How Joey Cora pulled Alex along after their father died
How Joey Cora pulled Alex along after their father died
Just one more out, and Joey Cora’s little brother would be a champion. One more out, for a moment of elation and celebration, for reflection, for what they had lost and won together.
Alex Rodriguez was seated right next to Joey Cora, watching the game but also watching Joey watch his brother, Alex Cora. Rodriguez bore an understanding of the depth in the brothers’ relationship, and as much as he was locked in on what was happening on the field, Rodriguez wanted to see Joey’s reaction to Alex Cora’s happiness.
Joey’s grin lifted his cheekbones, his face emitting pride. One more out, and there would be one more reason for the Cora brothers to laugh at that fatherly lecture that the big brother had given the little brother a couple of years before.
One more out.
A swing. A long drive down the right-field line. A ball falling into a forest of outstretched hands on the other side of the fence.
Warren Morris of Louisiana State hit a two-run homer to win the 1996 College World Series, and as Morris joyfully rounded third base, a director in the CBS production truck switched to a close-up shot of Miami’s shortstop, Alex Cora. Joey Cora’s little brother was lying face down, body flattened across the lip of the outfield grass, arms over his head, defeated, sobbing.
About 200 miles away from that scene in Omaha, Nebraska, big league players had gathered around a television in the visitors’ clubhouse in Kansas City — for that weekend, the temporary home of the Seattle Mariners — and they watched this unforgettable end to the College World Series. Including Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez, and second baseman Joey Cora.
Rodriguez turned and glanced at Alex Cora’s big brother.
Joey Cora was weeping.
When Alex Cora was born in 1975, Joey Cora was 10½ years old, and that kind of age gap meant that Joey would hold his little brother as a baby, help care for him, catch him when he’d start to fall in his first steps, play catch with him. That kind of age gap assures an older brother will carry vivid memories at each stage of his sibling’s life, from the first beaming smiles of recognition from an infant lying in the crib to the first tantrums to the first days running across the living room.
That kind of age gap meant that while Joey was a big brother to Alex, in the Cora pecking order of two brothers and two sisters, he represented something more than a mere brother to Alex. Joey was an ideal.
“I still look up to him,” Alex Cora said. “He’s amazing. He’s a guy that sometimes I wish I was as structured as he is. Very smart guy, very smart individual who has a passion not only for baseball but his family.”
They wouldn’t scrap like siblings of similar ages. Rather, the age gap embedded a mutual respect. Joey thrived and Alex followed, watching as his older brother evolved from a youth baseball star to a high-end college prospect. At the direction of Jose Manuel Cora, their father, Joey enrolled at Vanderbilt University, despite the fact that he spoke little English.
A Cora family refrain is that Alex is more like their mother, Iris, at ease in expressing feelings and more engaging in a crowded room, and Joey is more like their father, more serious and sometimes blunt as a sledgehammer, when necessary.
“My father was strong,” Alex Cora recalled. “I mean, he had a presence. Tall, dark guy, dark skin, gray hair. Everybody knew where he was, deep voice, and when he talked, people listened, especially us four kids.” At the park where Alex played as a kid, there was a bench and tree where his father had always stood, and friends tell Alex of their memories of his father and mention that place.
Like their father, Joey was very serious about any task, regimented and tough. If Joey felt anxiety about living in a place or going to a college with which he was unfamiliar, with all those around him speaking a language he didn’t speak fluently, he never dwelled on that. Joey just worked, like their father, strong and serious about each purpose, learning English, attacking academics, setting university records in baseball and improving — always improving. The San Diego Padres drafted him in the first round in 1985, not long after his 20th birthday.
When he was home in Puerto Rico, he watched his little brother. Alex was incredibly bright, Joey thought, incredibly stubborn, and school was a bore for him. Alex loved being outside, through a childhood spent on ballfields with their dad and Joey, and he knew baseball — and was precocious. He was resolute in his belief that he knew more about baseball than just about anybody else, including his coaches.
“He wasn’t afraid,” Joey recalled. “Kids that age, when they’re told to do something, they’ll do it. But he told the manager, ‘This is the way you should do it.’ He was 5 or 6 and he told his coach, ‘I want to hit leadoff.’
“He was always playing against kids that were older, and you know, he thought was better than anybody else. And he was. He never lacked confidence. He’d tell the coach, ‘I want to play second base,’ and later on, he said, ‘I want to play shortstop.'”
Two years after Joey Cora was drafted, he reached the big leagues, playing 77 games for the Padres in 1987. But through Joey’s first months in the big leagues, he bore a larger burden. Their father, Jose Manuel Cora, was sick. With cancer.
In his last months, he pushed Joey emotionally, pushed him to accept more responsibility.
“He was preparing me the whole time to take his role [in the family],” Joey Cora said. “I didn’t know it at the time. I had no idea. Actually, I was kind of like, ‘What the hell. You know you’ve been too tough on me.’ He wasn’t fair.
“He was always strict, but he was even more strict at that time. Then I realized what he was trying to do. He was trying to get me ready for my role, and when he left, I was ready.”
Alex Cora had been shielded from the stark reality of their father’s illness. After his father passed away, his sister reminded him of family trips that she joined, because he was sick. “I had no idea,” Alex recalled.
Not long before his 13th birthday, Alex played a volleyball match, and right after it was over, he was picked up and taken to the hospital. His father wasn’t feeling right, he was told. After the visit, Alex went to bed that night, and at 4 a.m., a neighbor knocked on the Coras’ door. They had to go to the hospital again.
His father was gone.
“A father who took care of you, who was interested in the things that you were interested in. And all of a sudden that is not there,” Iris Cora said. “It was tough for him. I know it was tough.”
Alex Cora committed to play at the University of Miami and left home for the first time for his freshman year. Six weeks after departing his home in Caguas, however, he was deeply homesick. The plan had been for Alex to visit Puerto on weekends, buying round-trip tickets with money saved from the dollars that Joey had sent home. Instead, Alex packed his three suitcases and bought a one-way ticket to San Juan.
“I decided, ‘Nah, you know what? I had enough of this.’ I didn’t feel comfortable in the environment,” Alex recalled.
Regimented as always, Joey called every Sunday when he was in college, and after starting in pro ball, he switched his day to phone home to Monday. Always Monday. For some reason, in those hours after Alex returned to Caguas, the usually consistent and predictable Joey called home on a Thursday. Alex assumes his college coach, Jim Morris, had called Joey to give him a heads-up.
Jose Manuel Cora had prepared his son for a moment like this, a patriarch’s moment.
“What the f— are you doing there?” Joey said to his little brother.
Alex explained how homesick he was, and how he wasn’t going to be able to play shortstop right away at Miami, and that he could play baseball elsewhere.
Joey warned Alex that if he didn’t get on the next plane to Miami, Joey would fly back to Puerto Rico and physically place him on a plane to go back to college.
Joey Cora recalled, “He had no choice. He had to go back. He thought he was a man at that time, but he wasn’t even close; he was learning to be a man.
“He went back and took ownership of his life. And that’s why he was successful.”
“That phone call,” Alex Cora said, “changed the path of my life.”
Alex Cora would go on to star at Miami and was drafted by the Dodgers in the third round in 1996. Two years later, he would make his major league debut — coincidentally, against the Mariners, with Joey standing at second base for Alex’s first at-bat in the big leagues.
Years later, in the fall of 2017, Alex was told he would become the new manager of the Boston Red Sox. His first call was to Joey. “We got it,” he said.
The Cora brothers talked briefly about the idea of Joey joining the coaching staff in Boston, but Joey told his brother that he was happy in Pittsburgh, his family settled. “In many ways because of the respect that Alex has for his brother, that was a big relief for Alex,” said Rodriguez.
In late October, Joey was in the stands in Los Angeles, to see Chris Sale on the mound in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 5 of the World Series. One out to go, and Joey Cora’s little brother would be a champion, again, having been a part of Boston’s 2007 championship, having served as bench coach for the 2017 Houston Astros.
One out to go. Sale threw a slider near the feet of Manny Machado. A swing and miss, and moments later, Alex Cora hoisted the trophy over his head, and watching, Alex’s joy became Joey’s joy. He thought about going to the parade in Boston, about celebrating the Red Sox win, but there was too much of Jose Manuel Cora’s discipline in him for that to happen. As a member of the Pirates organization, he felt that would have been the wrong thing to do, when Pittsburgh is chasing its first title since 1979, and hold its own parade.
No matter the distance in space or time, however, the bond between the Cora brothers persists. This spring, Joey Cora was in Bradenton, Fla., at the Pirates’ spring training site, answering questions about that last day of the 1996 College World Series.
He recalled how he had gotten to the visitors’ clubhouse in Kansas City early to get breakfast, seize the best seat and watch Alex. His remembered how his little brother hit a double to give Miami the lead, and how Mariners teammates who watched good-naturedly gave Joey a hard time. “He might have been the MVP,” Joey said this spring. “He had a hell of a series, and they were going to win.”
One more out. One last swing. Warren Morris changed everything, and Alex collapsed on the infield.
Twenty-three years later, Joey Cora recalled that moment, and his eyes started to fill with tears again. For the little brother he loves.
June 2, 2019 at 07:20AM