Managing a baseball team is like gardening. You can tend it, water it, feed it, and prune it, but your perfectly planned garden still might not grow as you intended because at some point it’s about the desire of the plants to grow on their own, an innate need to flourish. The Hub’s resident hardball horticulturist is Red Sox manager Alex Cora. Last year, Cora had a green thumb as a first-time manager. This year, Cora’s thumb is a bit black, as his team’s returns are in the red (11-17).
Cora hasn’t lost his touch, but what he might be missing is that this year’s crop of Red Sox requires more motivation to thrive. The team he inherited last year from John Farrell had built-in motivation. The Sox were coming off two straight first-round face-plants. The 2018 Sox were a team on a mission from Day One to do damage to the naysayers of Red Sox Nation.
This year, it’s different. His team doesn’t come with batteries included. The Sox don’t carry the same level of motivation after steamrolling their way to a franchise-record 108-wins and a World Series title. As David Price, the front man of the postseason redemption tour, said, the Sox possess the trump card now. Everyone was bending the knee to them in spring training. The foremost managerial challenge for Cora is to motivate a team that believes and behaves like it has little left to prove, to replace lethargy with exigency.
Complacency and contentment after a sought-after achievement are human nature. The Sox won the World Series in Farrell’s maiden Sox managerial voyage in 2013 after finishing last in 2012. Then they sunk back to the basement.
If Cora is looking for some institutional knowledge on how to inspire and manage a World Series winner he can ask one of the greatest managers of all-time and certified FOB (Friend of Belichick) Tony La Russa, the Sox vice president/special assistant to the president of baseball operations. As a three-time World Series champion, the Hall of Famer has experience in the matter of managing a team the year after a title.
“It’s always been a factor, but it’s been more a factor since the number of distractions has increased like how much money you can earn, how much security you can get, the publicity you get,” said La Russa, when I caught up with him before this current Sox’ home stand. “Every place this club went all winter and in spring training it’s like ‘You guys are the greatest, the greatest.’ Human nature is like ‘Man, we did it.’ So to turn that page it’s not automatic, but when you got strong character like they do here they’ll be able to do it.
“That’s what I think Bill B — he checks every box — but the one box that always amazes those of us that try to coach is how he can turn that thing to zero like a fanatic, and the players see it’s a brand new season. He doesn’t even want to hear about last year, so that’s what you got to do. At some point, you have to fight, fight, fight to get the adjustment into the season.”
Instead, the Sox have acted like a team that still has all the answers from last season. Perhaps, some of us (raises hand) were hasty in thinking the Sox had made said adjustment after they swept the first-place Tampa Bay Rays in a three-game set that ended on Easter Sunday.
The Sox have lost more than just baseball games. They’ve lost their edge. The urgency, attention to detail, and focus don’t appear as fine-tuned as they were last year. Sure, their starting pitchers weren’t sharp out of the gate, but they haven’t gotten much help.
The insouciant Sox have botched the base paths, seen double-plays go unturned (see: Sunday’s error by Rafael Devers), and too many fly balls allowed to land safely by the best defensive outfield in baseball. The defining play of the season is a routine fly ball plopping down between Gold Glove outfielders Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts in Oakland.
“You got to keep working on your craft, pay attention to details, and do the things that we know how to do,” said Cora on Sunday, following a 5-2 loss to the Rays. “We haven’t been consistent at it. You’re looking for consistency. That’s what we need, and we need to start doing that sooner rather than later.”
Cora has been steady throughout the shaky start. The worst thing a manager can do is project panic, but there’s a fine line between patience and obstinance. Just because what you did last year worked that doesn’t mean it’s going to work this year.
La Russa lived that during his first managerial stint. He led the Chicago White Sox to 99 wins and the AL West title in 1983, earning his first of four Manager of the Year awards. His team then sputtered to 74-88 in 1984, despite adding Tom Seaver.
“Going back, the biggest problem on that club was me because I just didn’t understand what we’re talking about,” said La Russa. “It was the first time a Chicago baseball team had won since the 1950s. So, in spring training it was like, ‘Hey, yeah, yeah.’ I just did a [poor] job of understanding that it was a brand new season. The carryover, there is no carryover. The hardest lesson you learn is the one you don’t forget, so since then our teams, our staffs, we attacked it better.”
La Russa’s “Bash Brothers” Oakland A’s won the World Series in 1989. In 1990 they returned to the World Series, sweeping the Red Sox in the ALCS with an assist from overzealous umpire Terry Cooney, before getting swept by the Cincinnati Reds. La Russa won the first of his two World Series titles with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006, guiding an 83-win team to the crown. That team fell off five games the next season. In 2011, La Russa retired on top.
Cora recently called La Russa a “resource for me and everybody.” He said it was a great luxury to have him around. La Russa has nothing but praise for Cora — “I think he’s going to manage in this league as long as he wants to.” He’s careful to keep a respectful distance and not impose. He’s merely a sounding board/sage when and if desired.
La Russa knows that Cora already has a trusted managerial aide-de-camp in outstanding bench coach Ron Roenicke.
“With experience, I know how hard it is down here, and I know the No. 1 cohesive unit is the guys in uniform that are in the dugout with you every day,” said La Russa. “. . . If I have a suggestion, then I suggest, and he’s a great listener. I’m really impressed with the job he has done.”
But Cora’s job is harder this year than last year. He must motivate and manage a team without its furnace fully aflame. Usually, a manager’s job is to put out fires. This season, Cora’s job is to spark one.