The Inevitable Return of Alex Cora to BostonJay Jaffeon November 6, 2020 at 7:35 pm

In the least shocking development of the offseason thus far, the Red Sox have rehired Alex Cora to manage the team. Not only did the move to bring back the previously suspended skipper appear to be inevitable, but news of it leaked onto Twitter just 22 minutes after Decision Desk HQ became the first verified outfit to call the presidential election in favor of Joe Biden. This was a Hall of Fame-caliber Friday news dump, designed to minimize the attention paid to a transaction that’s clearly defiant, if not cynical.

Put it this way: I’m no Jon Heyman when it comes to the inside baseball of Major League Baseball, but I tweeted a week ago that the Red Sox not rehiring Cora to manage would be an even bigger shock than the White Sox’s strange rehiring of Tony La Russa, who hasn’t managed since 2011. Unlike the situation in Chicago, where owner Jerry Reinsdorf appears to have unilaterally decided to bring back an old crony without interviewing other candidates (or at least announcing that they had done so), the Red Sox were reported to have interviewed several MLB coaches including Mike Bell (Twins), Don Kelly (Pirates), Carlos Mendoza (Yankees), James Rowson (Marlins), Skip Schumaker (Padres), Luis Urueta (Diamondbacks), and Will Venable (Cubs). But despite that crowded field — which grew to “at least nine candidates” who received first-round interviews — it’s fair to wonder the extent to which this was an ownership-driven decision.

The 45-year-old Cora, who led the Red Sox to a championship in 2018, his first season at the helm, “mutually agreed to part ways” with the team back on January 14, the day after Commissioner Rob Manfred released the results of his office’s investigation into the illegal sign-stealing efforts of the Astros. While serving as bench coach for Houston in 2016-17, Cora was found to have called the replay room to obtain signs, information that was relayed to hitters, and to have participated in the trash can banging scheme as well. “Cora participated in both schemes, and through his active participation, implicitly condoned the players’ conduct,” wrote Manfred, who while suspending general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch for the 2020 season withheld punishment of Cora pending the results of a parallel (but far less extensive) investigation into the Red Sox’s sign-stealing activities.

The optics on Cora’s continued employment were bad enough, however, for the Sox brass to turn the page, at least temporarily. Principal owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner, CEO Sam Kennedy, and Cora released a joint statement that they “collectively decided that it would not be possible for Alex to effectively lead the club going forward and we mutually agreed to part ways,” even while calling Cora “a special person and a beloved member” of the team. Manfred did not release the results of the Red Sox investigation until April 22, at which time he did not impose additional discipline on Cora beyond a suspension that matched those of Luhnow and Hinch. “I do not find that then-Manager Alex Cora, the Red Sox coaching staff, the Red Sox front office, or most of the players on the 2018 Red Sox knew or should have known that Watkins was utilizing in-game video,” wrote Manfred in his report.

In the wake of that finding, it seemed like only a matter of time before Cora’s return given the adoration with which the Sox brass continued to shower him with publicly even before the team took the field under successor Ron Roenicke, that while stressing that it was Cora’s actions in Houston that forced his ouster. Roenicke was doomed from the start by a roster weakened by the trades of Mookie Betts and David Price, a rotation further hit by the losses of Chris Sale to Tommy John surgery and Eduardo Rodriguez to post-COVID-19 complications, and minimal offseason expenditures due to the team’s situation regarding their Competitive Balance Tax status. The 2020 Red Sox never really had a chance; they finished 24-36, last in the AL East and outside the expanded playoff field. Roenicke was fired on the final day of the season.

Though Chaim Bloom had said in May that bringing Cora back “was not on our radar” for 2021, ultimately he was included in the interview process. Bloom and general manager Brian O’Halloran flew down to Puerto Rico to meet with Cora on October 30. As of Thursday, the field had reportedly narrowed down to two finalists, Cora and Sam Fuld, the Phillies’ player information coordinator.

It wasn’t hard to read the significance of the pairing. Bloom, who was hired last October, had never worked with Cora in-season, unlike the rest of the Sox brass around him. In his 14-year tenure with the Rays, Bloom had developed a close bond with Fuld, who during his eight-year major league career spent 2011-13 with Tampa Bay, helping the team to two postseason appearances and emerging as a hard-nosed, analytically minded player. At the conclusion of his playing days following the 2017 season, the Stanford University-educated Fuld joined the Phillies’ front office, working with players and coaches to “integrate the use of information in all areas of on-field performance and preparation.” He quickly drew managerial consideration, interviewing for the Blue Jays’ opening following the 2018 season before withdrawing his name. He was later connected to a number of other managerial vacancies, but last fall declined interviews with the Cubs, Mets, and Pirates.

It’s not fair to Bloom, who has a reputation for collaborative leadership rather than a reputation as a “my-way-or-the-highway kind of person,” to use the words of The Athletic’s Chad Jennings, to assume that the hiring of Cora was a decision made against his wishes. Yet it’s undeniable that the 38-year-old Fuld, a New Hampshire native who grew up a Red Sox fan, appeared to be a natural fit for the job, but even so Boston went with the devil that most of them knew rather than the one that only one of them knew. The math on that one ain’t hard.

Experience — particularly experience in leading a club to 108 wins and then a World Series victory in your first year on the job, that while thriving in the Fenway fishbowl where so many other managers have floundered — has value, and if the Red Sox saw Fuld as unlikely to measure up to the achievements of his predecessor, then that’s understandable, particularly as the team has made clear that it doesn’t regard its 2018 results as tainted. And Cora, who has long been regarded as a keen baseball mind and a bright star among young managers, has served the punishment imposed upon him.

Even so, it’s fair to be furious with Manfred for not imposing even harsher discipline on those connected to the sign-stealing, including Hinch (who was hired to manage the Tigers last week) and Cora. As the reactions to the Astros’ advancement to within one win of the World Series showed, there’s a lot of pent-up anger towards that team, including frustration that they were not subjected to a full season exposed to the enmity of opposing fans. For whatever Cora’s merits as a leader may be, he exhibited bad judgment in Houston, and perhaps Boston as well; Manfred may have exonerated him in the latter instance, but few in the industry believe that the commissioner pursued his investigation into the Red Sox with as much vigor as he did that of the Astros.

I’m not here to say that Cora’s punishment should have been a death sentence to his managerial career, but a prohibition on rejoining his former team so quickly might have been in order (whether it would have withstood a legal challenge might be another matter). I’m always happy to see the ranks of minority managers increased, because this sport needs to do much better in that area. But I can’t help but feel as though this is the Red Sox having the last laugh, not just at Manfred, but at anybody who cared about their actions and those of the Astros, and gambling that the timing of this news (which hasn’t been officially confirmed) will keep it off radars while the blowbacks subsides.
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