BOSTON — Alex Cora’s stress level is about to skyrocket. And it isn’t because he will coach the Houston Astros in the World Series.
To no one’s surprise, Cora was hired Sunday to be the next manager of the Boston Red Sox. Good luck. As high-pressure gigs go, this ranks somewhere between air-traffic controller and White House chief of staff. There’s a reason why late Boston mayor Tom Menino used to tell people that he wouldn’t trade places with Terry Francona.
Look, there are only 30 of these jobs available, and the Red Sox are one of the highest profile franchises in the sport. They also have a turnkey roster that has won 93 games and a division title in each of the past two seasons and an owner who is willing to spend money to keep the team competitive year after year.
But the Red Sox also might represent the worst-best opportunity for a big-league manager. In sports-crazed Boston, where fans’ expectations can best be described as World Series-or-bust and media scrutiny is relentless, six-month seasons drag on like dog years and skippering the Sox is akin to being a human piñata. Just ask Francona, who won two World Series and got run out of town in 2011, and especially John Farrell, whose reward for three American League East crowns and a World Series title in five years was a pink slip two weeks ago.
It’s little wonder, then, that Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has friends in the managerial ranks who have told him in the past that this job wouldn’t be for them.
“I’ve had really quality managers that I know and I respect,” Dombrowski said, “that have said they wouldn’t want to manage in Boston.”
Francona recently put it another way: “I do think, for whatever reason, that place is a little crazy.”
Cora knows all of this, of course. He played here for four seasons and experienced firsthand the extreme low of missing the playoffs in 2006, the ultimate high of winning the World Series in 2007 and the daily soap opera that can swallow up players and managers alike.
So, Cora need not be warned about what he’s getting himself into. He also has the relative security of a three-year contract, plus a club option for 2021, and therefore won’t meet with the same fate as Farrell if the Sox don’t advance beyond the division series next season.
Cora also has interviewed for other jobs — the Arizona Diamondbacks last year and the New York Mets and Detroit Tigers last week, to name a few — and there’s no denying the Red Sox give him the best chance to win immediately as a first-time big-league manager. For Cora, that makes the job appealing.
It’s easy to see what Dombrowski likes about Cora. What he lacks in experience (he has managed only in winter ball and was a first-year bench coach with the Astros this season) he makes up for in his ability to communicate in multiple languages with players of all ages.
Cora’s influence on the Astros is easy to see. Manager A.J. Hinch, who called Dombrowski and offered a strong endorsement for his right-hand man, says Cora has “one of the brightest baseball intellects that I’ve ever been around.” Players laud his ability to connect with them.
To wit: Alex Bregman was hitless in 10 at-bats when he was due to come to the plate against Red Sox ace Chris Sale in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the Division Series. Cora approached Bregman before he left the dugout.
“He came up to me and said, ‘Hey, one at-bat, that’s all that matters,'” Bregman said. “I was 0-for-10 going into that at-bat. And he said, ‘One at-bat, that’s it. Have some fun, play the game how you did the beginning of the series.'”
Sure enough, Bregman hit a game-tying solo home run.
“He has good communication with the guys, respects the guys,” Astros designated hitter Carlos Beltran says of Cora. “He’s always in the clubhouse getting to know the players, getting to know which buttons he could push on each player to make them go out there and play the game hard, which is great.”
The Red Sox are hoping Cora has an uplifting effect on a team that joylessly slogged through a first-place season. He remains close with second baseman Dustin Pedroia, his former teammate, whose lack of comfort with being a team leader was exposed this season. And Cora might be able to draw out whatever leadership qualities exist within Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and other members of the Red Sox’s young core.
In short, the Red Sox are betting that Cora will be the next Dave Roberts, who didn’t have managerial experience in the big leagues when he took the reins of the Los Angeles Dodgers from three-time division title-winning skipper Don Mattingly. In three seasons at the helm, Roberts has led the Dodgers to 92-win, 91-win and 104-win seasons and the World Series this year.
Dombrowski factored all of that into his decision. Cora is only the third manager he has hired in the last 12 years. Other than Jim Leyland, whom he hired in both Florida and Detroit, few of the managers with whom Dombrowski worked have had tremendous success.
Cora is clearly Dombrowski’s guy, and if the Red Sox don’t get over the division series hump, the heat will be on both of them. But there’s nothing quite like the scrutiny on the manager of the Boston Red Sox, a burden that is about to become Cora’s daily reality.