A.J. Hinch

Alex Cora's outburst with broadcaster a footnote or an omen?

Alex Cora's outburst with broadcaster a footnote or an omen?

After a season of discord for the Red Sox, Alex Cora’s job is to create stability. To reduce moments like Dustin Pedroia telling Manny Machado, “It’s not me, it’s them," and prevent another David Price-Dennis Eckersley confrontation.

But a loud misstep in Cora's time as the Astros’ bench coach opens a question of how effectively the new manager will prevent a repeat of the past. Not only the Red Sox’ past, but his own. 

In his first year as a major league coach, Cora lived a night with echoes of Price-Eckersley.

On Aug. 31, less than two months before he was named Sox manager and at a time of peak anxiety off the field, Cora cursed out Astros broadcaster Geoff Blum on a team bus heading from the airport to the stadium in Houston. When the bus arrived at the Astros’ Minute Maid Park, Cora went off again, screaming at his boss, Astros manager A.J. Hinch. 

Both expletive-filled episodes were visible to a large number of the Astros’ traveling party. The confrontations were described to NBC Sports Boston by multiple people with direct knowledge of them, including witnesses. 

Whether the lack of self-control Cora displayed proves a footnote to Cora’s coaching career or an omen entering his first managerial gig is to be seen. 

Multiple sources said Cora had been drinking and that it contributed to his behavior. It is not uncommon for players or staff to drink on travel days. There is no indication Cora has a recurring issue controlling his alcohol intake. 

Cora declined comment on specifics of what transpired. Blum and Hinch declined any comment.

“You learn how to overcome. It happens on every team," Cora said. "People have disagreements. Sometimes it’s about life, sometimes it’s about the game. The good thing is that you work with people that you respect, and they respect you . . . You move on and you learn from it and you keep getting better.”

The situation did not become physical. A highly sought after manager, Cora felt embarrassed by his actions, and later apologized to both parties.

The circumstances the Astros found themselves in on Aug. 31 were complex and intense -- a statement true for every member of the organization. The Astros were returning to Houston and to their homes for the first time since Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Aug. 25.

As Houston came into view on the plane back from Florida, where games were temporarily relocated, some Astros had trouble seeing land because there was so much water everywhere, an unsettling moment. Everyone was worried about their family, their friends, and their city, as they began to see the devastation firsthand. In addition, Cora was greatly concerned about potential damage to his native Puerto Rico from Hurricane Irma, which would hit the island within a week. (The more powerful and destructive Hurricane Maria, which would not reach Puerto Rico until Sept. 20, had yet to form.)

Against that backdrop, behind-the-scenes friction between Cora and Blum boiled over when Blum, who played 14 years in the majors like Cora, asked Cora to turn down music on the bus. Curse words came at Blum for about five minutes. (Unlike the Price-Eckersley drama, Cora’s argument with Blum did not stem from commentary on air.)

Once off the bus, Cora lashed out at Hinch as Hinch tried to defuse the situation. The incident with Hinch lasted roughly another 10 minutes near the stadium’s loading dock, as both team buses -- one for staff, which carried Cora and Blum, and one for players -- disembarked. Former Astros outfielder and Yankees managerial candidate Carlos Beltran tried to calm down Cora.

“Between Harvey and [Irma], it was a combination of a lot of emotions on a personal level,” Cora said. “We’re flying everywhere, man, and then the team, we weren’t playing good [with an 11-17 record in August]. I learned that we can be -- honestly, honestly, on a personal standpoint, I learned that boys are boys, and it’s a family and you’re going to have your good days and your bad days."

Cora did not point to the fact the Astros won the World Series to downplay the incident. 

“We were one game away from losing against the Yankees [in the ALCS],” Cora said. 

Rather, as Cora explained it, the incident mattered afterward only because the result was a tighter bond with Hinch.

“Our relationship grew up and it got better, and hey, man, my biggest supporter throughout the whole process, who was it? It was A.J. Hinch," Cora said. "Because we slipped at one point doesn’t mean it was over. I think families, and friends, they got moments. And it was a moment. And it wasn’t a great moment . . . If we lose to the Dodgers (in the World Series), it was going to be the same thing. That whole month of October, with him, he was not my mentor, but he was the guy that I was looking up to throughout the process.”

A manager can be emotional and successful, Cora believes. Yet, there’s the adage that the manager need be the steadiest guy in the room, the most even-keeled. 

Cora plans to encourage emotion in his players. When he played, he feels he was too buttoned up, despite a famous moment in his time at the University of Miami, when a walk-off home run ended the College World Series in a loss and Cora crumpled to the ground in disappointment.

"I encourage guys to be passionate about it and show emotion,” Cora said. “I was the other way around. And sometimes I regret that. I didn’t have as much as fun on the field . . . It goes with the era I grew up in the game. And it’s not just my playing years, but before that. Following [my brother] Joey and his career, winter ball and the way he was."

Alex’s m.o. in a non-playing leadership role is still taking shape. Cora said that during his time in winter ball in Puerto Rico last year, and then during the World Baseball Classic in the spring, he found himself more publicly reserved than he had been in the past.

"I think A.J. showed more emotion than I did, throughout the [Astros’] season,” Cora said. "I think the whole year was a learning process of trying to stay calm. At the same time, inside, I was enjoying the whole thing.”

Anger has a different time and place for expression compared to, say, joy or anxiety. Asked if it would be okay for a manager to react the way he did on Aug. 31, Cora reiterated he learned from the situation.

The Red Sox presumably would have liked to discuss the events of Aug. 31 with Cora during the interview process, but they didn't know the events happened until NBC Sports Boston reached out to the team, sources confirmed.

Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski declined to discuss his interview process.

“He’s our manager, we’re thrilled that’s he’s with us,” Dombrowski said. “I’ve had some tremendous managers around me that lost their cool at times. And I think every situation’s different. When I’m not there, it’s hard to evaluate different things.”

The Sox moved quickly to make a hire so they could land a top candidate, announcing Cora’s arrival 11 days after announcing John Farrell’s firing. It’s the Sox’ responsibility to know everything about their new manager, but, at the same time, it’s difficult to gather every detail in a short window.

A mistake like Aug. 31 in Cora's new role would be problematic, given that his job here is to defuse tension.

“I’m very comfortable with the way I do things,” Cora said generally. “We just got to wait and see, man. Right now we’re in a stage, that I know that the organization, everybody is connected and talking and looking forward for what’s going to happen.

“I’ve been able to learn about guys and talk about guys, and the most important thing [of late] is the coaching staff. Connecting with them and getting ideas from them.

“All that stuff is going on right now, so I have no idea how I’m going to be. I know what I want. I know what I want from this team. From the coaching staff. From the medical staff. Analytics staff, everybody. You name it, I know what I want from them. But until Feb. 14 starts, we have no idea.”

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As Red Sox manager, Cora must keep conviction, honesty that got him job

As Red Sox manager, Cora must keep conviction, honesty that got him job

BOSTON -- Just as a batter can subconsciously play to avoid losing, rather than to win, a manager can operate with a fear of failure. Such an unwitting approach may have contributed to John Farrell’s downfall, and is an area where Alex Cora can set himself apart.

A lot has been written about the value of authenticity in leadership. It’s one thing to have the charisma and conviction needed to land a position of power. It’s another to take over a pressure-cooker job, like manager of the Red Sox, and carry the fortitude to stay true to yourself, continue to let those qualities shine.

Cora did not appear to pull any punches in his days with ESPN. The 42-year-old engaged in Twitter debates with media members and fans. And throughout his baseball life, he showed his colors.

Via Newsday’s Dave Lennon, here’s a scene from 2010 when Cora was with the Mets: 

Last year, Cora spoke out against the league office's rule requiring minorities always be interviewed.

Perhaps most interesting of all, when Chris Sale cut up White Sox jerseys, Cora was Dennis Eckersley-like in his assessment:

“What he did is not acceptable,” Cora said of Sale. “If I’m a veteran guy, I’m going to take exception. if I’m a young guy, I’m going to take exception. Because as a young guy on a team that is actually struggling right now, somebody has to show me the ropes of how to act as a big leaguer. And this is not the way you act as a big leaguer. Forget the trades, forget who you are.

“What you do in that clubhouse, you got to act like a professional. And that’s one thing my agent, Scott Boras, used to tell me when I got to the big leagues: act like a professional. Chris Sale didn’t do it. He’s not showing the veterans that you respect the game. He’s not showing the rookies how to be a big leaguer, and that’s what I take exception to.”

Take out Chris Sale’s name from the above quotation and insert David Price’s. Describes Price's incident with Eckersley perfectly, doesn't it? 

Now, no manager can say what they’re really thinking all the time. Cora’s not in the media anymore. His new job description is different. 

But when you consider the great success of Terry Francona -- and why he succeeded in this market beyond simply winning -- what stands out is how comfortable Francona appears in his own skin. How genuine he seems. 

There is a way to acknowledge, as a manager, when something is off. A way to do so gently but genuinely. A way to say what you feel -- and a way to say what you feel must be said -- while operating without fear of the players you manage. 

Ultimately, most every comment Francona makes is intended to shield his players. But Francona shows his personality as he goes (or if you want to be a bit cynical, he sells his personality marvelously). Those little self-deprecating jokes -- he charms the hell out of everyone. The media, the fans. The Cult of Tito has a real following, because he feels real. Because he is real. 

Farrell was not fake. But he did have a hard time letting his personality come across consistently, to his detriment. He was reserved, in part because that just appeared to be his nature. But the job must have, with time, forced him to withdraw even further. As everything Farrell said (and did) was picked apart in the market, it likely became easiest just to play it safe in every facet -- speaking to the media, speaking to players.

The Sox’ biggest undertaking in 2017 seemed to be a nothing-to-see-here campaign. It was all fine. No David Ortiz, no home runs, no problem. Manny Machado was loved. The media was the problem, not any attitude or attitudes inside the clubhouse. Base running was a net positive -- you name it, none of it was ever tabbed as a problem publicly by the manager, or anyone else.

A perpetually defensive stance was the public image. Issues were never addressed or poorly defused, so questions always lingered.

Maybe Cora cannot admonish Sale as he did a year ago now that he’s managing Sale. Not publicly, anyway. But even as a quote-unquote player's manager, the job still requires authority, which should be doled out just as it was earned: through authentic comments and actions.

"My job as the manager is to set the culture, the expectations, the standards, the baseball," Cora’s present boss, Astros manager A.J. Hinch, said the night the Astros clinched the pennant. "It's the players' job to develop the chemistry.

“And obviously good teams always say that, we want chemistry, and what comes first, the chemistry or the winning. But when you have it, you want to hold on to it as much as possible . . . We've got a good thing going because we have one common goal, we have one common standard, and that's to be your best every day."

Cora has to remain true to his best, too -- not what he thinks, and hears, and reads, people want his best to be.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Cy Young winners Porcello, Keuchel face similar challenges

Cy Young winners Porcello, Keuchel face similar challenges

An American League sinker baller won the Cy Young in a surprise season and had trouble the following year.

In a way, Dallas Keuchel, the 2015 Cy Young winner, was Rick Porcello before Porcello. Keuchel, the Astros’ ace, went 20-8 that year with a 2.48 ERA and a league-best 232 innings.

Keuchel's follow-up season — during Porcello’s amazing 2016 — was a different story. The lefty Keuchel had a 4.55 ERA and threw 168 innings because of a shoulder injury. 

Astros manager A.J. Hinch sees at least a somewhat shared thread between the last two Cy Young winners in the AL.

“My own theory is that it depends on the style of pitcher, and I think you’re on to something when you talk about sinker ball pitchers or different style pitchers,” Hinch said on the CSNNE Baseball Show Podcast. “When you have a plus-stuff guy, someone who has power with all the strikeouts, or the nasty breaking ball and the Cy Young, you think Clayton Kershaw. You think Max Scherzer. You have this guy that can really out-stuff the opponent. I think that guy has a better chance of repeating. Because he can just outstuff you. He doesn’t have to be perfect in his execution.

“When you have sinker ball guys that rely on execution, command, control — maybe the hitter chasing outside the strike zone — I think it’s interesting to look at Dallas’ year last year and maybe Porcello’s year this year as someone who’s trying to repeat behavior. And they’re trying to be perfect. And they might change their approach a little bit. Maybe even subconsciously to be a little more fine with their command, or be a little bit more careful trying to avoid contact. 

“That can alter, you know, your competitive state in a lot of different ways. And I think Dallas went through that last season, where he tried to repeat being Dallas Keuchel as opposed to relying on his stuff inside the strike zone with movement to get the outs. For Dallas, it turned into walks. For Porcello, it’s been a little bit more balance getting right-handed hitters or left-handed hitters out. I think that’s changed a little bit.”

Lefties had a .600 OPS vs. Porcello in 2016, while righties had a .672 OPS. This year, both have an .841 OPS vs. Porcello.

The Red Sox have been working with Porcello to regain the depth on his sinker, which has taken on more side-to-side movement at times. That can be effective in itself, if employed in such a way that it starts on the plate and moves off the plate to righty hitters. But righty hitters can’t be too comfortable in the box for that to be the case.

Sinker ballers in general have a hard time these days, because batters focus more on lifting the ball and launch angle and upper cuts.

“We were glad that the the strike zone didn’t get altered, I can tell you that,” Hinch said. “We didn’t want it to be raised. That would be very difficult for sinker baller pitchers. It’s hard to go north and south as a sinker baller. A lot of times, you’re talking about east and west in the strike zone. You’re talking about balls running down and in. But the part about being a sinker baller I don’t think gets talked enough about: you have to locate east and west as well as getting the ball below the zone. 

“The style of swings nowadays, with everybody upper cutting and the launch angle of getting the ball in the air, has created a small disadvantage. … You’re going to start with the premise that you’re going to get underneath the ball, and if those balls are elevated at all, we know hard a low fastball can get hit when it’s a little bit up in the bottom part of the strike zone. 

"I think the east-west part is going to be how sinker ball pitchers end up combatting the hit-, launch-angle era.”

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