Danny Buxbaum isn’t afraid to admit he didn’t quite see this coming.
Buxbaum was a junior at the University of Miami when Alex Cora was a freshman, and from the get-go, the first baseman could tell the youngster knew the game inside and out.
“I think he always was a step ahead mentally to guys that he played with and against,” Buxbaum said. “Knowing the game, knowing what certain hitters were trying to do. Coming from Puerto Rico, baseball is a way of life over there. Alex grew up around the game and studied the game. You can see that now just in how he carries himself and the decisions he makes.”
The ascendant shortstop was never afraid to speak up, even when that involved telling older players they were doing something wrong. That earned him respect from his Hurricanes peers, whom he helped lead to the College World Series in three consecutive years.
Buxbaum said Cora was the best defensive player he ever shared a field with, up through his Triple-A days in the Los Angeles Angels organization. And while it was clear that the Caguas, Puerto Rico, product was intent on making it to the big leagues as a player, Buxbaum imagined there might be another role in his future.
“I always thought that one day I could see him being a coach,” he said. “Did I foresee him being a big league manager? That’s a pretty big leap. But I always looked at Alex as being a longtime utility-type infielder and eventually being a coach at a high level. Just because of his knowledge of the game.
“And because he got along with everybody. Nobody ever had issues with Alex. Ever.”
That’s no small feat, Buxbaum said, considering the mix on the Hurricanes roster.
“If you look at the University of Miami, we’re a pretty mixed bag when it comes to different cultures and different ethnic backgrounds and so forth,” Buxbaum said. “And it didn’t matter if you were white, black, Cuban, Puerto Rican—he’s just one of those guys that everybody kinda gravitated towards.”
He had a knack for getting along with people, no matter the circumstances.
After Cora joined Buxbaum in the professional ranks, drafted by the Dodgers in the third round in 1996, the two former teammates became opponents. Buxbaum, a first baseman by trade, played a couple of games at third in 1997 for the then-Midland Angels. And when they matched up against Cora’s San Antonio Missions—managed by Ron Roenicke, who’s now … Cora’s bench coach with the Red Sox—the shortstop had a message for his old friend.
“He wrote on the clay, ‘You can’t play third base,’” Buxbaum said, clearly tickled by the memory. “He was just that way. He got along with everybody.”
Though the two haven’t exactly stayed in regular contact, Buxbaum’s enjoyed watching Cora’s history-making run from afar.
“I knew once he got a chance to get into managing, if he had the right team he would do really well,” he said. “I’m pulling for him, proud to call him a former teammate.”
It’s been a season of firsts for Cora and the Red Sox.
It’s his first managerial job in affiliated ball (though he did manage in the Puerto Rican winter league previously). He’s Boston’s first Latino manager. The Sox won 100 games for the first time since 1946 and set a new club record with 108 regular-season victories. And when the teams take the field for the Fall Classic on Tuesday, Cora will become the first Puerto Rican to manage a World Series game.
He’s also unofficially the first manager to add natural disaster relief into his contract negotiations, prodding the Boston brain trust into donating a $200,000 check plus plane loads of supplies (and a few boxes of baseball gear) to people in his hometown of Caguas affected by Hurricane Maria.
In case that’s not enough, Cora and Los Angeles Dodgers counterpart Dave Roberts represent the first pair of non-white managers in World Series history. The former teammates also played for both teams in the championship round, a Series first.
“To manage against Dave is going to be special,” Cora told reporters on Sunday. “He really cares; he’s very passionate. Nobody thought that he was going to be the guy a few years ago. Since then they have dominated that division. You can see the passion and the emotion.”
The same sentiments are true of Cora, who just retired as a player in 2011 (recently enough that he played with erstwhile second baseman Dustin Pedroia in Boston and current first baseman Mitch Moreland in Texas). They’re the reason he was hired a year ago Monday, why he’s thrived in a city that is wont to chew up and spit out players and coaches it takes a dislike to, and why his players say things like this: “Alex gets a feel of the clubhouse and always has an idea of what’s going on, how guys are feeling,” J.D. Martinez told The Boston Globe. “Guys want to play for him. That’s led to all this success.”
Credit is of course due to the players, including All-Stars Chris Sale, Mookie Betts, Craig Kimbrel, Moreland, and Martinez, and key role players like shortstop Xander Bogaerts, outfielders Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr., and setup man Matt Barnes. And to president Dave Dombrowski and the front office, who didn’t pick up a relief arm midseason but did add flourishing starter Nathan Eovaldi.
But Cora’s influence is easy to see in the confidence of those players, in their willingness to do whatever’s asked of them, regardless of whether or not it conforms to tradition or to their past experience. He aggressively integrated analytics into the team’s daily operations, going so far as to have an analyst design daily defensive game plan cards that players could take to the field with them. Cora told his players from the beginning that he would try to be “genuine and accessible,” and so far, the man they call A.C. has made good.
Both Roberts and Cora own World Series rings from their Boston playing days, the former winning in 2004 and the latter winning in 2007. And though Roberts managed the Dodgers to the World Series last season, the Astros and their bench coach, Cora, prevented him from picking up his first ring as the big boss.
One will enter the offseason elated, and the other will leave feeling the sting of a World Series loss. Both have experienced the latter, and it’s a safe bet neither is anxious to go through it again.
Alex Cora played 14 seasons in the big leagues, yet he doesn’t have a single standout highlight—a play that is immediately associated with his name whenever he’s brought up.
He won a ring with Boston in 2007 but played only sparingly during the postseason run (appearing in four games, making just one plate appearance, and recording a sacrifice in it). He finished his career with a .243 average, 35 homers, 47 steals, and 7.0 B-Ref WAR; he played every position in the field except catcher and pitcher (including DH). If pressed for one on-field exploit, a Dodgers fan might recall the 18-pitch at-bat Cora ended with a home run in 2004.
But while that’s a fun play, it’s not one a casual fan is likely to have heard of. Like, say, Dave Roberts and “the steal.”
In fact, the on-field memory of Cora seared in the most memory banks may be this one:
That’s what losing a College World Series on a two-out, two-run walk-off home run feels like. A walk-off a half inning after your own theatrics, a two-out, tiebreaking RBI single to put the team three outs from the trophy. Your third hit and third RBI of the biggest game of your still-young career.
Cora drove in a run in the top of the ninth to break a 7-7 tie and give Miami a chance at the title after it had frittered away a 7-3 advantage; after less-than-full-strength LSU second baseman Warren Morris drove a pitch into the right-field stands, Cora fell to the ground. As the Tigers celebrated in a dogpile, Cora wept into his hands, prone on the field.
“A lot of people remember that, because the television shot had Morris trotting by for his home run. Yeah, I remember that, but I remember Alex Cora getting three hits and driving in three runs. Including the go-ahead run,” then–LSU coach Skip Bertman said over the phone with a rueful laugh. “He did everything to win, and we were very, very fortunate.”
Bertman, 80, coached the Tigers for 18 years, then transitioned into an administrative role he held until 2007-08. He managed Astros bench boss A.J. Hinch with the 1996 Olympic team and knew Alex Bregman from the latter’s time at LSU. Bertman visited the Astros duo last season, not realizing who the team’s bench coach was. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he said he’s as impressed by Cora now as he was in 1996.
“He’s a guy with a great sense of humor. Can talk to people,” Bertman said. “I know he’s only 43, which is kinda young—but not in baseball years. In baseball years, he’s 60 years old. He’s a bright kid. A smart kid, by every [measure]—street-smart kid, book-smart kid, people person. He can take orders. He can give orders. He’s approachable by everybody.
“Even now, being a superstar and having 108 wins and going to the Series, even now he’s handled himself incredibly well.”
Bertman is quick to point out that LSU never lost with Morris in its lineup in 1996; he acknowledges that a manager can do only so much, putting the players in position to succeed and hoping that they do. Still, he thinks the union between Boston and the former shortstop from Miami is one built to last.
“I think Alex was the right man at this time for that kind of team that had a lot of great players,” he said. “Where somebody like Jackie Bradley Jr. could come in at the very, very end—although he’s always great, don’t get me wrong—and hit majestic homers. … He’s got them to where they’ll do whatever they think is best for the Red Sox.”
Thinking back to that pivotal game in 1996, Bertman says he remembers Cora’s voice carrying clearly over the capacity crowd to his spot in the dugout. Then, Cora was determined to do everything he could to put his team in position to win a championship. Today, the goal’s the same, but the tools he uses to do it have changed.
“It wasn’t a surprise that Hinch would be a manager,” Bertman said. “And I’m not surprised that Alex Cora would be a manager. But it is surprising that both of them have done so well so fast.”
Analytics play a role in that success, sure. And having great players only helps. But to Bertman, it’s the ability to relate to each individual on his own terms, in his own way, that truly sets Cora apart.
“And I tell ya, that’s magic,” he said. “Being able to talk to people and know what to say when they didn’t do well, or know what to say when they did do well, or know what to say when they think they’re not doing well, or when you think they’re doing too well and they should be focused more on ... how fleeting that can be. He senses [it]. It’s a gift, I’m tellin’ ya. That kid’s got it.”