Alex Cora is a lightning rod.
If things go well in 2021, with the Red Sox returning to contention after a turbulent 2020, it very well could stem from the energy emanating from the manager’s officer.
If Boston struggles, or even lingers in mediocrity, Cora undoubtedly will be struck with outside criticism, more so than your typical skipper based on the polarizing nature of his rehiring.
Pressure? Sure. You could say that.
But what better way to promote accountability upon returning to the dugout than to walk the walk on top of talking the talk?
“I don’t have to explain to you guys how I feel about this game. I don’t have to tell people I love the game and I’m very passionate about it. You guys know that. So I don’t have to explain that,” Cora said last week during a video conference after Red Sox pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in Fort Myers, Fla. “But at the same time, coming here, and it’s not about me — it’s about seeing guys and working with guys and going to the field, and when the game is over or the practice is over, to sit at your desk and be like, ‘Oof, I gave everything today.’
” … That’s the way I attack every day. I’m gonna do it the same way I’ve done it in ’18 and ’19: Confident, with conviction and trying to put these guys in situations to be successful.”
Cora is a player’s manager, blessed with an innate ability to connect with others on a personal level. The 2021 season will be a challenge, testing both his strategic chops and his knack for fostering universal buy-in in pursuit of a collective goal. This isn’t 2018. Boston’s revamped roster has both its strengths and weaknesses, and outside expectations understandably are tempered.
Which is what made Cora such an appealing managerial candidate this offseason. Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom could have gone the safe route, opting for a fresh face after Ron Roenicke’s departure. Instead, Bloom brought back Cora, who served a one-year suspension for his involvement in the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, determining the potential reward far outweighed the risk.
“(Cora) has just a charisma about him where people feel lifted up by being around him, and that’s a great thing in somebody who you have leading your group, where he can bring the best out of people,” Bloom told reporters Sunday, one day before the Red Sox’s first full-squad spring training workout at JetBlue Park. “That’s what we’re looking for in a manager, and he connects as well as anybody that I’ve seen.
“Already, I’ve been struck by players that are new to camp, that we try to have some conversations with for the first time, he’s gotten all of them already, he’s talked with everybody. He just has a good way over the course of the day of circulating, making sure he touches every player, that he gets to know everybody. He’s fun to be around, and he brings a lot of energy and a lot of optimism to the group.”
To be clear: Cora’s return isn’t all about intangibles. There’s a renewed enthusiasm within the Red Sox’s clubhouse — the direct result of their 2018 World Series-winning manager arriving back on scene — but Boston’s future success will hinge on changes and improvements made between the lines.
So, how will the Red Sox look different in 2021?
Well, expect a greater emphasis on baserunning and defense, two areas easily overlooked when evaluating Boston’s offensive potential and recent inconsistency from the mound.
Cora said in December he’d like the Red Sox to “get back to playing fast,” pointing to the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres and Tampa Bay Rays as examples of teams who play with a pace that applies pressure to their opponents.
Boston since has augmented its roster with moves conducive to establishing this identity, which could manifest itself in the number of lineup combinations Cora deploys in 2021 thanks to the Red Sox’s newfound defensive flexibility.
“We have to be better defensively. We have to be better defensively. No doubt about it. That’s something that championship teams do,” Cora said last week. “I said we have to be better than ’18 defensively — better than ’19, better than ’20. We have to be better defensively. And this is not about range factor and all that stuff that people measure, which is very important. But as far as like first steps and angles going towards the ball, I’m gonna challenge them to be better.”
Aggressive. Athletic. Dynamic.
Whether it’s going into attack mode at the plate, swiping an extra base on a ball in the dirt or holding a runner at third defensively, the Red Sox’s rekindled spirit off the field just might translate on the field, with the team assuming the decisiveness and fearlessness of its leader.
That, my friends, is the Alex Cora effect.