Alex Cora seems diminished in return to Red Sox

Alex Cora seems diminished in return to Red Sox

Quite a couple of hours Tuesday afternoon for the Yankees, who saw the Mets introduce their optimal owner and the Red Sox reintroduce their optimal manager in back-to-back Zoom news conferences. Maybe on Wednesday, the Rays can welcome new catcher J.T. Realmuto and new bench-clearing brawl enforcer Stipe Miocic?

As The Post’s correspondent sent (virtually) to Boston to cover the Bosox’s rehiring of Alex Cora, however, I report two takeaways:

They made the right decision.

Nevertheless, this feels like a diminished Cora who returns to his old job.

This is not the same unflappable, seemingly invincible man who steered the Red Sox to historic greatness in his maiden voyage of 2018. Still a brilliant baseball mind, still a dynamic presence, the 45-year-old no longer stands as bulletproof after sitting out for a season due to his involvement in the 2017 Astros’ sign-stealing scandal.

“If I fail at this, I’m out of the game,” Cora said of his second chance.

The ’17 Astros’ bench coach and an alleged mastermind of the illegal sign-stealing, trash-can-banging scheme that rocked baseball in January upon its full disclosure, Cora returned to the Yankees’ top historic rivals following an absolutely miserable season in which the Red Sox traded franchise icon Mookie Betts and posted a 24-36 record in the COVID-shortened schedule, putting them in the American League East basement. Such poor results and vitriolic fan feedback both made it easier to bid farewell to Cora’s successor (and his 2018-19 bench coach) Ron Roenicke and intensified the need to fire up the downtrodden customers.

In his first public comments since he and the Red Sox parted ways on Jan. 14 (Rob Manfred subsequently suspended Cora for the entire 2020 campaign), the immensely popular Cora aced the contrition test, saying, “I want to make sure everybody knows that this situation is part of who I am for the rest of my career. As a man, I have to deal with it. I don’t want people to make it seem like it’s a great comeback story.”

He didn’t fare as well with a reporter’s question regarding whether he fully appreciated the illegality of his actions in ’17 — “I don’t want to get into what happened in ’17, but it’s a tough lesson,” he replied — although overall he proved his usual adept self in this setting. Asked whether he considered implementing the ’17 Astros’ system with the ’18 Red Sox, he explained how a spring-training meeting with Major League Baseball, as it tried to better monitor clubs’ chicanery, gave him pause: “I think people were starting to talk about what was going on around the league. It wasn’t worth it. … [I thought,] ‘Wow, I’d better not even try to do something like that.’ That’s the best way I can put it.”

If you watched Cora run circles around the Yankees and the rest of baseball in 2018, even if you sat through the predictable post-championship hangover in 2019 as Boston’s owners fired president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, you know he could slip some and still be elite at his profession. He represents a good risk for Dombrowski’s successor, Chaim Bloom, who acknowledged that of course the owners should have some say in who manages while asserting the decision ultimately came down to him.

Not as good a risk, though, as Dombrowski took on Cora three years ago when he tabbed him to replace John Farrell. During that championship ’18 season, the Red Sox did their own illicit sign-stealing, a misdemeanor compared to the ’17 Astros’ felony that resulted in Manfred punishing Sawx replay operator J.T. Watkins and no one else. The lesson from that, Cora said: “We need to avoid the gray areas.”

It’s a lot of dark arts to spin through, even as Cora acknowledged, “As a manager, I’ve still got to push them to do everything possible to read the scoreboard, read the pitchers, read the catchers, do all that stuff. That’s part of baseball, and I’m going to keep pushing for that.”

Can he walk that tightrope, maintain his edge while not going over the edge? If the Yankees should prefer that Cora work elsewhere, they at least should be grateful that such a strong nemesis has been compromised.

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