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Mudville: November 28, 2020 1:28 pm PDT
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Walking Into Walls

Let me tell you a story to start The Story.

This happened back in 2010, during a mid-July series in Arizona. Yeah, Arizona in the dead of summer. It’s a dry heat, though, and making the long blacktop walk from the parking garage over the railroad tracks down the roadway to the back entrance of Chase Field in those days was like walking through a blast furnace.

The Mets were finishing up a West Coast trip against the Diamondbacks. When the Mets left for the trip that would take them to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Phoenix, they were 48-40.

When they returned home to Citi Field they were 50-48, a 2-8 disaster. In June they played .692 baseball. In July they sunk to a .346 winning percentage.

Every Mets fan knows about that sinking feeling as Jerry Manuel’s club finished in fourth place with a 79-83 record. On this particular night, starter Mike Pelfrey could not make it out of the second inning, a 13-2 loss. The Diamondbacks got 11 hits… with runners in scoring position.

This was back in the day when hitters actually tried to make contact with runners on base and not just swing from their ass.

First things first, the media enjoyed dealing with Pelfrey. He was a nice guy with an easy smile and would not duck tough questions.

And on this night after such a blowout loss, Pelfrey knew he stunk and admitted it to reporters.

Soon in the quiet locker room, though things got a little lighter as Pelfrey – again, he had a good relationship with reporters – started talking to writers about a pickup basketball game.

I was in the back left of the scrum. After a lifetime in locker rooms and clubhouses I could sense the talk was getting a little too jovial, considering how badly the Mets had just been beaten that night.

After all, part of the code is that players must show disappointment after such a loss. At least a little disappointment.

I slowly turned away from the crowd as the talk grew louder and began to distance myself from the rest of the reporters. From my vantage point I could see across the room into the food room and the clubhouse exit near the front of the room.

Here is how the postgame interview process works. We don’t just dash from player to waiting player after a game to ask questions. There is some downtime between interviews, you find a place to wait for players you want to talk to until they arrive at their lockers.

Usually players hang out in the food room, kind of a cool down period. In days of yore when I first started covering the Padres in 1988, long tables used to be set up in the clubhouse for postgame food, especially in visiting clubhouses. No food rooms. Players referred to that as the postgame spread and reporters were not allowed to get anywhere near the spread.

You kept your distance and at the appropriate time you would follow the player back to his cubicle as he carried his paper plate filled with food and asked your questions between bites. It was a much faster process than now. You used to be in and out of clubhouses much quicker than today’s writers, that is in pre-Covid days when writers were allowed in clubhouses. You did your job and got the hell out.

This year it was a Zoom world.

“There can’t be anyone in that clubhouse that has an issue with him or something bad to say about him.’’ – Xander Boegarts

Before 2020, with the advent of fancy food rooms and lounge areas, there was no set time for a player to return to his locker. So there is much more standing around time.

Now you have a better understanding of the lay of the clubhouse. And one other point, in baseball they are clubhouses. In football they are locker rooms. Got all that?

So, on this night at Chase Field I began to distance myself from the group session with Pelfrey that was beginning to get a little too happy after an 11-run loss. I could sense discomfort in the room.

Then, out of the corner of my eye I could see Alex Cora making his way to the exit on the other side of the room. Cora was in the last few years of his 14-year career and came to the Mets to offer some veteran leadership and help establish a culture.

I could see that Cora was locked onto the happy noise emanating from Pelfrey’s locker. And I do mean locked on. He was not happy.

“Hey, how about showing some respect,’’ Cora turned and yelled across the room at his teammate Pelfrey and the group.

In other words, “We just got our asses handed to us, we are about to finish a terrible road trip so pipe down.’’

Again, I had seen all this coming and had moved away from the group. I wasn’t going to get yelled at.

But I didn’t expect to see what was coming next. To get out of the clubhouse you have to make a hard right past the food room and several lockers. That leads to a foyer with the exit into the large circular hallway that will take you to the elevators and out of Chase Field. A quick right, a quick left and out. Cora was so fired up, so locked in on the disruption of clubhouse culture – again, you don’t yuck it up after such a beating – that he turned his head back to look at Pelfrey as he spoke.

Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran while playing together on the New York Mets

As a result, he missed the opening for the exit and walked smack into the cinderblock wall.

Cora essentially showed he would walk into a cinderblock wall to make sure the proper tone in a clubhouse was set. Of course, he didn’t mean to do that, but he had The Ass (which is one of my favorite baseball terms).

He lost his bearings, but the message was not lost. The room went silent.

Cora could have just as easily said nothing and walked out of the room and into the hot Arizona night and made his way to the Scottsdale nightlife. But he wanted to make sure that clubhouse etiquette was followed.

He made his point. Even though he walked into a wall.

Here we are 10 years later and for the most part, the Mets still can’t get out of their own way although with Steve Cohen taking over as owner, good days should be ahead if the right moves are made and the right players come to Citi Field. Sandy Alderson swept Brodie Van Wagenen & Co. out of office on Friday so we will see where this all of this leads.

But this Story is not about the Mets. This is about Alex Cora and where he goes from here. The leadership he will offer following the cheating scandal in Houston, where he was the bench coach as the Astros won the World Series in 2017. The next year he moved to manager of the Red Sox and won the World Series again. That was followed by the disappointment of the 2019 season, the collapse of the pitching staff, and Cora’s subsequent suspension for the 2020 season. Now Cora is back as Red Sox manager after his nine-month sabbatical.

That is the move that had to be made by Boston. Cora knows the landscape, the players wanted him back.

Argue all you want, but Alex Cora is back at the helm in Boston

Essentially Cora walked into a cinderblock wall with the suspension. But like former Astros manager A.J. Hinch who was instantly hired by the Tigers when his MLB suspension came to an end, the Red Sox could not wait to hire Cora back when his suspension was lifted because of his acute baseball knowledge and strong relationship with those Red Sox players. Those players desperately wanted Cora to return and made that clear as their 2020 Covid-shortened season was one hot mess.

The Red Sox have a new head of baseball operations in Chaim Bloom and certainly he had to give his blessings to bring Cora back after a meeting in Puerto Rico but it’s clear Red Sox ownership wanted Cora back as manager. And that’s all that matters.

Cora, 45, is ready to roll and accept that he did wrong.

Owners make these kinds of managerial calls these days and I have no issue with it. They own the teams, they can do what they want just as Cohen is doing now that he is in charge of the Mets.

And if you have a problem with Cora returning as manager, then your problem is not with Cora or with me for endorsing Cora, your problem is with MLB and Rob Manfred for suspending him only one season. Once Cora was eligible to come back the Red Sox were taking him back. It’s that’s simple.

Cora did the time. He will have to wear his Scarlet Letter. He walked into a wall but now has the chance to do his thing again and manage the Red Sox to success and learn from his mistake. I’m all for it. The Red Sox are better with Alex Cora at the helm. The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is better with Alex Cora facing off against Aaron Boone. Cora’s competitive streak is strong and it was a bit sad to see the Red Sox turn into a lifeless bunch of losers in 2020.

Baseball needs the Red Sox – Yankees rivalry to be the real thing. The Rays are a worthy opponent for the Yankees, but it is just not the same as Yankees – Sox. It’s like comparing the Trop and Fenway Park. There is no comparison. And Cora brings the Cheatin’ baggage that fires up Yankee fans. His history with the Astros immediately pisses off Yankee fans. Add the Red Sox to the mix and this is an epic rivalry again.

A.J. Hinch (left) and Alex Cora were hired immediately after their suspensions were lifted.

All the Red Sox players wanted Cora back and you can be sure Red Sox ownership was not about to give this job to an unproven commodity like Sam Fuld.

Players like J.D. Martinez wanted Cora back and so did Rafael Devers and mostly Xander Bogaerts.

But bringing Cora is back only Step 1 for the Red Sox.

Step 2 is equally as important. Here’s hoping the Red Sox step up to the financial plate, too.

The Red Sox can restore this rivalry to past glories with the simplest of moves, a no brainer.

Now that Cora is back, fix the pitching staff that went through 16 different starters in a 60-game season by signing free agent Trevor Bauer. Bauer, who will win the NL Cy Young Award is a natural for Boston. In some ways he’s a bit like Bill (Spaceman) Lee. He is not afraid to say anything. He is not afraid of any challenge on the mound and while he’s tweeted about pitching for teams like the Mets, Dodgers and Yankees, if he went to Red Sox Nation, it would be the perfect fit.

Much has been made about his UCLA rivalry with Gerrit Cole. The Rivalry would be off the charts if Bauer went to Boston. That would be a matchup made for Sunday Night Baseball. Bauer vs. Cole. There is no love lost between the two and now they could battle one another head to head, resurrecting baseball’s best rivalry.

MLB is going to need something big to get out of this 2020 funk.

Fans are fed up with being lectured to each and every game by analytic freaks and why this move or that move makes sense.

Why this pitch or that pitch should be called. Framing, exit velo, run prevention and all the other overused terms. Most of all, they are frustrated by really bad moves made by managers in conjunction with meddling front offices, moves that makes absolutely no sense (see World Series Game 6). Fans are worn out by the constant pitching changes, the inability of starting pitchers to get halfway through a game and the length of games.

What better way to bring the game back to basics than Cole vs. Bauer and in a way, it would serve two purposes. Those who love talking about spin rate and sequencing will be satisfied too. Cole can talk pitching all day long and the science of pitching.

Same goes for the new-age Bauer. He loves Driveline Baseball and Texas Baseball Ranch and weighted baseballs. He has gone from a Tim Lincecum style of pitching to being his own man, constantly adding new pitches like a slider that moves crazy laterally. He has personality and has built a brand. He has come a long way from his drone days in Cleveland.

Bauer also could decide to split New York City with Cole. Cole got the $324 million Yankees deal, let’s see if the Mets and Cohen go big after Bauer. It would be the Battle of New York. Bauer will be the key to this offseason.

And here is the best part, Bauer Outage has challenged Cole in the past about his use of pine tar to up his spin rate.The two have been rivals since they were co-aces at UCLA. A few years ago Rick Vanderhook, a former UCLA assistant coach, who is the coach at Cal State Fullerton, told my friend Bob Nightengale about the two ever becoming real friends: “I would have to say the odds of the earth burning up are better than that. That’s not going to happen. It’s just not. They are opposites, just complete opposites.’’

Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole as teammates with the UCLA Bruins. Can these two take their rivalry to another level?

Vanderhook went on to say, “Bauer was the professor. He did analytical stuff, trying to see how many revolutions the ball had, before they started paying these guys all this money to do analytics. Gerrit was the bear, just come out trying to throw 100 mph on every pitch. And you don’t ever want to poke the bear.’’

Bauer is a bear poker. He’s also become the bear. Any team that lands him will immediately upgrade their rotation and their profile.

If Cora has Bauer in his rotation he would not be shy talking about success. The Red Sox pitching must be upgraded or Cora will have little chance to bring the Red Sox back from the dead.

It was Bogaerts who led the charge for Cora’s return from the beginning, saying, “There can’t be anyone in that clubhouse that has an issue with him or something bad to say about him.’’

Because of his involvement in the Astros electronic sign-stealing scandal there will be plenty of people who have something bad to say about Cora. There also was the issue of the Red Sox decoding signs in the video room by video system operator J.T. Watkins and feeding that information to the players. That came under Cora’s watch.

Who knows what goes on in all these video rooms throughout baseball and MLB needs to get a better handle on that situation.

For now though, interest in the game has to be raised. Rivalries have to become a thing again. Over in the National League West the Padres and World Champion Dodgers are building a nice little SoCal rivalry.

In the AL East the Red Sox and the Yankees need to become a huge rivalry again and getting Alex Cora back as manager is a fine start.

44+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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