FORT MYERS, FLA. – The home clubhouse at Fenway Park was never known as a welcoming place for working members of the visiting press. Plus, I don’t think the Red Sox often had a reputation as being sweethearts toward New England’s wordsmiths.
My first year on the Twins beat was in 1974, when the Red Sox finished third in the AL East at 84-78 and the Twins finished third in the AL West at 82-80. Jim Rice debuted with the Red Sox in mid-August and went 0-for-4 in two games vs. the Twins. Fred Lynn didn’t arrive until September and didn’t play against the Twins.
The next season Lynn and Rice became the greatest rookie combination of position players since the start of the expansion era (1961). Lynn batted .331 with 21 home runs and 105 RBI. Rice batted .309 with 22 home runs and 102 RBI.
The Red Sox went to the World Series and lost in seven games to Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. There was only first place on Rookie of the Year ballots, and Lynn received 23½ votes and split one with Rice.
The Twins first played the Red Sox on the last weekend of May at Met Stadium. In the weekend games, Lynn and Rice went 8-for-17 with three home runs, five RBI and Boston scored 23 runs. That became the norm when the Twins faced the Sox of Lynn and Rice.
One clear memory: Rather than jumping in and out of the batting cage, the Red Sox regulars would swing for five minutes. Watching Lynn and Rice pummel the wall, clear the wall, reach the bullpen in back-to-back BP was frightening.
Almost as fraught with danger as attempting to get a few quotes in the postgame clubhouse. Fairly soon, Rice specialized in dismissiveness and Lynn in condescension.
Maybe they were both claustrophobic in that clubhouse. Whatever the reason then, and through roster makeovers that followed, the Red Sox would have had a dynasty over the next quarter-century if there was an annual media vote for worst clubhouse vibe.
That’s the background that makes it impressive to see what Alex Cora offers as Red Sox manager. The 43-year-old from Puerto Rico not only is 1-for-1 in managing World Series winners; he could be the best guy in baseball when it comes to dealing with people.
There was a scene that has become part of Red Sox lore from the early morning hours of Oct. 27, 2018. Boston lost Game 3 of the Series to the Dodgers after 18 innings and 7 hours, 20 minutes of emotion in Dodger Stadium.
The players trudged in and milled around, and then Cora took over. He told the players of the pride he had in them for the battle shown in this marathon. He mentioned Nathan Eovaldi’s six stout innings as the last available pitcher.
The Red Sox rose to give Eovaldi a standing ovation, and it was so emotional that fellow pitcher Rick Porcello told reporters that he was crying. The Red Sox slept fast, won the next two in Los Angeles and came home as World Series champions for the fourth time since 2004.
On Thursday, Nick Cafardo, the outstanding baseball columnist from the Boston Globe, collapsed outside the home clubhouse at the Red Sox’ JetBlue Stadium and was pronounced dead two hours later. He was 62 and this was a shock to all parties.
The hostile times in the Red Sox clubhouse had been put behind earlier in the winning 2000s, first with Grady Little, and then with the great Terry Francona. I sat in on Cora’s opening media session for spring training in mid-February and enjoyed the enthused candor.
On Friday, Cora walked into the small interview room for his daily session and he spent seven minutes talking from the heart about Cafardo. No questions; just Cora’s thoughts about a baseball writer who had moved him with a previous piece about Alex losing his father at age 13.
Cora might be a terrific guy, but that’s not to be confused with an easy rider. Dustin Pedroia has gone from the Red Sox star second baseman to playing three games in 2018 because of a badly damaged left knee. Asked about “going easy” with Pedroia this spring, Cora said:
“We’re going to take care of him, but we have to know what we got, too. We have to know how he will play; if he can play one day and bounce back the next.”
Pedroia will start playing exhibitions the second week of March. If he can’t bounce back, Cora and the Red Sox will move on, which you can do with a team that won 108 games and a World Series without him.