Nationals utility man Alex Cora had never been released from a ballclub in 11 years as a major leaguer. Then it happened twice last year, by the New York Mets and Texas Rangers. He spent September watching games, waiting for a call and wondering if he was done.
Then he decided to have fun. He played winter ball for Puerto Rico’s Caguas squad - as he’s done every fall since 1996 - but this time was different.
“It was the most enjoyable season because I went there with no agenda,” said Cora, sitting in the Nationals dugout before Thursday’s game against Philadelphia. “I just wanted to play baseball. If I didn’t have a job, oh well. What a great way to end my career, playing winter ball in my hometown like I always do and winning the championship down there.”
Cora said he got a phone call in November, one month after his 35th birthday. It was a general manager inquiring about his services - but not the way Cora wanted. “He said ‘I know you’re playing right now and I hope you’re doing good, but if you’re going to retire, my Class A team is yours.’
“I said ‘Thanks, but no thanks. I still can help out your big-league club.’
Managing seems like a foregone conclusion for the cerebral veteran, whose brother Joey is the Chicago White Sox bench coach. But Alex still wanted to play and he found a perfect situation in Washington, where he can contribute on the field and tutor young middle infielders Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa.
“I really enjoy watching them play and working with them,” manager Jim Riggleman said of his double-play combination. “But when a veteran player is available to work with them, they probably get more from that than a coach or a manager.”
Cora was around their age when he came up with the Dodgers, and he remembers that not every veteran helped him make the transition. But backups Dave Hansen and Jeff Reboulet took in Cora, who later spent time under the tutelage of Robin Ventura, Jose Hernandez and Olmedo Saenz. Those veterans provided the blueprint that Cora follows.
“I don’t see it as being like a coach,” said Cora, who has started two games and played in five others. “I see it as being a teammate and it comes with the territory. I hope they [Desmond and Espinosa] see it as being an advisor, not trying to get on them. I’m trying to help them out. We watch the game and we talk about the game, and the more you talk about it the better it is for everybody.”
Cora won a World Series ring with the 2007 Boston Red Sox, who featured a rookie second baseman. Though Dustin Pedroia eventually won Rookie of the Year, he began the season splitting time with Cora and was horrible, batting .182 through April. Meanwhile, Cora was torrid, batting .360 with a slugging percentage of .800. Cora was getting most of the time but kept encouraging Pedroia until he lived up to his nickname, “Laser Show.”
“I was having a great season and it could’ve been the best of my career,” said Cora, a lifetime .244 hitter. “But the whole time I understood that we needed that kid to swing the bat the way he was capable and for me to come off the bench. We were better with him playing second base and me being the utility guy.”
“He’s a still a good player,” Riggleman said. “He gives you great at-bats, sees lots of pitches and makes the pitcher work. He draws walks. He has a lot to offer as a player. The sky’s the limit for him as a manager, but he can put that off for a while.”
Whenever he does decide to retire, Cora has planned out his route.
“By that time, Joey’s going to be a manager,” he said. “I’ll be his first-base coach. Then he’ll get fired and I’ll take over.”