Red Sox manager Alex Cora brings youthful eye to new job

BOSTON (AP) — Dave Dombrowski wanted to make sure he and Alex Cora were on the same page, so the Red Sox boss sent off an email for his new manager’s approval.

The response: A thumbs-up emoji.

Tony La Russa and Jim Leyland never did that.

“He’s a good emoji texter,” Dombrowski said with a laugh this month as the team turned its thoughts toward spring training. “He’s very good with the thumbs-up. My children, they help me out at times.”

A native of Puerto Rico, Cora is already a pioneer as the first minority manager in the history of a franchise that was the last to field a black player. But he’s also a new kind of Red Sox dugout boss: One of the youngest managers in franchise history, giving him a unique chance to connect with his players.

“He’s not too far removed from actually playing the game. He’s played — actually, personally — with some of my teammates now,” Boston outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. said. “I think it’s going to be a great combination of old school and new school. He’s learned from the past, and he’s going to be able to put his own twist on things.”

Still just 42 and in his first major league managerial job, Cora is no newbie.

His shaved head shows the stubble of a receded hairline, with some gray around the temples picked up during a 14-year career spent with six big-league teams. As a member of the Red Sox from 2005-08, he was a part of the franchise’s 2007 World Series title and was teammates with current second baseman Dustin Pedroia. (He also overlapped with first baseman Mitch Moreland for about five days with the Rangers in 2010.)

It’s this that made him an intriguing choice to replace John Farrell, who was fired last fall at the age of 55 despite leading Boston to the first back-to-back AL East titles in franchise history. Farrell’s predecessor, Bobby Valentine, was 62 for his lone season in Boston; you’d have to go back to Kevin Kennedy, who was 41 when he was hired in 1995, to find a younger Red Sox skipper.

“I’m 42. I’m young,” Cora said at the team’s Christmas festival in December. “You’ll see me around with my backpack and sneakers and jeans. I’m going to live my life. … Nothing has changed. I went home and (it was) shorts, sandals and a T-shirt.”

Speaking to reporters before the awards dinner for the Boston chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America this month, Cora seemed completely at home in a knit hoodie and low-top Converse All-Stars. He mingled cheerfully with his players, then looked equally at home at the dinner in a sport coat and tie.

“He has the ability to communicate with the younger players, just the ability to talk to them,” said Dombrowski, who was the youngest general manager in the game when he took over the Montreal Expos at the age of 31 — three decades ago.

“He has that respect,” Dombrowski said. “He knows how to handle them. He’s been in the game a long time, and he’s done everything in the game.”

Cora has been retired as a player less than six years, after failing to make the St. Louis Cardinals in spring training in 2012. He remained in the game, working as an analyst for ESPN, and spending two years managing his hometown team, Caguas, in the Puerto Rican winter league. He has also served as the club’s general manager for five years.

In winter ball, Cora said, “For some reason, I wasn’t the manager I wanted to be. I was very serious, very strict with the guys. I don’t think they had fun with me, and I didn’t have fun myself.

“I promised myself,” he said, “when the opportunity came, I was going to enjoy it.”

As a bench coach for the Houston Astros last season, Cora was reminded how much fun baseball — especially winning baseball — can be. While the franchise was on the way to its first World Series title, Cora interviewed for and landed the Red Sox job.

“We play a sport that a lot of people feel is a grind. I was one of them when I played,” he said. “But last year I went through it, and it was fun. It wasn’t a grind. It’s a good atmosphere to work. That starts from the inside out.”

But it can’t all be fun and friendships.

Though not as young as Cora when he was on the Boston bench, Terry Francona prized his ability to communicate with his players and manage the clubhouse personalities as well as the game. He won two World Series with the Red Sox — including the cathartic 2004 title with the fun-loving “idiots” like Johnny Damon, Kevin Millar and “Manny being Manny.”

But the nature of the team had changed by 2011, with high-priced free agents retreating to the clubhouse during games for fried chicken and beer. Francona lost his team — and, after an unprecedented September collapse, his job.

“Obviously, there’s a line. They need to understand that I’m the manager, they’re players,” Cora said. “But at the end of the day, we’re human beings. During the day, there’s probably more conversations about life than baseball. … To connect with players is very important.”

Dombrowski has hired his share of old-timers, like Buck Rodgers and Leyland (twice). He brought La Russa, a Hall of Fame manager, in as a special assistant, and Ron Roenicke, who has 27 years of coaching experience, in as a bench coach.

Dombrowski expects their experience to balance out Cora’s youth.

“You can be young and not be communicative,” he said. “But I think in Alex’s case he’s a very good communicator. There are only pluses.”

And if Cora gives the players some slack, outfielder Andrew Benintendi said, he won’t regret it.

“I think we all hold ourselves accountable and know when it’s time to buckle down,” said Benintendi, who is 23 and coming off a season in which he placed second in the AL rookie of the year voting. “Obviously, he’s the manager. He makes the call. But I think he’ll still keep it light, keep it fun.”

Less than a month before spring training, Cora was still figuring out what he would say to his new team and how the clubhouse would be run. But there’s one rule he plans to drop on his players: Don’t call him “Skip” — Alex or A.C. would be better.

That doesn’t mean he’s not flexible.

Since becoming a bench coach with the Astros, Cora has replaced the usual fortysomething music on his phone with songs his players might be listening to.

“Just to connect is the thing,” Cora said, “so that I’m speaking the same language as them.”

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