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Awkward ALCS: Back after cheating ban, Red Sox manager Alex Cora faces his Astros co-conspirators

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HOUSTON – Within the arena, Carlos Correa says bring it on.

Correa just celebrated his 27th birthday, remains at the height of his athletic powers and will sign a nine-figure contract soon after completing this playoff run with the Houston Astros.

Never mind that as a protagonist in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, Correa and teammates have been subjected to coast-to-coast venom, sure to ramp up when this American League Championship Series shifts from Minute Maid Park to cozy, soused-up Fenway Park.

“Define tough,” Correa says Thursday when asked whether this 2021 Astros walk of shame that saw trash cans tossed on the field in Yankee Stadium, among other indignities, was inherently challenging.

“I don’t think it’s tough. I think it’s great. Because for us, it’s been fun, just going on the road, playing great baseball, showing people that we are really a good team.”

Outside the white lines, in his perch in the opposing dugout, Alex Cora winces.

Cora, the Boston Red Sox manager, has known Correa since the shortstop and fellow Puerto Rican was in high school. As the Astros bench coach, he was a significant mentor to Correa and other core members of the 2017 World Series champions whose title glow dissipated two years later, when this century’s worst baseball scandal not involving syringes was revealed.

Cora did not bang a trash can, but he bats leadoff in the commissioner’s report on the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme as a key architect of the illicit, electronic acts. He’s added a World Series title as manager since, with the 2018 Red Sox, was banned one year and then re-hired by the Red Sox, reestablishing his chops with a surprising 92-win season and another deftly managed playoff run.

He did his time and thus would seemingly avoid some of the scorn laid upon Astros players who, by choice of Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, were not punished in exchange for their candor with MLB investigators.

Yet the boos for Correa, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel and others hit him, too, the guilt enveloping him like a parent who failed his children.

“We put ourselves in this situation,” Cora said on the eve of Game 1 of this ALCS, shifting deftly between the “we” of the 2017 Astros and the “I” as manager of the 2021 Red Sox.

“And for those that think it's in the past, no, we live it every day. I live it every day.”

Manager Alex Cora has led the Red Sox to the ALCS.
Manager Alex Cora has led the Red Sox to the ALCS.

Scorn and support

To the most cynical, this is the ALCS only a mother could love.

For the third time in five years, the Red Sox and Astros meet in the postseason, though it will be the first ostensibly unstained meeting. In the 2017 AL Division Series, Jose Altuve blasted three home runs off Chris Sale in Game 1. Two years later, it was revealed the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal stretched into the postseason.

In between, the ’18 Red Sox won but not without getting ensnared in their own sign-relaying controversy, which ultimately claimed the job of a member of their video staff.

Cora had already been banished for 2020, and MLB didn’t see the need to pile on as Cora served his time alongside former Astros manager A.J Hinch – hired before this season to manage the Detroit Tigers – and former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, who remains out of baseball.

LOVE STORY: Astros may never silence the boos despite a fifth straight ALCS trip

REPUTATION: Dusty Baker responds to Ryan Tepera's cheating suggestion

Hinch and Luhnow were targeted as middle-management leaders who should have known better. Cora was more the bag man.

“Cora,” according to Manfred’s report on the matter, based on testimony from players and others, “arranged for a video room technician to install a monitor displaying the center field camera feed immediately outside of the Astros’ dugout. … One or more players watched the live feed of the center field camera on the monitor, and after decoding the sign, a player would bang a nearby trash can with a bat to communicate the upcoming pitch type to the batter.

“Witnesses consistently describe this new scheme as player-driven, and with the exception of Cora, non-player staff, including individuals in the video replay review room, had no involvement in the banging scheme.”

The set-up – crude yet elaborate at the same time – launched years of revisionist history and parsing of Astros home and road statistics. Meanwhile, the Astros came within one win of another World Series title in 2019 – on the up-and-up, so far as the public knows – and then recast the highest levels of the organization before the 2020 season.

Into the breach stepped Dusty Baker, now 72 and the manager of playoff teams for five franchises. He has walked something of a tightrope in his two seasons at the helm, prodding and defending his players at the risk of lionizing them for facing the consequences of their misdeeds.

Yet the results speak for themselves: A fourth and fifth consecutive trip to the ALCS, falling just a game short of a third World Series trip in four seasons during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

“After what these guys went through, you are always cognizant of the mental and spiritual condition of the club,” Baker said Thursday. “But this is an extremely strong, close-knit group of guys, and they lean on each other for support.”

If nothing else, they can play.

Correa and Altuve – along with George Springer, now a Toronto Blue Jay – are among the greatest performers in postseason history, Correa equaling Albert Pujols with his 54th RBI, good for sixth all-time, in their ALDS conquest of the Chicago White Sox. Altuve smacked his 19th career playoff homer to tie Pujols and Springer for fourth on that list.

They along with first baseman Yuli Gurriel and third baseman Alex Bregman are the central figures who remain from ’17.

They’ve also combined for 11 All-Star appearances, five top-10 MVP finishes and Rookie of the Year and MVP honors.

“It's one of the best infields in history, offensively and defensively,” Baker says.

While the 2017 Astros’ home/road splits weren’t wildly different – they actually had a better OPS (.834 to .812) and hit more home runs (123-115) away from Minute Maid Park – there were enough specific instances in the regular season and playoffs, either with video and audio evidence or highly circumstantial, to suggest a strong benefit from the scheme.

The past two seasons, then, have been a referendum on both the players’ mental resolve and their actual baseball skills. The returns have been relatively overwhelming.

In a 2020 postseason played entirely on the road or at neutral sites, the Astros won eight of 13 games and nearly overcame a 3-0 deficit to beat the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALCS. This year, back to a 162-game schedule, the home-road effect again was negligible, with a .722 home OPS and .718 on the road, while they again hit more home runs away from Minute Maid (40-29).

Yet White Sox reliever Ryan Tepera’s unfounded accusation of cheating during the ALDS kicked open the wounds. The Astros chose to ignore it until they didn’t, exploding for 10 runs in the series clincher at Chicago and crowing a bit after.

“We play great baseball at home, and on the road,” Correa said Thursday. “It’s been fun fighting the fans on the road and having a good time with it.”

The friction in this series – internally and externally – will be fascinating to observe.

Astros shortstop Carlos Correa hopes to lead Houston to another World Series.
Astros shortstop Carlos Correa hopes to lead Houston to another World Series.

Correa's conviction

Correa joked that his friendship with Cora was shut down already in anticipation of the ALCS. Cora was a little more generous, saying they’d cut each other off in about 12 hours, Friday morning.

Yet the bonds are unbreakable. Cora said he texted with Correa’s father Thursday, noting that this was exactly what they envisioned for him before the Astros chose him No. 1 overall in 2012.

“You know, there's a lot of conviction behind him,” says Cora. “He is very firm on what he believes, and he is a great player. And you're not 1-1 in the draft because you're lucky. You're 1-1 because you're good and people expect you to be great, and that's what he is.

“He means a lot to me, and I'm very proud of him.”

So Cora may wince a bit if the Fenway crowd comes down hard on the opposing shortstop, which would be rather daft given the 2018 Red Sox enjoyed their own illicit gains.

Correa?

He’s never shy to play the villain, particularly when he has the means – such as an .850 OPS this season, 1.068 against the White Sox – to back it up.

“I think it’s great. I love playing at Fenway,” he says. “It’s one of my favorite ballparks to visit. I just love the atmosphere there. I think the fans know the game so well. They know your stats, they’re calling you out on it, they know every single aspect of your life.

“I just love to see fans that actually study the game, understand the game and just go out and enjoy it.”

Someday, perhaps, they’ll appreciate his body of work. If not, Correa, his teammates and Cora have learned to live without that.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ALCS 2021: Alex Cora, Red Sox meet manager's Astros co-conspirators

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