This article was first published on the website of WBUR 90.0FM, Boston's NPR News Station on Oct. 5. Listen to it here.
CAGUAS, Puerto Rico –When he gets a text message from Alex Cora, Joseamid Rodriguez is all goosebumps. He pulls out his phone to show a recent text exchange with the Red Sox manager, in which Rodriguez congratulates Cora for clinching a spot in the playoffs, then pulls up his arm to prove he gets goosebumps.
“He’s a person who always answers our texts, and it makes you feel so proud,” he says. “When a friend writes who now has such a high position as manager of the Red Sox — my hairs are standing right now!”
Rodriguez owns The Wings, a sports bar in Cora’s hometown of Caguas, about 20 miles south of San Juan. On the wall is a signed Cora baseball cap, alongside jerseys from current and former Puerto Rican ballplayers across the major leagues: Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltrán, Roberto Alomar.
There’s also signed jerseys from Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams. That’s because Rodriguez is a big Yankees fan.
But he says he swells with pride having Cora as a friend.
“He knows very well that I’d support him, even though unfortunately my team is the Yankees,” he says with a belly laugh. “But that dynamic, that rivalry will always exist.”
This year Rodriguez wants Cora and the Red Sox to win the World Series. After that he’ll go back to rooting for the guys in pinstripes.
To casual baseball fans in Boston, Cora is a new household name. He played on the 2007 team that won a World Series — more of a role player than a star.
But on the island, and especially in Caguas, he’s one of the biggest names in the sport. Rodriguez calls 2017 “the year of Alex Cora”: He led the Crillos de Caguas, a winter league team, to a Caribbean title, and Puerto Rico to second place in the World Baseball Classic; and he was bench coach on the World Series champion Houston Astros.
Cora took the helm of the Red Sox last fall and did something few people expected: He led the team to the greatest number of wins in Sox history. For some Puerto Ricans, that moment was akin to another in the island’s baseball lore: in 1972, when Roberto Clemente notched his 3,000th career hit.
Clemente is the be-all-end-all of Puerto Rican baseball. There’s a stadium erected in his name in San Juan, and statues all over the island. A guy I met on our flight to Puerto Rico said if Cora wins a World Series as manager, Caguas will have statues to him the way the municipality of Carolina has statues to its native son Clemente.
David Lebron is a cook at The Wings, where Cora often eats when home in Caguas. With a Red Sox cap on, he whips up Cora’s favorite dish: churrasco con arroz mamposteao (skirt steak with rice and beans), and he says it’s only a matter of time before Cora achieves Clemente-level status.
“I’ll be one of the first ones to take a picture with [his statue],” Lebron says. “If he keeps accomplishing great things in baseball, he will get to that level. Maybe Clemente, maybe better.”
Clemente’s 3,000th hit was tragically his last. He died in a plane crash three months later while delivering supplies to Nicaragua in the wake of a devastating earthquake.
The parallel is noteworthy: At 42, Cora started his major league managing career with a relief mission to Puerto Rico.
When he was hired, much of the island was still without power after Hurricanes Irma, then Maria. As part of his job guarantees he got the Red Sox to donate money and supplies to the hardest-hit areas of Caguas.
A year later in the neighboring town of La Mesa, officials say the team contributed more to the recovery than any other institution.
In a boxing gym at the sports complex where Red Sox stars doled out baseball gear to the local youth, amateur boxer Carolin Camacho Flores talks about Cora as she prepares for her next fight.
“For me, he’s a fighter, a person who made it in spite of the obstacles,” she says.
And Camacho says he’s making history with the Red Sox — and that means a lot to people still frustrated on an island struggling to recover from two hurricanes.
Back in the city, Caguas resident Ismael Cruz says Cora has shifted the focus from all the bad news around the anniversary of the hurricanes. He says the devastation is painful to think about, but on Sept. 20 — the one-year anniversary of when Hurricane Maria made landfall — the Sox clinched the American League East.
“It’s almost like the Crillos de Caguas had won,” he says.
This story was aired by WBUR 90.9FM on Oct. 5. The Reporter and WBUR have a partnership in which the two news organizations share content.