The world’s completely changed, but Alex Cora remains the perfect fit for these Red Sox

Alex Cora 2017
Alex Cora will again be introduced as Red Sox manager, as he first was on Nov. 6, 2017, sometime next week. –Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

COMMENTARY

We remember how it ended. Sept. 29, 2019, feels of another world just 13 months later because, well, it is. The significant change we thought we knew loomed on the horizon that day barely the tip of the iceberg.

We remember Mookie Betts’s mad dash home from first on a 230-foot chopper, his (as-feared) last act in a Boston uniform electrifying the last announced 35,427 at Fenway Park until who knows when. Baltimore’s Stevie Wilkerson robbing Jackie Bradley Jr. with a catch so good, it would lead even JBJ’s defensive highlight reel. We remember 200 innings for Eduardo Rodriguez and 200 hits for Rafael Devers. It is, I say without a second of vetting, the greatest Game No. 162 between also-rans in baseball history.

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What I did not remember until digging into the archives, and watching that Wilkerson catch about six more times, was Alex Cora’s epitomizing contribution. Asked before the game about Boston’s flop of a title defense, specifically the manager’s preseason refusal to “turn the page” and focus solely on future achievement, he gave a very Alex Cora answer.

“Was I wrong saying continuation? Well, maybe the other guys saying, ‘Turn the page,’ and, ‘It’s a new season,’ for 20 years, maybe they’ve been wrong too,” he told reporters that Sunday, referring to two decades of other teams that failed to repeat. “We weren’t as sharp. … It’s not lack of being in tune with the game or, ‘OK, we won, it doesn’t matter.’ It’s just, it wasn’t there. It wasn’t there.”

Alex Cora went home after 84-78, turning down an ESPN offer to return for the postseason as an analyst — “they deserve time,” he said of his family. Six weeks later, The Athletic published its first story on the Astros sign stealing. And then, Alex Cora wasn’t there. Family time stretched all the way to Friday, the three-year anniversary of his first managerial unveiling at Fenway Park.

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“This past year, I have had time to reflect and evaluate many things, and I recognize how fortunate I am to lead this team once again,” Cora said in Friday’s statement announcing his return as Red Sox manager. “Not being a part of the game of baseball, and the pain of bringing negative attention to my family and this organization was extremely difficult. I am sorry for the harm my past actions have caused and will work hard to make this organization and its fans proud.”

Statements aren’t actually statements, of course, but he sounds chastened. I can’t decide whether that’s good or bad.

Then as now, Alex Cora is the people’s choice, though the news officially dropping at 5 p.m. on a Friday amid an endless presidential election affirmed this isn’t the coronation on high of 2017. He returns as damaged goods, to damaged goods. A man who couldn’t be a part of high-level baseball in 2020 reunited with a franchise that opted out of trying.

Yes, the post-Betts Red Sox led the American League in hits and average. The cupboard is not bare, even if you’re still not sold on chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom’s excellent late-season work, but of the top 12 players by WAR on Cora’s 2019 Red Sox:

  • Four (Betts, David Price, Brandon Workman, and Brock Holt) are long gone.
  • Two (Rodriguez and Chris Sale) missed last season with career-threatening medical issues.
  • Two (J.D. Martinez and Andrew Benintendi) had massively disappointing seasons.
  • One (Bradley) is a free agent.

That leaves Xander Bogaerts, Devers, and Christian Vazquez. All three have made no secret they love playing for Cora, though that hardly makes them unique. Heck, Cora’s former bench coach and 2020 replacement Ron Roenicke used his own exit interview to stump for his old boss.

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“The players were really excited,” Peter Gammons, after a conversation with Cora, said Friday on MLB Network. “I know that his phone was buzzing all morning.”

We have no idea what form the 2021 baseball season will take, but rest assured thick skin will remain a requirement in Boston. How would someone as brash and self-assured as Cora have been changed by a season, and a roster, as hopeless as 2019’s? I’d argue the effect probably wouldn’t be all that different than forever being branded a cheater, nothing he’s achieved or will achieve — or baseball’s immediate re-welcoming of both he and A.J. Hinch — erasing what caused his year in exile.

Cora has plenty to prove. Just like the owner plenty want to sell the team, the architect plenty suspect of wanting to Tampa Bay Way the Red Sox, and the players. Those here already, those who gave us a glimmer of hope this awful year, and those out there for the plucking if the budget returns post-salary cap reset.

Four titles in 15 seasons will never not mean anything, but they have never meant less. That’s what happens when your superstar, your fans’ north star, will now wear someone else’s hat on any future Hall of Fame plaque. I’m among those who view the handling of Betts as about the best the Red Sox could’ve done given circumstances, but it is blindingly obvious this organization has lost the public trust to a significant degree.

Turn the page? They’d all love to, Cora now included.

Alex Cora’s departure would’ve been impossible to imagine that September Sunday, 13 months ago. His second crowning as Red Sox manager is not like his first in most every way, but it is in one important one. He arrives as the perfect fit in the time we, and the Red Sox, find themselves.

And it would’ve been unnecessarily complicated, silly, and wrong to give the job to anyone else.

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