The Boston Red Sox decided not to wait. A day after manager Alex Cora’s name was mentioned 11 times in the commissioner’s report on the Houston Astros‘ sign-stealing scandal from when Cora was the team’s bench coach in 2017 — a report that implicated Cora as the mastermind behind the entire scheme — the two sides decided to part ways. A less nice way of putting it is that Cora was fired before probably facing the same season-long suspension that commissioner Rob Manfred handed down to AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow on Monday.
The Red Sox issued a statement on Tuesday from principal owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner and CEO Sam Kennedy indicating that after reviewing Manfred’s report, “… We collectively decided that it would not be possible for Alex to effectively lead the club going forward and we mutually agreed to part ways. This is a sad day for us. Alex is a special person and a beloved member of the Red Sox. We are grateful for his impact on our franchise. We will miss his passion, his energy and his significant contributions to the communities of New England and Puerto Rico.”
It is a sad day. It has been a sad two days for the sport — but a necessary two days, lest further sign-stealing scandals erupt into a full-blown, steroids-like melodrama that engulfs the entire sport for years. With the commissioner’s office still investigating the 2018 Red Sox for impermissible electronic sign stealing — with Cora as the manager and, like the 2017 Astros, on their way to a World Series title — the Red Sox ownership had no choice but to let Cora go and begin the search for a new manager.
Indeed, Monday’s report detailed that “Cora was involved in developing both the banging scheme and utilizing the replay review room to decode and transmit signs. Cora participated in both schemes, and through his active participation, implicitly condoned the players’ conduct.”
I think back to covering the Red Sox throughout their 2018 playoff run. To a man, the players praised Cora’s energy and communication skills, how he deserved a lot of credit for the team’s success. It didn’t come across as typical robot playerspeak. They genuinely liked and respected their manager. Cora, who had been a broadcaster with ESPN before his one-year stint as bench coach in Houston, was open and engaging with the media, and he took great pride in his Puerto Rican heritage. He appeared to have a bright and long future in the game.
The same could be said of Hinch. He had just managed the Astros to three straight 100-win seasons, with that 2017 title and another World Series appearance in 2019. Still just 45 years old, Hinch had established an early path as a potential Hall of Fame manager. Now, in two days, baseball has lost two of its biggest faces of managing. That’s a blow to the sport.
Still, as well-liked and well-respected as Cora and Hinch have been, their reputations are now permanently stained — especially Cora’s, since he took part in schemes with both organizations, while the commissioner’s report at least suggested that Hinch wasn’t happy with the sign-stealing scheme (but didn’t do anything to stop it). Fair or not, they will forever be branded as C-H-E-A-T-E-R-S.
It looks like both are persona non grata in the game for the 2020 season, and you have to wonder what kind of timetable exists before another opportunity arises for either — if not managing, perhaps in broadcasting or in a front office. As we saw with players implicated in the steroids mess of the 1990s and early 2000s, forgiveness exists — think of Mark McGwire eventually returning as a hitting coach for three different teams.
It is worth noting, however, that in the statement released by the Red Sox that Cora didn’t apologize for any of his actions, either with the Astros or with the Red Sox:
— Red Sox (@RedSox) January 15, 2020
Indeed, sign stealing and looking for an edge was ingrained in him from very early in his career (while a player, Cora had a reputation as one of the best sign stealers in the game). Check out this quote during the 2018 World Series, when he was asked about the current focus on stealing signs:
“You just have to be prepared as a team. That’s the only thing you can do. Stealing signs and tipping has been going on forever. I learned in, I don’t know, in Miami in college, we used to do it. I don’t know if that’s good for the program, but, yeah, we used to do it.
“And then I played — in winter ball, it really doesn’t matter how talented you are, you better know the game and pay attention to the game because you’re not playing Double-A or A-ball.
“In 1996, I played in Vero Beach, Florida, and then I played winter ball and I’m playing with big leaguers, and that’s when you learn to start paying attention to details.
“In 2000, I played for Sandy Alomar Sr., and Sandy, he was a guy, he’ll always tell you, the game will tell you something, you just have to pay attention to it. The scoreboard is not for the fans; the scoreboard is for the players. Outs, innings, strikes, all that stuff, if you pay attention to that, something is going to tell you what to do on the field.”
In October 2016, Cora had even tweeted this back when he was still working for ESPN:
Stealing signs, relaying signs, getting signs…not that easy.
— Alex (@ac13alex) October 17, 2016
It is interesting to look back at all this. Asked a simple question about sign stealing in today’s game, Cora gave a long answer about his own history. The rest of that quote included a detailed explanation of a play involving Roberto Alomar from a winter league game that Cora had remembered from almost two decades earlier. Cora took great pride in his baseball IQ — understandably so, as he was a player who lasted a long time in the big leagues in part because of his ability to do the little things. It might be safe to say, even, that Cora was obsessed with stealing signs.
This points to the bigger picture across the sport: In the competitive drive to get an advantage over your opponent, do those involved — and we can speculate that the cheating went well beyond the 2017 Astros and 2018 Red Sox — not realize they had crossed the line?
I’m not so sure that’s the case. In Monday’s report, the commissioner detailed the incident when Chicago White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar appeared to notice the bangs on the trash can: “Several players told my investigators that there was a sense of ‘panic in the Astros’ dugout. … Before the game ended, a group of Astros players removed the monitor from the wall in the tunnel and hid it in an office. For the Postseason, a portable monitor was set up on a table to replace the monitor that had been affixed to the wall near the dugout.”
They knew. They knew what they were doing was wrong. They knew they were cheating. Not much different from the PED users some two decades ago shooting up in secret. They knew.
Some will feel that Cora and Hinch are the scapegoats for actions committed by the players, who escaped any punishment. That’s an argument, I suppose. But history tells us players are incapable of policing themselves, as in the steroids era when few players spoke out against what was happening (former Texas Rangers pitcher Rick Helling was a notable exception). Indeed, if Oakland Athletics pitcher Mike Fiers, a member of the 2017 Astros, hadn’t broken the player code of silence, we might not be where we are today.
Monday’s report and the upcoming report on the 2018 Red Sox are only the beginnings of baseball trying to figure out how to cope with the technological era. Maybe it’s time to ban all in-game uses of video, no checking your previous at-bats, no watching the in-game feed. MLB stepped up its monitoring of technology in 2019, but as any science fiction writer will tell you: Beware what the future holds. The ramifications for Cora and Hinch are harsh, but Manfred had to send a message: Knock it off. Now.