticize Farrell, citing his achievements in Boston. But he added: “I think we needed a different voice, a younger voice, a connectivity voice between the manager and the players, with everybody. We have a lot of young guys, and the ability to connect even deeper than what we did in the past, in the clubhouse, I think is important.”
Young managers are nothing new, even in Boston. Joe Cronin, a longtime player-manager, was 39 when he guided the Red Sox to the 1946 World Series. Dick Williams was 38 when he did so in 1967. Both are in the Hall of Fame. So is Tony La Russa, now a special assistant to Dombrowski, who will be available as a resource for Cora. (He also will have a veteran bench coach in Ron Roenicke, the former Milwaukee Brewers manager.)
La Russa got his first major league managing job at 34, with the 1979 Chicago White Sox. He survived, he said, by following the advice of a team executive, Paul Richards: “Trust your gut and don’t cover your butt.”
La Russa said he believed in Cora, Boone and others in that mold.
“It’s high-profile and people are paying attention, so that’s an obstacle to overcome,” La Russa said. “But if you’ve got an open mind and your instincts are good, that, to me, is why I would bet on these young guys, that they’ll make it. Their gut, based on their experiences, is going to carry them, and they’ll just get better and better.”
Hinch saw progress in Cora throughout last season. At the start, he said, Cora was mainly a liaison to players, and helped with infield positioning. As the season went on, he expanded his role to revamp the Astros’ base running and scout pitchers’ tendencies. In the postseason, Hinch said, Cora was vital to his in-game decision-making.
“When you see him interact with players and you see the buy-in that he gets, it’s very easy to see why he was a good teammate, and why he’s beloved around the league,” Hinch said. “And he has such a great baseball mind, he’s ahead of the inning the game is in. He can see all the things a manager would.”
The task now is to hold off the Yankees in the division, and then try to unseat the Astros. Martinez will boost a lineup that had the fewest homers in the AL last season, and the Red Sox expect more from starter David Price, who missed most of last season with elbow trouble.
Cora said he would emphasize defense and base running. The Red Sox made 81 outs on the bases last season, easily the most in the majors.
“We can make adjustments defensively, moving people around, putting guys in spots where they can make plays,” he said. “I felt like last year they played it pretty straight. So that, and base running. Very irresponsible running the bases. That’s something we have to do a better job of this year.”
Cora has already made a difference in one vital area. When he negotiated his Red Sox deal, he asked the team to sponsor a mission trip to his native Puerto Rico. Just before spring training, pitchers Chris Sale and Rick Porcello joined Cora and others — including Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh — to deliver nearly 10 tons of supplies to aid in the island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria. The team and its foundation also donated $200,000 to help restore power to Caguas, Cora’s hometown.
“I always said I wanted to do something impactful in baseball when I retire,” said Cora, who is off to an encouraging start.