BOSTON -- Alex Cora’s tenure as Red Sox manager may boil down to how well he can combine authority and friendship, balance camaraderie with control.
The two dynamics sound incompatible: friendship suggests equal footing among parties, authority implies the opposite. But what would a manager want except to know his players, and know them exceedingly well? If you can’t get the pulse of your people, you can’t make the best choices for your team. Keeping your distance is little help.
A commanding and charismatic presence at his introductory press conference Monday, Cora has been brought back to Fenway Park to connect (and ideally, connect more than his predecessor, John Farrell).
THE RED SOX HIRE ALEX CORA
The days of the authoritarian manager died a long time ago. The disciplinarians — if they’re in fact a different breed — are gone too, or at least, greatly evolved.
But the final say can’t go by the wayside for a manager, and therein lies the balancing act for the 42-year-old Cora. He was a beloved teammate as a player. He was a bench coach for a World Series-winning team and managed Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. But he’s never run the whole show himself.
It doesn’t sound like Cora is going to build relationships any differently than he did in the past. There are two ways to look at such a choice. Changing one’s approach to fit a job may be a mistake, because you should be yourself. At the same time, different jobs require different approaches, at least in some moments.
“Too close to players, that doesn’t exist,” Cora said Monday. “Throughout the learning process of the Houston Astros . . . it was special for me [with] Carlos Beltran. I played with Carlos Beltran, against Carlos Beltran when we were 17 years old and we played against each other in winter ball. We played together with the Mets, and we became good friends. I have a great relationship with Carlos, off the field with his family, [his wife] Jessica -- amazing.
“Throughout the season, although Carlos was huge for the Houston Astros as far as the performance, it wasn't what we wanted. I had to be honest with him, and we talked and we were still close. The whole thing about drawing the line, they understand that. But at the same time they're human beings, man, and you've got to talk to them, you've got to see how they feel. I'm going to encourage my coaching staff to get close to players.
"[Astros third baseman] Alex Bregman for example. We're cool. He probably thinks I'm his older brother and I probably think the same way . . . I was able to push him because you have a good relationship and they understand that ‘Hey, he's not doing it just to get on me, he's doing it because he wants me to get better.’ And that's what happened over there and I’m going to bring it over here."
Cora had relationships with plenty of others in Houston as well. Bregman and Beltran were two standouts. But another tightrope act shows itself here. Varying degrees of friendship can lead to perceptions of favoritism. No manager can equally love all 25 players (or realistically, 40-plus throughout a season). But a manager must be very conscious of, literally and figuratively, playing favorites.
Cora reminded everyone Monday how close he and Dustin Pedroia and are. But Cora did so while drawing a line in the sand.
“First of all, I want to make this clear: the relationship with me and Dustin Pedroia is going to be forever,” Cora said. “That relationship is always going to be there. I love that kid, I love his family, they've been amazing for us, and that's not going to change. As a player, I think Pedie always looked up to me as a mentor, as a teacher. This is not going to change. He understands that back in the day when he was hitting .120 and everybody wanted me to play every day, and he was not the Laser Show, I was the one supporting him, me and Mike Lowell. We trusted him and we were helping him out.
“Nothing's going to change -- this kid, well he's older now. He has a bad hairdo, we'll talk about him shaving his head, too. He's going to help us out. Talking to him, he's very excited. He understands that I’m the manager and he's a player. But I'm looking forward to managing him, with the attitude he brings, with the passion he brings to the game. He can help us. All he can do is help. We need him healthy, that's the most important thing, but when Dustin Pedroia is healthy he can help any baseball team.”
Asked about David Price, Cora said he called the lefty before the World Series began and that Price was awesome. Cora talked to a few others as well, but didn’t have much time to go in depth as he was preparing for the Fall Classic.
On the Price matter, Cora chose not to re-litigate the past.
“For me it's unfair to talk about what happened last year,” Cora said. “It's in the past. I'm here to move forward. I'm here to move forward. Looking forward to talk with him. He went to Vanderbilt and Joey [brother Joey Cora] did too, so we have a connection. He's a talented kid. He singled-handedly almost beat us in the playoffs, and the way he threw the ball with conviction, I'll take that.
“The whole clubhouse thing, we'll be fine. I think you guys know me. You guys know how I dealt with Manny [Ramirez] with all the situations. We tried to bring this thing together. We're going to be fine. I look forward to meeting him, honestly.”
When Cora was able to connect with Ramirez in their time together with the Red Sox, they were both players. The unknown is whether Cora can do what he’s always done in a brand new role, where equal footing is gone and hierarchy can't be ignored.