As he accepted the Manager of the Year award from the Boston chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America Thursday, Alex Cora could have delivered a middle-of-the-fairway acceptance speech. He could have thanked the Red Sox organization for the opportunity, made reference to a remarkable, historic championship season, graciously acknowledged the inevitable applause, and called it a day.
But that is not what Cora does or who Cora is. The 43-year-old manager is a tone-setter, someone who isn’t shy about defining a bold vision of possibility — a bit cocky, a bit audacious, totally authentic. The words that Cora offered in accepting an award earned from a season in which his team won 119 games — more than all but one championship team in big league history — came across as genuine, not forced.
“Somebody might write this, I don’t care,’’ Cora said. “If you guys thought last year was special, wait till this year.’’
And with that, the ballroom at the InterContinental Hotel erupted. In 19 words, Cora waved off the notion of complacency or satisfaction for a team that soon will be confronted by a million questions about World Series hangovers and motivations.
That’s not to say that the Red Sox won’t face challenges — if they do sustain the same intensity over a full 162 games following a title run, they’ll be the first team in recent memory to do so — but Cora has managed already to shatter the notion that the Red Sox will seek to duplicate, approximate, or imitate 2018.
Already, he has embraced the idea of changing the identity of the Red Sox. His declaration that Mookie Betts would bat second instead of first, with Andrew Benintendi hitting leadoff, offered a tangible indicator of his vision for a different team. He will not be wedded to what worked so well in 2018 if he believes there is a way of improving on it in 2019.
On Thursday night, Cora outlined the ways that he believed the Red Sox were capable of being better: Full seasons from Nathan Eovaldi, Steve Pearce, and Ryan Brasier. The “eye-opening’’ performance of Jackie Bradley Jr. during the second half of last year sustained over the entirety of a season. Continued progress from Rafael Devers, Benintendi, even Xander Bogaerts.
He has envisioned Dustin Pedroia leading off Opening Day in Seattle. By the winter meetings in December, he had charted the rotation through the entire first half. Cora is not merely inching forward from 2018; he’s sprinting into what lies ahead.
Unmentioned, of course, was the fact that Joe Kelly and likely Craig Kimbrel will be gone. But Cora’s leadership style isn’t to focus on what is missing, or on limitations but instead on a sense of possibility and self-confidence that is so bold it permeates those around him.
His casual insistence from the day of his hiring after the 2017 season that the Red Sox were a championship-caliber team helped form both identity and ambition in 2018. Now, it appears, Cora is wasting little time in doing the same for 2019.