Tony La Russa took nine years off between seasons in the dugout, serving as a member of the Arizona front office and consultants in Boston and Anaheim. Alex Cora, meanwhile, had a forced sabbatical of just one year, spent at home in Puerto Rico.
La Russa's return from the sideline has gotten more attention nationally. It's not often, after all, that a 76-year-old Hall of Famer comes out of retirement to manage again. But the return of Cora has been, from a distance, a highlight of the 2021 season for La Russa.
When Cora was a managerial rookie in 2018, he leaned on La Russa for guidance. By then, La Russa had already won better than 2,700 games, three championships and six pennants. Former director of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski thought La Russa would be a good resource for the inexperienced Cora, and the two hit it off famously.
Instead of worrying that a managerial legend was looking over his shoulder or second-guessing his in-game moves, Cora wisely used La Russa as a mentor, with sage advice to offer on strategy, building relationships with players, delegating authority to his coaching staff and dealing with front office executives.
Now, they're both back in the dugout for 2021, facing each other this weekend for the first time as managerial rivals, and La Russa is thrilled that Cora is back doing the job he loves most.
"I was a fan before I even got (to Boston),'' La Russa told BostonSportsJournal.com, "I knew quite a bit about him from people that I trusted and then I had my own chance to observe him as a rookie manager. The decision-making that he had, he was very positive and he did what he thought was best, which is always a key in this league -- you trust your guys; you don't cover your butt. I think the fact that (the Red Sox) are playing well is no surprise. He checks all the boxes you look for in a manager.''
During the 2020 season, with La Russa working for the Angels and Cora in exile with his family in Puerto Rico, La Russa would periodically check in via text every few weeks, "just to keep in touch.''
La Russa knew that Cora was enduring a tough year, removed from the game he loves and unable to be involved.
"He's a baseball man,'' said La Russa. "He grew up in Puerto Rico, and that place, it's like going to graduate school when you're in kindergarten (for baseball). And he had his (playing) career, particularly here in Boston. I always point, as an example, how he was with (Dustin) Pedroia (in 2007) -- he did all he could to make Pedroia as good as he could be and sometimes that would cut into his own playing time. You say, 'Geez, he's got all the qualities you want for a coach or a manager. Like I said, he checks all the boxes.''
In the first two and a half weeks of the season, the Red Sox have built the best record in the American League and more than half their wins have been of the comeback variety. The 2021 Sox have shown some scrap and heart that last year's team exhibited, but La Russa isn't one who believes that teams take on the personality of their manager.
"I've always disputed that,'' he said. "I've always thought that was too easy a way to describe when something's good. I don't think it's ever the personality of the manager. I think a manager contributes, but you contributes as a staff. But the players play the game; they're the ones that have to embrace it and go out there and compete. It's the group, including the coaches and the manager. I think you should compliment the group, rather than the individual.
"I think it's a combination -- Alex and the coaches are contributing.''
While he perhaps didn't foresee Cora leading the Red Sox to 108 wins and a World Series title in his first season as a manager, La Russa, in retrospect, wasn't surprised by the success Cora was able to have right away.