Fenway Park welcomed back Alex Cora to the Red Sox on Tuesday afternoon, but beyond its place on the scoreboards, it was not a big day for “back.” Exactly how the other big ‘b’ word, baseball, would want it.
“We’re looking forward to a really bright future with him at the helm,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said to conclude his opening remarks.
“All I can do right now is apologize and get better,” Cora said later. “And move forward.”
Those last two words were the day’s refrain, as echoing as “reserve judgment” after Cora’s January banishment. Asked directly Tuesday about 2017 in Houston, specifically when he knew his actions as part of their sign-stealing scheme were wrong, he evaded.
“Honestly, I can only speak how I felt this year. I don’t want to get into details about what happened in ’17, but it’s a tough lesson,” Cora said. “I’m not proud of what happened. I said that a few times already today. I said it during the summer. One of the things that you do as a leader is to put those guys in situations to be successful, and the way I did it, we did it with that group over there, it wasn’t the right way. And for that, I’m going to say it today, I’m going to say it tomorrow, I’m going to say it the rest of my life. For that, I’m sorry.”
In the moment, it hit me as Mark McGwire not being here to talk about the past in front of Congress, but that’s overly dismissive on reflection. Cora spoke Tuesday about being humbled, about his year home with his family sprouted by the wrong reasons, about not wanting his return painted as “a great comeback story.” About having to deal with what he did being “part of who I am for the rest of my career,” and a clear understanding that he goes forward needing to avoid the gray areas.
“If I fail at this, I’m out of the game, so this is on a personal note,” Cora said. “As a manager, I’m still going to push [players] to do everything possible to read the scoreboard, read the pitchers, read the catchers, do all that stuff. That’s part of baseball, and I’m going to keep pushing for that.”
And while he didn’t share where he bought the mounting bracket for the monitor behind the Houston dugout, Cora did entertain a question about why he didn’t bring the full Astros system with him to Boston.
“I didn’t feel like we needed to do something like that, honestly,” he said. “I don’t know, man. I just decided in that offseason to, I don’t know, not bring it here. We had some conversations actually in spring training about a lot of stuff. From [current general manager Brian O’Halloran] to [former president of baseball operations] Dave [Dombrowski] to the people that was around to MLB. I think at that point people were starting to talk about what was going on around the league. It wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t worth it.
“The organization was very loud and clear about the whole sign-stealing stuff and what happened before with the organization and other organizations. They walked me through it and, in the meetings in spring training with MLB, when I talked to them, it was like, ‘Wow. I better not even try to do something like that.’ That’s the way I can put it.”
It feels like more truth than spin because it hardly paints Cora in a glowing light, “I’ll probably get caught” more motivation than “I’m not going to do it because it’s cheating.” It puts the Red Sox in a good light. And, far more important, it keeps baseball out of a bad light.
For a guy who’s been in the game since he was four years old, as well aware as anyone the rich history of blackballing within MLB, don’t think for one second that last point wasn’t a significant concern.
Cora is back in the sport. Former Houston manager AJ Hinch is back in the sport. Dredging up specific details of a story most of the populace is past, and that those who aren’t will never be past, serves neither them or their employers. Former Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow is acting differently, hopefully aware chasing the $22 million he lost when he was fired for cause ensures those will be the last MLB dollars he’s ever in contention for.
Baseball stood down on Justin Turner and the Dodgers, accepting just enough blame to, if I may borrow a phrase, move forward. McGwire clammed up before Congress in 2005, quietly came back into the game (under Tony La Russa’s employ) four years later, then finally admitted his steroid use in the dead of winter. He was praised for, well, coming forward.
“We live in a society that will forgive us for our mistakes, if we are honest and accept responsibility,” Victor Conte, of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) on which so much of the steroid discussion hinged, told ESPN at the time.
Thus the speed at which baseball creates the parameters on which it achieve that forgiveness. J.T. Watkins was the villain of the 2018 Red Sox, end of story. Houston was about Cora and — especially now — Luhnow, not players (who would have vociferously fought back) or a multi-year plan by front-office types, some of whom remain in Houston’s employ.
Cora needed only to convince Bloom, who reached out as due diligence after the World Series and made it a point to tell himself, “You need to make sure you get every question answered that’s on your mind. That you ask everything you need to ask.” Imbued with the emphatic support of management — represented only by Sam Kennedy on Tuesday — and unsolicited praise for Cora from some of his former players, Boston’s new baseball brain went with the old choice.
“A brilliant baseball mind who can lead and who can inspire as well as anybody in the game,” Bloom said, later adding “at the end of the day, I thought he was the right choice to lead us forward.”
“We have a great core. Raffi [Devers], Xander [Bogaerts], Benny [Andrew Benintendi], Alex [Verdugo], JD [Martinez], Christian [Vazquez]. If you ask around, the other clubs in the league, they would love to have talent like that. You go to the pitching side, and we can, if we get healthy, we feel that we can compete,” Cora said, hinting at a focus on ‘speed of the game’ that he believes the Red Sox are lacking. “And obviously, the work that Chaim and BOH and the group are going to put in the offseason, we should be better.”
“As a fan, it was tough to watch,” he said. “‘19, ‘20, it’s in the past. ‘18 is in the past. We have to move forward and we have to be better.”
Forward by going back. For a team that’s made a habit from pinballing from last place to the World Series and back again, they’ve had far worse ideas.
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