Red Sox clinch AL East under the watch of first-time manager Alex Cora

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Its been a memorable year for the first-time manager, whose Red Sox have dominated baseball. But he has not ignored the plight back home in Puerto Rico

With last night’s 11-6 win over the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox have clinched the American League East with plenty of games to spare and find themselves a mere win away from tying a franchise record. With their 104-49 record, the Red Sox are in the driver’s seat in the race for the best record in the MLB. In other words, it’s been a pretty solid year so far for the storied ball club, who have accomplished all this under the watch of their first-time manager, Alex Cora.

The Yankees were the favorites to win the division and, for much of the year, the two teams were neck-to-neck. The Red Sox, however, started to run away with the division after mortally wounding the Yankees’ chances with a four-game sweep in early August. For the remainder of the regular season, Boston’s biggest competition might be themselves. Before this season, the 1912 Red Sox set the team record for most games won in a season with 105. With nine more games to go, it’s likely that this year’s team will pick up the two wins needed to set the record (although the 1912 Sox only had 156 games to work with, rather than 162). Cora’s 104 wins also amount to the second largest total in MLB history for a rookie manager. The Yankees won 109 games during Ralph Houk’s first year as skipper back in 1961, and it’s not impossible that these Sox will challenge that.

Given the results, it’s looking like the Red Sox organization’s somewhat surprising decision to move away from manager John Farrell at the end of last season has worked. At the time, it was a questionable move because Farrell’s Red Sox teams won the AL East in his last two seasons and he helped them win a championship back in 2013. Ultimately, they felt that the 56-year-old Farrell wasn’t the right fit for the 2018 club, which was built around younger players such as Mookie Betts (25), Andrew Benintendi, Xander Bogaerts (25) and Rafael Devers (21).

So it made sense that the Red Sox went younger, engaging in talks with the 42-year-old Cora, then the bench coach with the Houston Astros. Despite his relative youth, Cora had developed a reputation as someone destined to be a manager in the major leagues. It also didn’t hurt that Cora was a well-liked player during his time with the Red Sox. He acted as the team’s primary backup infielder from 2005-08, helping the team win a World Series in 2007. Cora, who was born in Caguas, Puerto Rico, became the first minority manager in Red Sox history. This was no small thing, considering the team’s rather dodgy legacy when it comes to issues of race.

All Cora has done since has been to put himself front and center in AL Manager of the Year discussions, although he’d be the first to agree with the mantra of his former mentor and current rival Terry Francona: the biggest key to success is having “good players” and these Red Sox are stacked with great ones. Chris Sale may be the best pitcher in the American League, and he leads a starting rotation that contains two former Cy Young winners in David Price and Rick Porcello. Betts, possibly the forerunner for the AL MVP, is competing for a batting title with his .339 average. JD Martinez, the team’s big free-agent acquisition, is right behind him with .331 and leads the league in RBIs with 124. Cora inherited one of the best Red Sox lineups in years, one possibly more talented than the ballclub that won it all in 2013, and no doubt most of the credit for the team’s success should go to the players.

In baseball, it’s easy to go overboard in handing out praise to managers, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t make a difference. There’s no question that, so far, Cora has proven himself the right leader for this particular group of players. Cora has had a knack of making the right moves at the right time, especially when it’s come to employing pinch-hitters. He’s also managed his team to wins in countless games where his starting pitcher has failed to get through more than a few innings, a somewhat thankless task considering that the team’s most glaring weakness has been its lack of reliable relief pitchers. Most importantly, he’s displayed an impressive amount of patience with his team, something that’s essential considering how passionate and demanding the local fans can be.

By all measures, Cora has had a successful first year, but it hasn’t happened under ideal circumstances. Over the last year, Cora’s been dealing with all of these life-changing events while his homeland of Puerto Rico has been attempting to recover from unthinkable devastation. Cora, who was the general manager of the Puerto Rico national baseball team before being hired by the Red Sox, has used his newfound position to speak about the damage done to the island by Hurricane Maria last September. He’s also helped out materially. Along with others from the Red Sox organization and Boston mayor Marty Walsh, Cora helped distribute aid to the island back in January: “It’s tough for us the last four, four and a half months, back home. Throughout the season, the end of the season, I felt like I wasn’t able to do enough to help my countrymen because of work.”

Earlier this month, Puerto Rico was back in the news, with the release of a study stating that Hurricane Maria’s death toll was close to 3,000, much higher than previous reports. President Trump’s subsequent tweets claimed the toll was inflated for the sole purpose of making him look bad. Immediately after the president’s controversial statements, and the outrage that followed, Cora expressed his anger and disappointment that the tragedy was being politicized.

“To be tweeting about 3,000 people … it’s actually disrespectful for my country,” Cora said to ESPN. “We see it that way. I know probably he doesn’t feel that way … I hate talking about politics and all that, but I think this is more than politics.” While it wasn’t exactly Gregg Popovich/Steve Kerr levels of outspokenness, Cora was speaking not as a social critic but as a citizen and as a human being, and it was an admirable use of the platform he holds.

Once again, of course, he can’t give the situation in Puerto Rico his full attention, because the real work is about to begin. This is, after all, Boston, where the regular season exists merely as preparation for the playoffs. Winning the AL East is an accomplishment, and setting a new franchise win record would be even bigger, but all of this is just a start.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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