I knew it when I was 10 years old: I wanted to be a sportswriter.
I didn’t have the skills to play for a pro sports team nor the desire to be employed by one. Nope. I wanted to explore and interview and debate and write. In my entire career, it’s never crossed my mind to do work for a sports franchise.
Well, until now.
The only thing I’m wrestling with is whether I should bill the Red Sox for this.
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The Sox have such an easy opportunity for good PR that somebody has to say it: no matter what happens in 2020, Alex Cora should be their manager in 2021.
The 2017 decision to hire Cora, who had no managerial experience at the time, didn’t qualify as a no-brainer. But bringing him back next year does.
Why? Because Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball quietly opened a door for that possibility two weeks ago.
Don’t be too hard on yourself for missing all the details of it. Commissioner Manfred and MLB slid away from your DMs on April 22nd. They sandwiched their breaking news between a Rob Gronkowski trade and the first day of what turned out to be a record-setting TV audience for the NFL Draft. In the publicity matchup of NFL vs. Anything, Anything usually loses.
So let’s do a speed review of baseball’s investigative findings of the Sox and their 2018 sign-stealing: Cora, his staff, and most of his players had no idea that there was, as Jimy Williams used to say, a problem in Boston. According to MLB, the major issue was in the video replay room with an operator named J.T. Watkins — but only in the regular season.
Investigators reported that Watkins used illegal video feeds to pick up signs and then relayed that information to players. There was no evidence of ownership awareness or the utilization of the feed during the run to the World Series.
Manfred took a second-round draft pick from the Sox, banished Watkins from the replay room, and emphasized that Cora’s 2020 suspension is for his actions with the ’17 Houston Astros, not the ’18 Sox.
That was it.
There were no multimillion-dollar fines. No scorching words for ownership. No special note from the commissioner about baseball operations being a “very problematic’’ department, possessing an “insular culture” and having a “staff of individuals who often lacked direction’’ (all quotes from Manfred’s Astros report). No anger from the L.A. Dodgers about having their rings stolen by cheaters. No righteous rage from the baseball media.
Roger Goodell, conducting the virtual draft from his basement, probably heard about the punishment and its muted reaction and wondered, “Haven’t I taught Manfred anything about how to really make a New England team suffer? I should introduce him to Ted Wells…”
But seriously. If an actual Sox employee had told John Henry in January that the team’s penalties would play out so lightly, the owner might have considered it wishful thinking. At the very least, he would have paused before firing the manager.
Now that all the damage has been assessed and we all have distance — from the scandal, the sport, and each other — the Sox’ statement on Cora sounds overly dramatic. At the time, the Sox said that they couldn’t move forward with Cora given the commissioner’s Astros findings. That all sounded fine in the moment. Then speculation was crushed by a pandemic and facts.
Baseball was expected to start in March and it didn’t. The Red Sox, according to the baseball insiders, were going to get Manfred’s hammer, just like the Astros did; they didn’t. And Cora was supposedly facing the biggest penalty of all, for his cheating involvement in two cities. That didn’t happen, either.
What did happen is a season-long punishment for Cora, based on his actions three years ago in Houston.
To be fair, urgency was required when the Sox made their decision to move on from the manager. If this were a normal season, Manfred’s April 22nd announcement would have happened before a Sox-Blue Jays game at Fenway, the 26th game of the season. Can you imagine the circus of all that, and spring training, with Cora still sitting in the dugout?
Now that there’s actually time to think, the Sox should look inward and answer a few questions.
Do they believe that Cora is permanently toxic due to his dirty work with the Astros? Or is it less personal than that and they don’t want to be associated with anyone who oversaw, created, concealed or performed the elaborate stealing scheme? If the latter is true, that not only would eliminate Cora from returning, but it would mean the Sox wouldn’t be interested in upcoming free agents like George Springer and Carlos Correa.
It obviously shouldn’t come to that. Cora was a great manager here. His passion, knowledge and likability energized the entire organization. He struck the perfect tone in trivial situations, like the time he admitted that a game sped up on him and he screwed it up. He was also eloquent when things got serious, like when he described why it was important for him to bring smiles and resources to Puerto Rico following its devastation from Hurricane Maria.
Manfred said Cora cheated in Houston and didn’t do it in Boston. After Cora emerges from his exile, which version of him do you think we’ll see, the one from Houston or Boston? He has to know that even the appearance of getting too close to the line will keep him out of baseball forever.
The biggest question for the Sox, though, is one they struggled with in January. At their “Cora Dismissal” press conference, they were asked if Cora deserves to manage again. They went corporate limp in a hurry, staring, hemming, and word circling into a non-answer.
What they could have said then is that we all have to deal with the consequences of our mistakes, but that we are also redeemable. They could have said that Cora guided an old franchise to new heights, and that his ability to thrive in Boston is an indication that he can handle any market in the majors. They could have said, and should say this:
Yes, Alex Cora deserves to manage again. He’d be a great fit with the Red Sox.