Red Sox Manager Cora is at Home in the Clubhouse
By Steve Buckley
BOSTON -- Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora was talking about Terry Francona.
Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona was talking about Alex Cora.
And everybody understood why.
Cora is one of four big-league managers who played for Francona in Boston. The others are Kevin Cash (Tampa Bay Rays), Dave Roberts (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Gabe Kapler (Philadelphia Phillies), but it was an especially big deal this week because Cora manages the Red Sox and Monday night’s series opener between the Sox and Indians marked the first-ever game of hardball chess between veteran skipper Tito and rookie skipper Alex.
They said the requisite nice things about each other. They made the requisite quips. They made the requite self-deprecating jokes.
And there’s one thing that stands out about Terry Francona and Alex Cora that separates them from so many of the others, past and present. For the lack of any other way to put it, let’s call it Comfortable Clubhouse Presence. And it’s remarkable how few managers have it, even managers who had long, distinguished playing careers. These are the guys who from the moment they are handed the keys to the corner office get it into their heads that the clubhouse is a distant, impregnable place, separated from them by some kind of Star Wars force field.
And while it’s possible that some of what Francona brings to the job rubbed off on Cora, the simplest explanation for why they seem so comfortable in their managerial shoes is because they literally grew up inside clubhouses filled with big-league ballplayers.
For Francona, it’s because he’s the son of the late Tito Francona, who carved out 15 seasons in the big leagues with nine ball clubs. When the old man was playing for the Oakland A’s in 1970, young Terry, 11 years old, mixing clubhouse access with entrepreneurial spirit, would gather up cracked bats and sell them in the Oakland Coliseum stands.
Cora, who grew up in Puerto Rico, was only 11 when, on April 6, 1987, his brother Joey made his big-league debut with the San Diego Padres. Young Alex was already familiar with winter-league clubhouses by then, given that his father, Jose Manuel Cora, played some winter ball and later did occasional radio work. Alex was only 12 when his father died of cancer.
“I used to go with my dad when he’d do the pregame show,” said Cora, who then reeled off some of the big-leaguers he met when he was a kid. “I remember Juan Gonzalez ... Robbie Alomar ... Sandy Alomar ... there was Ryan Klesko, when he was like 18 or 19 years old.”
While other kids were barely past their ABC’s, Cora was learning the culture of a clubhouse filled with big-league ballplayers.
“I didn’t learn the rules, I learned the unwritten rules,” he said. “I learned ‘what goes on in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse,’ and things like that. I learned that at a very young age. I always felt part of the clubhouse. Even when I was general manager in winter ball in Puerto Rico, I felt comfortable in the clubhouse.”
It’s true that the Hall of Fame overflows with managers who never deigned to hang around the clubhouse. I covered one of them on the 1987 Seattle Mariners: Dick Williams. It wasn’t his style. Considering he took the Red Sox, A’s and Padres to the World Series and won two championships, he knew what he was doing.
But, then, Williams didn’t manage in the 21st century.
Cora does. So does Francona.
“In winter ball, I’d walk around and sit with the players,” Cora said. “But I understand there are certain things the players do, and they do what they do and I stay out of the way. When I was bench coach on the Astros last year, (manager) A.J. Hinch gave me the green light to go around the clubhouse and talk with the players, not just about baseball, but about other stuff.”
Francona was asked about his comfort level in the clubhouse. His response was striking.
“I don’t think there’s a place where I’m more comfortable than in the clubhouse,” said the grown-up 11-year-old who used to hawk broken bats at the Oakland Coliseum. “You see it all the time, people come here to visit -- movie stars, politicians -- they get inside that clubhouse, they get nervous.
“But that’s the place I’m most comfortable. I can have a conversation with any player. That’s where I live.”
Oldtimers will surely grumble at this. They’ll talk about Leo Durocher, Earl Weaver and other breathers of fire whose offices were managerial bunkers.
Worked for them. Hard to make it work today.
And it’s not that Francona and Cora figured this out. It’s how they’re wired, is all.