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BOSTON (AP) — When Alex Cora was hired to manage the Red Sox a year ago, he knew he wanted to put relationships with his players first.
It made him a success as general manager of Puerto Rico in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, again as a GM and manager in the Puerto Rican Winter League and as bench coach for the Houston Astros during their World Series title run last season.
Cora was toting those lessons with him when he arrived at spring training to find a talented, young Boston team in need of a new voice following back-to-back early exits from the postseason.
He made his new team a promise during their first meeting.
“I told them no matter what I was going to strive to be genuine and accessible,” Cora said.
Six months later, the 43-year-old known to his players as “A.C.” has remade the culture of the Red Sox clubhouse by taking a player-centric approach that pointed them toward a franchise-record 108 wins in the regular season.
“I learned talking to players is not bad, having a relationship with players is not bad,” Cora said. “Doing that, you’re going to get the best out of them. People may think that crossing that line is not helpful, but I see it the other way around, and I lived it.”
It’s continued in the playoffs with an AL Division Series victory over the Yankees and an AL Championship Series win over the Astros that has Boston back in the World Series for the first time since 2013.
With four victories over the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cora can become the fifth manager to win the championship in his first season, joining Bob Brenly (Arizona, 2001), Ralph Houk (Yankees, 1961), Eddie Dyer (Cardinals, 1946) and Bucky Harris (Washington Senators, 1924).
While the Red Sox have benefited this season from roster changes such as the addition of slugger J.D. Martinez, Cora’s success isn’t a surprise to those that have seen the former player embrace the dual challenges of managing personalities and day-to-day decisions.
Pitcher David Price had a difficult time acclimating to Boston’s unforgiving sports environment during his first two seasons of the seven-year, $217 million deal he signed in 2015.
He’s found a groove this month, breaking through with his first career victory as a starter in the postseason, pitching the clinching Game 5 of the ALCS to help the Red Sox advance. Price credits Cora with being a calming presence.
“Just his demeanor. It doesn’t change,” Price said. “I know it’s easy to not change when your team wins 108 games in the regular season. But he hasn’t changed one bit.”
They’ve also connected on a personal level. Cora had twin daughters last season and Price has a 17-month son.
“Got two little twin girls that aren’t letting him sleep,” Price said. “Just for him to do what he’s done for us this year has been sweet.”
Cora also doesn’t wait for players to approach him. Prior to the start of the regular season he had a meeting with Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. The topic? Letting them know it’s OK to share their emotions on the field.
“I think people should know who they really are with the way they act on the field,” Cora said. “Like Mookie and I talk about him smiling, and Jackie, who is very quiet, the other day he hit that double and he celebrated, finally. And that’s what it’s all about. This is October.”
Along with is personal touch, Cora has beefed up Boston’s analytics department and assembled a coaching staff that eagerly puts them in play. It has been infused with an offensive approach focused less on power hitting, a style that encourages an aggressive hitting mentality, lots of hit-and-runs and active running of the bases.
That paid off with Betts and Martinez becoming the first MLB teammates to finish first and second in batting average and slugging percentage since 1904.
Add to that, being bilingual enabled the Puerto Rican-born Cora to connect with Boston’s Spanish-speaking players on a more personal level. It’s a rare luxury in a league that doesn’t have many Latino managers.
It’s an atmosphere in which players feel free to come to Cora with their concerns, infielder Brock Holt said.
“I think that trust that he has in us makes it easy for us to go out and be us and not worry about results or anything like that, just go out and play the game,” he said.
While Cora has certainly employed things that worked during his time on the Astros’ staff, Houston manager AJ Hinch said Cora is doing things very much his own way now.
“He’s all about baseball,” Hinch said. “He’s all about the competition and small advantages within the game, one of the brightest baseball intellects that I’ve been around.”
Cora remains humbled by how his team has responded this season.
“No, we’re not perfect,” Cora said. “That’s the cool thing about this team. We feel that we can keep improving. And we have one more series to go.”