I’m not mad that Alex Cora and A.J. Hinch were able to find gainful employment within their chosen field mere days or weeks after their suspensions ended. In fact, I’m not mad at them at all. I don’t know either of them personally, but sign-stealing is a nonviolent crime. And while there’s no evidence about recidivism rates, I imagine public and private scrutiny will impede repeat offenders. Their suspensions lasted exactly as long as they did, and not longer, on purpose; rehabilitation is an important part of justice.
But, as is so often forgotten in the discourse around someone’s return to public life after a scandal, there’s a difference between punitive retribution and literally just logical consequence. I don’t think their association with the 2017 Houston Astros is disqualifying in any way except that it will inevitably invite criticism and columns like this — which is a considerable liability for the face of a team who will have to address the media on a daily basis.
A year after being jettisoned from their roles over MLB’s findings about the 2017 Astros’ brazen sign-stealing scheme, the manager and bench coach who oversaw the scandalous club are back in baseball. Hinch will manage the Detroit Tigers. And as of Friday, Alex Cora will reportedly return to Boston, where he won a World Series and where he was forced to step down even before he was officially suspended after his past caught up to him. Tony La Russa, who oversaw a White Sox team that was credibly accused of stealing signs in the 1980s and a steroid-riddled Oakland A’s clubhouse, is back in Chicago at 76 years old.
It speaks to their track records, the undiminished respect they still garner in certain circles, and that winning still matters above all else. It’s also indicative of — or even an indictment of — the same uncreative groupthink that creates a culture of gatekeeping within the game.
Experts will tell you in one breath how the role of a manager has never been more about liaising between the team and the public, between the front office and the clubhouse. And in the next reiterate as some sort of accepted wisdom that it was inevitable the open opportunities would go to candidates whose sullied reputations will precede any press conference. Whose hiring has to be buried beneath the impending news of a new president, even if it’s embraced by the team itself. That you “shouldn’t be surprised” because it was the “safest choice.”
Cora was a unique case when he was originally hired — one of few Latino managers and the first Puerto Rican to lead his team to a World Series championship. In a sport that’s grown to nearly one-third Latin American, that representation is important. But it’s a form of tokenism to assume Cora is the exception in his ability to manage successfully. After Cora’s Red Sox won in 2018, Dave Martinez, also with Puerto Rican roots, led the Nationals to success the following year. With Cora’s return to the managerial seat, there are four Latin American managers — Rick Renteria would have been the fifth had he not been replaced by La Russa — and even that is disproportionately small compared to the makeup of rosters. If less proven Latino alumni are not given the opportunity to ascend to major league manager, that’s worth interrogating.
It’s a job that entails answering a lot of questions, shouldering a lot of blame, putting a good face on tough times and making the whole operation seem likable. And decision-makers around the game — a group regularly and rightly criticized for their homogeneity — couldn’t find anyone more qualified than three of the most controversial men from baseball’s recent past.
In a sport where the sameness in approach has spoiled so much of the fun, they couldn’t find anyone new anywhere in the industry worth taking a shot on. Irrespective of your feelings (or my feelings) about Cora, Hinch, or La Russa, that’s so disappointing.
La Russa was already serving as a special adviser to the Los Angeles Angels and, had they not been hired/rehired as managers, Cora and Hinch would likely have found similar roles behind the scenes. It’s not merely semantics or willful out-of-sight, out-of-mind to think that would have been preferential.
There’s no point trying to outsmart public perception in filling a public-facing job. The qualifications of Hinch and Cora to lead a team without distracting from the players are definitionally and demonstrably diminished by the scandal, even after the suspensions have been served. That they have to be defended to even a certain segment of critics who haven’t forgotten is proof, even if it’s unfair.
And let’s talk about fair for a moment. Between decimating front-office layoffs and minor league contraction, hundreds of people will be pushed out of baseball’s shrinking ranks this year without having ever served in such a prominent position. Without ever having the heavy responsibility of fan bases learning their names. In some cases, they are baseball lifers waiting for the right combination of circumstances to create an opportunity to show they can do more than they’ve done so far.
Hiring the same people means not giving a chance to someone new. Hiring the same people when there’s a relevant reason not to is a way of doubling down on the existing voices within the game and perpetuating an unnecessary barrier to entry.
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