FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In the end, Alex Cora made it look easy. This from a guy who’d never managed in the Major Leagues and had coached for just one season. This in a city that has occasionally devoured its mangers by dissecting, debating, second-guessing every nod and wink.
The 2018 Boston Red Sox were a happy, united clubhouse from start to finish, and if you’re ranking all the remarkable things that happened to them, this might rank just behind winning the World Series.
“He has his own style of doing things,” said 2018 American League Most Valuable Player Award winner Mookie Betts. “Communication. Proving he knows his stuff. It’s tough to say what makes him unique.”
Cora’s players did not simply respect him, although they certainly did that. His players did not simply like him, although there was plenty of that, too.
“Love him,” pitcher Rick Porcello corrected.
Or maybe it’s not all that complicated. Maybe, just maybe, Alex Cora was born with leadership skills. And maybe we’re overthinking the whole notion of what makes a successful Major League manager.
“Just a really good person who knows the game,” infielder Brock Holt said.
There you go.
“So much trust and belief in us,” Betts said during the postseason. “He trusts us as much as we trust him, and that’s how you win games."
Here’s the thing: Cora did some gutsy stuff along the way, the kind of stuff that can cause internal problems if it doesn’t work out. Holt hit for the cycle in one postseason game and was on the bench for the next one.
“When something like that does come up, we already know what’s happening,” Holt said. “He communicated so well with everyone. He let everyone know what was going on. That’s why it was so easy to do the things he wanted us to do.”
There’s more: infielder Eduardo Nunez did not start Game 1 of the World Series against Clayton Kershaw even though he’d played against most lefties.
But when Nunez was called upon to pinch-hit against lefty Alex Wood in the seventh inning of a close Game 1, he hammered a three-run home run to break the game open.
Cora moved starting pitchers to the bullpen during the World Series, then surprised some by starting David Price on short rest in Game 5. Price, pitching for the third time in five days, went seven innings and allowed just one run in a clinching 5-1 victory.
By then, Cora had established an unshakable foundation of trust and belief that had been nearly a year in the making. On the day he got the job, he began texting and phoning players, and in the weeks that followed he flew around the country taking them to dinner. He kept his office door open and explained every decision.
“You gotta know who they are. They gotta know you,” Cora said. “It was very important. We’re very talented. You look at that clubhouse, and we have some talented players. You still have to connect. You still have to know what they’re all about. You find different ways to push players to be great. They don’t take it personal. They understand.”
He played for Terry Francona, Davey Johnson and Jim Tracy, among others, in a 14-year career, most of it as a utility player. He was AJ Hinch’s bench coach when the Astros won the World Series in 2017.
“They have their own way but they try to connect with players,” Cora said. "That was always important.”
Another building block was his relationship with Astros designated hitter Carlos Beltran during the 2017 season.
“We’re great friends off the field,” Cora said, “and for us to work in the same clubhouse, him as a player, me as a bench coach, we were able to keep the same relationship and deal with a lot of that stuff in the clubhouse, that told me it was important.”
Early last spring, Cora invited Chris Sale, David Price, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Sandy Leon to dinner.
“There’s no separation here, coaching staff and players,” he told them.
“I went over the program,” he said, “what we were going to do in Spring Training and what I expect out of you. It’s very cool to say that and then see it happen throughout the season.”
When the Red Sox won Game 5 of the AL Championship Series to clinch a trip to the World Series last fall, J.D. Martinez led a chant of “AC! AC! AC!” in the happy clubhouse.
“He’s just transparent with everything,” Porcello said. “Great communication with everyone. He developed bonds and relationships with every guy no matter how different their background was. All those things we saw pretty early on, and everyone gravitated toward him and everything that he was asking of us.”
Or as Sale put it recently: “With any team that’s great, there has to be a great leader. There's no question he's that.”