CAGUAS, Puerto Rico - Thirty minutes before first pitch at Estadio Yldefonso Sola Morales, Alex Cora is working the rail at the home dugout on the third base side like it’s a receiving line at a wedding reception. He stops and greets every player on Los Criollos de Caguas, shaking hands, slapping palms and offering encouragement. If not for the fact that he’s in a short-sleeved plaid shirt with a backpack slung over his shoulder, you’d think the smiling 38-year-old was one of the players.
Two years after retiring following a 13-year major league career, and after spending the 2011 season as a reserve infielder with the Nationals, Cora has found another calling. In the twilight of his playing days, managers like Terry Francona and Jim Riggleman said Cora had the innate diamond smarts to make a good coach, perhaps even a major league skipper. But the ink had hardly dried on his retirement papers before Cora - who also acts as an in-studio analyst for ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” - accepted a job as the general manager of the Criollos in his hometown in Puerto Rico’s central mountains, 30 miles south of San Juan.
The Criollos’ former general manager was moving to a role with Liga de Beisbol Professional Roberto Clemente - the official name for Puerto Rico’s winter baseball league - and team president Raul Rodriguez offered Cora the opportunity to move into the front office as the team’s GM. Cora jumped at the chance and steered the Criollos to the league title as a rookie general manager. Now he’s got his sights set on back-to-back crowns, something Caguas hasn’t done in its storied 75-year history.
“It’s not the normal path, I know. ... But I know a lot about the team. I have the pulse about that clubhouse, probably better than anybody,” Cora says while sitting in the Plexiglass-enclosed team officials’ box on the stadium’s second level as a game against los Gigantes de Carolina gets under way. “For me, it was an easy transition and they made it a lot easier, the players, because they understand friendship is friendship and business is business. They respect me in that sense. You’ve seen me around - I’m hands-on because I enjoy it. I still feel it.”
Cora was always known as a competitor in the majors, the kind of player who got the most out of meager talent and excelled at enough of the little things to stick around for more than a decade.
“I had to (in order) to play 13 years in the big leagues with marginal speed and no power,” he says matter-of-factly.
He grew up in Caguas, watching older brother Joey Cora, Hall of Fame second baseman Roberto Alomar and Carlos Baerga - all of whom had long major league careers - play for the Criollos (which means Creoles or countrymen). His sixth sense on the diamond was honed here, with palm trees ringing the outfield fences, children scampering along the grassy patched beyond the outfield walls in search of batting practice home runs.
“I learned from them and took advantage of it,” Alex Cora says. “For me, it’s good to start watching the game from another perspective. I’m learning, and I think with time, that’s going to help me out to the next level.”
And exactly where does Cora see himself in the future? Well, he’s not really sure. Being in uniform again, teaching or leading, still appeals to him. So does a meaningful role in the front office of a major league club.
“I don’t know if I want to do it in the office or if I want to do it on the field, but I think this is going to help me out with whatever I decide,” he says. “A lot of people used to say, ‘You’re going to manage.’ Well, what if I don’t want to manage? What if I want to be in the office? I think that being around here - although it’s a lesser scale - is going to help me out in whatever I do.”
But a front office role has some distinct advantages.
“You have margin for error,” he explains. “As a manager, you signed that contract and you’re signing that to be fired. But in the office, sometimes you have time to rebuild. You win, you get a lot of mulligans. You can rebuild again. It’s a longer career. Even if you get fired, somebody will hire you because you have the experience. You can be an adviser, an assistant GM. All those people in the front office, they survive a little (longer) than the people on the field.”
His two seasons at the Criollos’ helm have been more successful than he could have imagined. Caguas is currently in the winter league’s round-robin postseason, which will determine Puerto Rico’s entrant in the Caribbean World Series. The results on the field have set the bar high.
“That’s the only way we would have it,” Cora says. “That’s the challenge. People put goals. Nobody’s going to put goals higher for myself than myself. Last year was a challenge, winning it as a rookie. This year, we’re trying to win back-to-back titles. In 75 years as a franchise, we’ve never done it, not with all the great players that have played here.”
The one-on-one interactions between Cora and his players have been both the most enjoyable and most challenging moments for the second-year general manager. Though he’s a hands-on GM, he’s also had to face the harsh realities of the game. And for an affable guy who was always revered as a good teammate, that’s been a sometimes difficult transition.
“It’s been fun, but it’s been a lot tougher this year,” Cora says. “I’ve had to deal with releasing players, suspending players. But that’s part of the growing process. I’m glad it’s happening because I’m learning from it. To make that phone call, to call that guy into the office. Early in the year, I had an import and I had to release him. He understood, but he said, ‘My family’s coming tomorrow - what do I do?’ Inside I was like (gulping), but outside I got a job to do. I’ve been released, I’ve been away from my daughter for a lot of time. That’s part of it.”
Pitcher Cesar Carrillo, a journeyman who pitched last season for the Sugar Land (Texas) Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League, begged Cora for a chance to pitch in Caguas. Cora finally found a spot for Carrillo, like the GM, a product of the University of Miami. When Carrillo didn’t produce, the two former Hurricanes had a heart-to-heart that ended with Carrillo getting his walking papers.
“For me to call him and tell him, ‘We got to get rid of you,’ that’s tough. But that’s part of the job,” Cora said.
But there are good parts to his new gig, too. Former major leaguer Joel Pineiro has been pitching for los Leones de Ponce. Even though Pineiro is on an opposing team, Cora has been impressed with how the 35-year-old has been throwing. So Cora has been contacting baseball scribes like Peter Gammons and Ken Rosenthal to stump for some publicity for Pineiro.
Last winter, when former Expo Javy Vasquez was pitching well for Caguas and talking comeback, Cora took the lead in phoning Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, Rangers GM Josh Daniels and Cubs GM Theo Epstein to talk Vasquez up.
Cora strongly believes that social media is an important tool, and he’s used Twitter and Facebook to reach out to his fan base. The Criollos broadcast their home games on local radio and the Internet, and Cora is a dedicated tweeter who also engages fans on the team’s Facebook page.
But the efforts haven’t added more fans in the stands. On Friday night, a crowd of less than 1,000 was on hand for the game against Carolina, a 4-3 walk-off win by the home team after a bases-loaded walk capped a two-run bottom of the ninth. When the Criollos recently offered local Little Leaguers free admission if they wore their uniforms to the game, Cora says only 35 youth players showed up.
“I know we still love baseball, we still follow it and fans are not coming,” he said. “We’re doing a lot. If it’s enough, we don’t know. But at least we’re trying. If it’s 600 fans, we’re doing our best to please those 600.”
Cora strongly disputes the notion that the prevalence of televised games during Major League Baseball’s regular season has hurt winter ball in Puerto Rico. Some of his countrymen believe that the game is too over-exposed, as opposed to a generation ago, when some of the top names in the game played on the island each offseason to large crowds who didn’t have the benefit of watching hundreds of televised games during the major league campaign.
“We can’t use that as an excuse,” he says. “In Venezuela, they show every game (on TV). In Dominican Republic, they show every game. They have crowds there.”
But winter ball in those countries also features some of the best young players, and that’s where Cora thinks Major League Baseball could be helping Puerto Rico more than it does. He doesn’t understand why teams won’t send some of their best prospects to Puerto Rico, where they can amass at-bats, learn to handle sinkers and cutters, listen to veteran players in the dugout, bullpen and on long bus rides that build camaraderie and constitution. Instead, he’s confused as to why some major league clubs allow their teenage players to beg off, complaining of being tired after a minor league season instead of using the winter to refine their game or learn a new position that might hasten their ascension to the big leagues.
“These 150 at-bats here is free for (major league teams). I’m paying for it. So why not let them play? Maybe it makes too much sense,” Cora says. “Winter ball can’t be that bad for those guys. It’s not about helping me out and letting me win. It’s about them getting better.”
A special thank-you: I couldn’t have traveled to Caguas to meet with Cora without the help of Luis Dominguez, my cousin Kristen’s husband and my island-based transportation while I’ve been in Puerto Rico for the past week. Better yet, he’s an astute fan and I’ve enjoyed talking baseball with him and sharing diamond memories while we watched teams from Liga de Beisbol Professional Roberto Clemente play ball.