• Alex Cora won a World Series in his first year as a manager. He hardly looked like a rookie throughout 2018.
By Stephanie Apstein
October 28, 2018

Before Alex Cora led one of baseball’s jewel franchises to its best win total in its 118-year history, before every dart he threw in the postseason hit its bullseye and every lever he pulled turned up three dollar signs, before he became the first Puerto Rican manager to take a team to the World Series, before he shepherded his Red Sox to a World Series title in his first year, Alex Cora got his dream job, and he hated it.

Cora grew up in Caguas, P.R., where his father, José Manuel, founded the local Little League chapter and covered the local professional team, the Criollos (Spanish for Creoles). Young Alex treated Yldefonso Sorá Morales Stadium as his playground, running up and down the stairs, ducking into the owners’ box, falling asleep on the floor of the press box. José Manuel died of colon cancer when Alex was 13, and Cora has spent much of his life since then trying to make his father proud. So when the Criollos asked him to manage the team during the winters of 2014–15 and ’15–16, he jumped at the chance.

It wasn’t quite what he expected. “Although we played well and the kids did a good job understanding what I wanted to accomplish, I didn’t have fun,” Cora says. “I was very tight and angry most of the time. I was like, This is affecting my life. This is a job, but it’s baseball, and if I’m gonna do this for a living later on, I’m gonna have fun.

Two years later, with the pressure higher than anything he had ever seen on a baseball field, even in 14 seasons as a major league infielder and one as the World Series–winning Astros’ bench coach, Cora, 43, seems to mean it when he says he feels no nerves. The players are so good, he says, that his job is just to put them in positions to succeed and then get out of the way.

They’re not so sure. “Yeah, I've heard Alex say a hundred times it's because we're talented,” says utilityman Brock Holt. “Don't take credit away from him, he's good at what he does, and he's got reasons why he does things. And I've said this before, he's one of the smartest baseball people I've been around. He knows the game in and out. He grew up around the game. He played it for a long time and he's seen it from all angles. He's got a method to the madness, and the strings he's pulling are for a reason. And I think we have success in those situations because of him letting us know beforehand what the situation might be, where we're going to be used. So, yes, we have a lot of good players—but he knows what he's doing.”

It seems every time Cora pulls a string this October, it’s the right one. He burned projected ALDS Game 3 starter Rick Porcello in the eighth inning of Game 1. Porcello got two key outs; his replacement, Nathan Eovaldi, pitched seven dominant innings. Then Cora used Game 5 starter Chris Sale to help shut the door in a clinching Game 4. Entering Game 2 of the World Series, Cora’s starters had compiled five scoreless postseason frames as relievers. He is just as willing to shift position players: Only once this postseason has he repeated a lineup.

In Game 1 of the World Series, he started lefthanded third baseman Rafael Devers against Clayton Kershaw, one of the best lefties in the game. Even hitting coach Tim Hyers, one of Devers’s organizational champions, admitted after the game that he might not have made such a bold choice. After Devers went 1–2 with a walk, Cora replaced him with righty Eduardo Núñez … who hit the second pitch he saw into the Green Monster. Players joked later that Cora is so dialed in that if he had decided to leave Devers in, Devers would have homered, instead. Every time one of Cora’s moves works—which is just about every time he makes one—the other coaches burst out laughing on the bench. After the Núñez home run, Holt yelled, “AC, everything you touch turns to gold!”

The only time Cora made a clear mistake was in Game 4, when he left a tiring Eduardo Rodríguez three batters too long. Rodríguez allowed three runs in that span. Cora knew he had screwed up—he had two relievers ready, and Rodríguez hadn’t pitched that deep in weeks. So he admitted that the runs were on him. When the Red Sox came back with home runs in consecutive innings, he walked up and down the dugout, thanking his players for picking him up.

Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Every player thinks he should start, but on this team, even the bench guys buy in. When first baseman Steve Pearce arrived at the nonwaiver trade deadline from the Blue Jays, he met with Cora.

You’re not going to play every day, Cora told him. You’ll start against lefties and I’ll get you in there against righties when I can. I’ll let you know the night before when you’re starting.

Pearce ate it up. He loved the honesty and the communication—and the respect for routine. “That makes me more comfortable,” he says. “To be part of a winning team, I’ll do anything they ask me to do.”

Everything about the culture surprised Pearce. He expected the Red Sox to be all business, as was their reputation in previous years. Then he arrived and saw his teammates playing video games in the locker room and heckling each other about their favorite football teams—including Cora, who spent three years at the University of Miami.

“That’s why the clubhouse is so light, because he is the way he is,” Pearce says. “You’re not walking on eggshells.”

That was the most important advice Cora’s brother, an All-Star infielder who went on to coach for the White Sox, Marlins and now the Pirates, gave him. Alex idolized Joey, 10 years older, when they were growing up, and they speak almost every day.

The worst mistake a manager can make, Joey says, is to “forget how hard the game is. We all went 0–4. The game is not easy. ‘They’re not trying, they don’t care’—no. They’re professional players. They care.”

So Cora considers his job mostly to remind his players that they’re good. Before the Red Sox had even shed their jerseys in favor of ALDS CHAMPIONS T-shirts, Cora informed David Price—just off a three-run, five-out start—that he would have Game 2 of the ALCS. Closer Craig Kimbrel, tipping pitches, gave up runs in every one of his postseason outings, including in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the ALCS. Cora still let him finish the game. Kimbrel thanked him later, and told him how much that trust meant to him. 

Cora rarely coaches likely MVP rightfielder Mookie Betts, except occasionally to remind him to be more aggressive at the plate. “Most of the time he just gives me confidence,” Betts says. “If he sees me scuffling, he calls me into his office. He tells me, ‘You’re the best player in the world. Go show it.’ It’s simple, but it means a lot.”

Cora flew through the season, enjoying most every moment, until the Rays swept the Red Sox in Tampa in late August. The next day was an off-day, which Cora spent in Miami, and he turned on the TV, where, it seemed, everyone was predicting an imminent Boston collapse. He scrolled through channels: ESPN was discussing 1978. MLB Network was discussing 1978. He turned it off before he could hear HGTV’s take on 1978. At lunch with his girlfriend, Angelica Feliciano, and a few friends, someone came up to him and said, “Hey, you gotta get ’em going!”

“I was like, What the f--- is going on here?” Cora says. “I lost it for, like, two hours. I was like, Oh God, you’re panicking now. The collapse is coming!”

Then one of his one-year-old twin boys cried or smiled or laughed—he can’t remember which—and he snapped back out of it.

Right, he reminded himself. This is supposed to be fun.

Boston went 18–12 after that, then 8–2 in the postseason. As the Red Sox celebrated their first two series wins, Cora stood mostly on the sidelines. He had done his job: He had reminded his supremely talented players how good they were, he had put them in position to be successful, and then he had gotten out of the way. Now he watched as they sprayed each other with sparkling wine and dumped beer on each other’s heads. He beamed. No one was having more fun.

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