Red Sox special assistant Tony La Russa discusses his expectations for new manager Alex Cora in his first year
From Davey Johnson to Jim Tracy to Terry Francona to A.J. Hinch, Cora feels fortunate to have learned from some of the best. And not just in the way they managed, but also in the culture they created for their teams.
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"One thing about all these guys, their coaching staffs were all very good, very solid," said Cora. "The manager trusted their guys and they were an extension of those guys. There were no mixed messages. From Trace to Davey to Tito, everyone was on the same page, and you could see that. When you see that, it's a good vibe for the players.
"It seems like everybody that I played for, they respected me and were very honest. There were certain situations, and I've seen it, when managers aren't honest with players. But everybody I played for, in that sense, they were very good with me."
Full circle with Davey
After a 29-game stint with the Dodgers in 1998 and 11 games as a September callup in '99, Cora got his chance to establish himself in the Major Leagues with Los Angeles in 2000. His manager was Johnson. In a surreal twist, Cora would also finish his playing career with Johnson as his manager for the '11 Nationals.
The circumstances couldn't have been any different for Cora the two times he played for Johnson, who is best known as the manager who led the 1986 Mets to World Series glory.
"He was the one that gave me a shot and pushed me out of the game," said Cora, who laughed as he finished the sentence.
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In truth, Cora respected Johnson's ability to deliver good and bad news.
"It went full circle with Davey," said Cora. "I was a young player and he played me, and he kept playing me regardless of the struggles."
But things were very different with the 2011 Nationals, when Jim Riggleman resigned at midseason and Johnson took over as manager. Cora had been getting regular playing time under Riggleman, but that stopped when Johnson took over and committed to the young double-play tandem of Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond.
"I think it got to the point I didn't play for like 20 games in a row. I sat down with him, he explained to me the whole situation and I accepted it," said Cora. "It was interesting. At that moment, I was like, 'This is weird, he gave me a shot to play all those years ago and now I'm not playing.' But I learned about the process and what it was all about, and I'm glad that it happened.
"We talked about it, and he was honest when I was a young kid and he was honest in that situation later on. I appreciated it. It worked out for the team. Danny and Ian, they played great, the team made the playoffs the next year."
Tracy's tactics served Cora well
Johnson didn't last long with the Dodgers. When his two-year stint ended following the 2000 season, Cora played for Tracy from '01-04.
"He was another manager who gave me a shot. With him, I always go back to '03, '04," said Cora. "Cesar Izturis and myself up the middle, we were kind of like good glove, no bat, but he kept playing us in '03, and we were alive until the last weekend of the season.
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"Then in '04, with all those at-bats he gave us the previous years, it was kind of like everything worked. Cesar had a great season offensively. I hit 10 home runs in the eight-hole and had about 50 RBIs. That was also the first time I was actually introduced to the platoon system. And if you see the numbers between Jose Hernandez and myself, it was a very productive tandem. Together, we were a really good second baseman.
"We won the division and lost to a really good St. Louis team in the Division Series. But with Trace, I saw him use patience and tactics, and saw how he used numbers to take advantage of situations."
Time with Tito
Cora was traded from the Indians to the Red Sox just before the All-Star break in 2005. The season before, Boston had won the World Series and snapped an 86-year championship drought. Cora figured everything would be harmonious in his new baseball home. But when he arrived, there was dissension in the clubhouse over Francona not picking respected veteran reliever Mike Timlin for the All-Star team. Meanwhile, first baseman Kevin Millar was upset because his playing time had been reduced following the acquisition of John Olerud.
"They won the year before and this is going on here?" Cora remembers thinking at the time. " ... But Tito, he found a way to deal with the clubhouse and deal with the media."
Francona steadied the ship and the 2005 Red Sox went on to win 95 games and get back to the postseason. Two years later, with Cora as a utility infielder, Francona and Boston again won the World Series.
Cora, meanwhile, learned where he stood with Francona from the day he arrived.
"I remember the first time when we met, [pitching coach Dave Wallace] was there also," said Cora. "I had Wally in L.A., and they called me into the office and Tito was like, 'You're here, we know you're good, but you're not going to play that much.' But you know what? It was cool, because they told me right away. He was very honest, very transparent. He makes it fun. That's what I like about Tito."
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Cora will soon learn what it is like to deal with the aggressive Boston media on a daily basis. In that regard, he will take inspiration from Francona.
"He was the master with the media. He's the best I've seen. Even now, you see Tito in the press conference and he's in control," Cora said. "There's tough questions and tough situations, but he doesn't get rattled. As a player, you listen to it. You go home with the MLB Network now, and it's 24/7, baseball, you see it. When he talks, he's controlling the platform."
If Cora was going to be a bench coach for just one year before becoming a manager, he couldn't have picked a better experience than sitting alongside Hinch for a thrilling championship ride with Houston.
Along the way, Cora came away with respect for Hinch's ability to multitask.
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"It's a different ballgame and a different organization with Houston," said Cora. "He has a lot on his plate, not only on the field but from the front office. He does an outstanding job filtering that information that comes from upstairs and uses what's necessary. He has a good connection with the players.
"The guy is really smart, very genuine and the guys really like them. He's able to connect with them. I saw it this year. You saw the reaction and the quotes from the players about him, and how they feel about him, and it's true. I saw it firsthand."
Tapping into Tony
Cora will have the added benefit in his first season as a manager of being able to tap into the mind of a Hall of Fame manager in Tony La Russa, who was recently hired by Boston as a special assistant to Dave Dombrowski. La Russa is expected to be around during Spring Training and for a lot of Red Sox home games during the regular season.
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"He's a very bright young man that's going to be an outstanding manager. I'm going to be very sensitive to his position is the best way to put it," said La Russa. "Being down there, he's the one who has to establish his leadership position with the Major League team and his staff. I'll be available. When he asks, I'll give him the best answer. But I'm not getting in his way or try to influence him, because I know he knows the direction he wants to go. I'll just be a resource."
It is a resource Cora is eager to tap into.
"People might see it like I should be intimidated because I have Tony La Russa, and if something happens, he's the next guy. I don't see it like that, because I'm comfortable in my own skin," said Cora. "I'm very comfortable. I've been saying, 'When you surround yourself with people that care and are good, you're going to be better.' Man, he's a Hall of Famer. He's a winner."
Ready to go
Professionally speaking, this has been the most hectic and exciting year of Cora's life. His year started by managing his winter ball team, Criollos de Caguas, to the championship of the Caribbean Series. Then, he served as the general manager for Puerto Rico's World Baseball Classic entry, which advanced to the final before losing to Team USA. It continued with the thrilling ride with the Astros. And now he is in his dream job, getting ready to manage the same team he once won a championship with.
"I think in between now and Spring Training, I'm going to find time to sit down and just think about the whole year and everything that happened," said Cora. "I'll think about how fortunate I am to have this job with the Red Sox, and after that, just enjoy it. I keep saying, 'We're going to have fun.'"
In a little over two months, Camp Cora will begin under the sun of Fort Myers, Fla.
"This is a great opportunity," said Cora. "I know the expectations, I know how people feel, but we have to enjoy it. Starting on Feb. 14, we have to go to work."
Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.