For two full seasons, Alex Cora was the darling of the baseball world, one of its hottest managerial prospects delivering a debut for the ages once the Red Sox gave him an opportunity.
On Thursday, he capped a crash back to Earth by looking like that most vulgar of managerial comparisons: Late-stage Bobby Valentine. As Ferris Bueller once told us, “Life moves pretty fast.”
Thursday afternoon‘s conclusion would have made the perfect final scene in a 1980s comedy, come to think of it. Cora, the loudmouth antagonist for the last few hours, stewing from a distance (to the strains of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, probably) as he watched the underdogs celebrate saving the ski area and/or winning the campus Olympics to keep the frat house from being turned into condos.
Alas, the details get a little mangled in real life. The crowd at Globe Life Park in Texas was sparse. The stakes were barely notable, neither noble nor critical. The series of events that sparked the celebration were … actually, the whole thing feels right in line with Back to School, so let’s just pretend Cora was mad about the Rangers’ Mike Minor doing the “Triple Lindy” for the sake of narrative continuity.
“It’s a jungle out there. You gotta look out for number one,” noted philosopher Thornton Melon told the graduating class of Grand Lakes University. “But don’t step in number two!”
Minor sort of did both on Thursday, the 31-year-old MLB veteran who lost two full seasons to a left shoulder injury telling teammate Ronald Guzman to let a foul pop drop in the ninth inning so Minor could ultimately reach 200 strikeouts for the first time in his career. (He also threw 126 pitches, easily a career high, chasing that one last strikeout for the final four innings.) Cora definitely did the latter, stewing on the top step of the dugout long enough for NESN to cram a whole postgame commercial break in the middle of it, then getting passive-aggressive with the media afterward.
“I don’t know. I’m just happy our guys are playing the game the right way,” he told reporters, his 83-win, $240-something million team returning home needing to sweep Baltimore this weekend to have a better than .500 record at Fenway Park. “We’re playing hard until the end. You saw the effort and that’s what it’s all about.”
“It’s been two weeks since we’ve been eliminated, but we’ve been going at it the right way.”
Two days ago, Cora would have pulled Eduardo Rodriguez in the first inning of what became a 12-10, four-hour slopfest “if we were in the hunt or something,” but didn’t because he loves the lefty and E-Rod’s chasing some round numbers.
“You know, it was kind of ugly but at the same time, he’s still our best pitcher,” said Cora, later noting, “At the end, what matters is that he has a shot for 200 innings and the 20 wins.”
That’s totally different, though. Just like him running out lineups with Travis Lakins, Gorkys Hernandez, Chris Owings, and Juan Centeno.
The Minor story is manna for most anyone tasked with discussing two teams that, for months, have merely been getting in the way of football coverage. The Globe’s Peter Abraham called Minor’s move “bush” and “unprofessional,” sparking a Twitter back and forth with the pitcher’s account. The Herald‘s Jason Mastrodonato went with “embarrassing,” then smartly noted both the Rodriguez comparison and the devaluation of numbers across the board this season, one where 15 teams — literally half the league — will set new single-season franchise home run records.
I’m on Team Julian McWilliams, the former Division 1 player and current Globe scribe who summarized the affair thusly: “This is all stupid.” But mostly, I just want to point out how someone as proudly brash as Cora comes off when your top-payroll team regresses two dozen wins and you’re pouting because your concerted effort to keep a guy from 200 strikeouts failed like most everything else your team did this season.
“If you’re fighting for a wild card spot and you drop a ball and they hit a three-run homer and you get beat, now you got a lot to answer for,” Todd Walker said on the NESN broadcast, “But in this case …”
In this case, Minor was facing Owings, a guy released by Kansas City three months ago, with exactly zero team anything on the line.
Not even a year ago, Cora was telling his team’s critics to “suck on it” during the World Series celebration. Accepting the Manager of the Year award in January, he declared to the audience at the Boston Baseball Writers dinner, “Somebody might write this, I don’t care. If you guys thought last year was special, wait til this year.” He shunned the well-worn idea of turning the page after a championship season all spring.
“We’re not closing the door, we’re continuing,” he said. “We’re going to continue to do what we did last year, as far as, like, our principles. We believe if we keep doing that, we’re going to be in a good spot.”
The nature of the manager’s job is to receive too much of the credit and too much of the blame, but Cora put himself on the front lines all season and his team consistently let him down. His starting staff wasn’t ready to go in March, and the Red Sox dug a hole they never got out of. His bullpen pitched better than history will remember, given what was expected of it and what its on-the-whole numbers will finish as, but has blown 30 saves (against 33 successes) and just generally failed in big spot after big spot.
And with each passing defeat, until just a few weeks ago, Cora was defiant. His team was close. They were too talented to keep failing. Everyone kept telling him they feared the Red Sox, the club bound to turn it around.
Well, they didn’t, and history will remember the manager’s lackadaisical approach to the spring as the root of the issue. The same manager whose ace Chris Sale melted down in New York because he didn’t get one strike call. Who freaked out on the umpires at the end of the 17-inning loss in Minnesota, only to later apologize because it was him that was wrong about a rules issue.
Alex Cora ladies and gentlemen pic.twitter.com/bSBqoqHAsu
— ??????? ??? (@BloodySins_) June 19, 2019
We’re not even 12 months removed from one of the most dominant seasons in modern baseball and Red Sox franchise history, and things suddenly feel on a razor’s edge. We’re almost three weeks removed from the general manager being fired and team brass has only addressed it by sending the CEO — who may or may not be involved in baseball decisions — on the team radio station and the team TV network. They’re likely about to part ways with at least one of Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez, not to mention Rick Porcello and Brock Holt and Mitch Moreland. Half the starting staff for next season is injured.
This is a moment when the manager has to be a steadying hand. The sort who accentuated the good of the franchise and deemphasizes the bad.
Alex Cora might have gone back out to the top step in Texas as we sit here, trying to catch judging eyes with a groundskeeper while debating how many runs will be OK for Rodriguez to give up in the pursuit of that magical 20th win on Sunday.
Baseball’s about adjustments, and Cora is already on to 2020, saying last week that “we will attack the offseason the right way” and “there’s certain things we’re going to get better at, and we’re taking a look at a few things.” There will be no attempt to reinvent the title-defense wheel next spring because there will be no opportunity.
The 2019 season was a humbling experience for everyone in Red Sox colors. In some higher-profile cases, it may prove more valuable than another championship.