What's Behind Red Sox' 'Mutual' Split With Alex Cora?

There's likely some legal reasoning behind the seemingly amicable split between the Red Sox and Alex Cora.
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The aftermath of Major League Baseball’s findings that Houston Astros players and staff electronically stole signs during their 2017 championship season spread Tuesday night when the Boston Red Sox “mutually agreed to part ways” with manager Alex Cora. Cora served as bench coach for the Astros during the 2017 season.

Commissioner Rob Manfred’s report depicts Cora as a key architect and advocate of the Astros sign-stealing scheme—one orchestrated by Astros players and staff and that involved the installation of a hidden camera in Minute Maid Park to illicitly record opposing teams’ catchers signaling signs. Cora is portrayed more harshly than either Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow or manager AJ Hinch. Manfred suspended both men, who are mostly characterized as neglecting job duties rather than undertaking wrongful acts, without pay for the 2020 season. Worse still for Luhnow and Hinch, Astros owner Jim Crane immediately fired them after Manfred’s report was released.

MLB has yet to punish Cora, but not for an encouraging reason. The 44-year-old retired infielder and former ESPN baseball analyst is subject to a separate and ongoing probe by baseball into possible sign-stealing by the Red Sox during their 2018 championship season. The Athletic recently reported three anonymous sources from the 2018 club claim that people in the organization conceived and executed an electronic sign-stealing plot.

MLB has not announced its findings from the Sox investigation. Depending on those findings, Cora could face a similar punishment as Luhnow or Hinch, a multiyear suspension or a lifetime ban. Cora’s pending expulsion from the game, coupled with Sox' pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training in less than a month (Feb. 11), make it imperative that chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom soon hire another manager.

The method by which the Red Sox extinguished their employment relationship with Cora is noticeably more amicable than the way the Astros abruptly dispatched Luhnow and Hinch. The Red Sox’ statement effusively compliments Cora as “a special person” who was “beloved.” It also describes Cora’s departure as part of a “collective” decision that involved Cora himself. Cora, for his part, expressed admiration for owner John Henry and other club officials. Cora also stressed that he will “forever be indebted to the organization and the fans.”

The Red Sox’ chosen method to dismiss Cora likely reflects several objectives.

First, Cora is, by all accounts, a likable and smart person who loves baseball. Cora has also generously performed charity work to raise hurricane relief money for Puerto Rico, where he was born and raised. All things being equal, Henry probably wanted to part ways with Cora in the least contentious manner because he likes Cora. Henry might feel differently after MLB releases its findings into the Red Sox’ sign-stealing controversy, but for now, Henry has plenty of reasons to regard Cora in a favorable light.

Second, the Red Sox wish to avoid a future legal fight with Cora, who could be out of baseball for a while and over time become embittered. In his statement published by the Sox, Cora expressed, “We agreed today that parting ways was the best thing for the organization.” This language was likely influenced by Cora’s representatives and probably approved only upon assurances from the Sox that Cora would be paid well and treated fairly in his exit.

Cora likely would not have said that he willingly parted ways if he had in fact been fired “with cause” or “for cause.” Such a firing would have signaled a conclusion by the Sox that Cora had violated the terms of his employment contract. In that scenario, the club would have been relieved of the obligation to pay him going forward or been able to pay him only a portion of that obligation.

Manfred’s report likely provided the Red Sox with sufficient grounds to fire Cora for cause. The commissioner of baseball accused Cora of engineering and advancing the most significant MLB cheating plot this century. Even though that controversy occurred during Cora’s prior job, it has brought shame (and a forthcoming suspension) upon Cora and, by extension, some degree of shame upon the Red Sox.

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A “for cause” firing would have been costly for Cora. His contract reportedly runs through the 2021 season and calls for several millions of dollars in compensation. If the Sox had fired Cora for cause, Cora would have had financial incentives to sue for breach of contract. Cora, who could later decide to protest the accuracy of MLB’s accusations and even sue MLB for defamation, could have become disruptive through pretrial discovery. During it, Cora’s attorneys could make invasive document requests and require Sox officials to give sworn statements.

Chances are, the Red Sox and Cora’s representatives negotiated a settlement agreement that contemplated (1) his termination pay; (2) grounds for how Cora and the Red Sox will publicly discuss each other going forward; and (3) the wording of the statement that the Red Sox released to the media Tuesday night.

Second, Cora is a crucial witness in MLB’s ongoing investigation into the Red Sox. Even if Cora has already spoken with MLB investigators about allegations raised against the Sox (and against the Astros), those investigators might want to speak with him again. He could be a different kind witness this time around. Cora previously had reason to be reticent so that he could protect relationships with colleagues and former colleagues who were, like him, implicated in prohibited sign stealing. To the extent Cora felt that way, he likely felt quite differently after reading Manfred’s damning report. The report pins much of the blame on Cora. Cora might believe that former colleagues he once trusted made misrepresentations and exaggerations about him to downplay their own involvement. If Cora held back while speaking with MLB investigators before, he’s unlikely to do that again.

Cora’s professional reputation has also suffered massive, perhaps irreparable, harm. He faces a long suspension and could be unemployable in baseball for years. Like Luhnow and Hinch, Cora will be tainted with the “cheater” label for some time. To mitigate the fallout, Cora now has clear incentive to direct MLB investigators to believe that his actions, however wrong, were unexceptional and ordinary. MLB—which likely suspects that more teams than merely the Astros and Red Sox have engaged in electronic sign stealing— might also offer Cora a reduction in his eventual suspension provided he shares key information about other clubs. Whether he'll go in that direction remains to be seen.

The Red Sox could eventually lose draft picks and face other repercussions for alleged sign stealing. In the meantime, the club can take solace in the fact that it wisely parted ways with Cora on positive terms. He clearly knows a lot.

Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and the Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.