There is no way to gauge the relationships that players have, or don't have, with each other. All we know is that there is no hint of discord on the field, and that is to Cora's credit.
Alex Cora is a terrific manager.
We've all known that he was good at the job for three years now, or ever since the Red Sox romped and stomped their way to the World Series championship in 2018, but he has really shown his mettle in 2021. No one knew what to expect when this season began; the team was just coming off a train wreck of a year in 2020. Embarrassingly bad is about the kindest way to describe it. Hopes were not high for this season, either.
Yet, for four months, Cora had them at the top of the American League East and vying for the best record in all baseball. Then, in August, hard times hit. Call it a market correction, or the chickens coming home to roost, or whatever, but the Sox went into a prolonged slump and not only fell out of the race for first in their division but were also in danger of falling from contention in the wild card race. But Cora never panicked. He kept his, and his team's, attention focused on what needed to be done on the field.
Just as the Red Sox began pulling out of their slump, COVID-19 invaded the clubhouse. Beginning in the last days of August and stretching through the middle of September, a dozen players plus two members of the supporting staff tested positive for the virus. Plus, a player and a coach were quarantined because they were unvaccinated and had close contacts with team members. Still, Cora managed to keep his team focused on the field. Almost daily, there were players in the starting lineup, brought up from the minor-league affiliate in Worcester, of whom practically no one had ever heard before. And still the Sox kept winning -- if not every game, then enough to have them well-positioned for a playoff spot. It's a remarkable accomplishment by the manager.
The Red Sox remain one of the few major-league teams not to reach the 85 percent threshold of vaccinated players. It seems insane to think about, but if you want to work for the Red Sox you must be fully vaccinated -- unless you're a player. Those are the rules, crazy as they may be.
That means there is a significant bloc of players on the team who, for whatever reason, are anti-vaxxers. Has that led to dissension in the clubhouse? We don't know because no one -- and that includes the media -- has been allowed all year long to have any access to it. Reporters can talk to players in person on the field before games, but all other interaction, including the manager's comments before and after games, is done remotely. There is no way to gauge the relationships that players have, or don't have, with each other. All we know is that there is no hint of discord on the field, and that is to Cora's credit.
The divide between the players on the issue of whether or not to vaccinate has caused Red Sox management to monitor the situation almost obsessively, which takes time and costs money. That's why it's a pretty good bet that next year the team will easily exceed the 85 percent threshold of vaccinated players. Anti-vax players who are not deemed essential to the team will in all probability be on the endangered species list this off-season. Chris Sale, who has revealed that he is unvaccinated, won't be among them. He is under contract, and he is certainly an essential player. But first base coach Tom Goodwin, also unvaccinated, could find himself, if my guess is correct, looking for work.
What will the market be this off-season for unvaccinated free agents? Will clubs be willing to sign them despite the risk of exposure to other members of their team? And what about unvaccinated minor leaguers? It might well be that big-league teams, not just the Red Sox, will think long and hard before promoting someone to the parent club who hasn't been vaccinated. Those teams have investments to protect, why put them at risk?
From the players' point of view, minor-league salaries -- even at the Triple-A level are barely enough to make ends meet. But the major-league minimum is $570,500 per year, far more than most jobs on the outside pay. From there, the sky's the limit -- literally. There is no salary cap in baseball. Top stars have long-term guaranteed contracts that pay them, in some cases, more than $30 million a year. The average salary is $4.17 million a year. Any player who has been dedicated to baseball and is close to making the big leagues would have to be crazy to put all that at risk rather than to get a simple vaccination. But that's how convinced some people are that vaccinations -- or at least these vaccinations -- are either bad for you or unAmerican.
Meanwhile, Alex Cora keeps on chugging along. He doesn't let himself get distracted by all the outside noise that constantly goes on around the Red Sox and teams like them. A player for 14 years with the Dodgers, Indians, Red Sox, Mets, Rangers, and Nationals, he was never a star but was highly valued as a mentor to younger players. His role as advisor and counselor to Dustin Pedroia during Pedey's early, difficult days with the Red Sox played a key role in his success, according to no less an authority than Pedroia himself. Cora was not a great hitter (.243 lifetime average and only 35 home runs) but built a reputation as a dependable shortstop/second baseman. A student of the game, he was looked upon, even early in his playing career, as a manager-in-waiting.
He openly admits that he overreached in his role in the sign-stealing scandal while bench coach for the Houston Astros in 2017, and for which he served a one-year suspension from baseball in 2020, but that's in the past. Now he is back where he belongs -- managing the Red Sox. They're lucky to have him.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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