Without Betts and Cora, Ron Roenicke Embraces Red Sox’s Challenges

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Roenicke was promoted to interim manager less than 24 hours before Boston had its first spring training workout. He has his work cut out for him after a winter of turmoil.

Without Betts and Cora, Ron Roenicke Embraces Red Sox’s Challenges
Ron Roenicke, at 63, became the fourth-oldest manager in M.L.B.Credit...John Bazemore/Associated Press

FORT MYERS, Fla. — When Ron Roenicke played his final major league game, for the Cincinnati Reds in 1988, his manager was serving a lengthy suspension. Pete Rose had shoved an umpire, forcing the league to take action. History has a way of repeating itself.

Roenicke, 63, is the new interim manager of the Boston Red Sox, taking the job less than 24 hours before the team’s first workout for pitchers and catchers on Wednesday. Roenicke, who had been the team’s bench coach, found his usual locker empty when he arrived at the Red Sox’s spring training facility. His clothes had been moved to the old office of his former boss, Alex Cora.

Cora was fired — and is still facing the prospect of more punishment from M.L.B. — for his role in the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scheme, which helped them win the World Series in 2017, when he was a coach there. Cora won another title the next season, as Red Sox manager, but Boston fired him on Jan. 14 after Commissioner Rob Manfred cited him as instrumental to the Astros’ operation.

The scandal cost two other managers their jobs: Houston’s A.J. Hinch and the Mets’ Carlos Beltran. The Astros hired Dusty Baker and the Mets promoted Luis Rojas to manager, but the Red Sox were the last to fill their vacancy for two reasons: They are also being investigated by M.L.B. over charges of sign-stealing in 2018, and they were busy trading their franchise player. This is the situation Roenicke inherited, on the eve of spring training workouts.

“You cannot replace Mookie Betts,” Roenicke said on Wednesday. “This is one of the best players I’ve seen. We’re not going to do that. But other guys can pick up their game and we can still put it together and do the same kind of thing.”

Betts and starter David Price now play for the Los Angeles Dodgers — the team they helped beat in the 2018 World Series — as part of a protracted trade that was finalized on Monday. In return the Red Sox got salary relief and three players: outfielder Alex Verdugo, the infield prospect Jeter Downs and the catching prospect Connor Wong.

Downs — yes, his mother was a Derek Jeter fan — was about to leave from Miami for Dodgers camp when he was rerouted.

“I was on the way to the airport going to Arizona to report to spring training and they called me and told me what’s happening,” Downs said. “It’s pretty cool to be a part of something this big, but you’ve still got to go out and play baseball. I try not to think of it like that big of a deal.”

It was a big deal, of course, and it will reverberate for years. How will the prospects develop? How will ownership use the financial flexibility they have deemed so essential? The players’ impact can at least be quantified, but what will the clubhouse miss about Cora, a young leader who had seemed to fit so well?

“Everything,” catcher Christian Vazquez said. “He brings a lot of good things to this team in his two years. He’s a great person; he’s my friend forever. I knew him before Boston, we’ve got a good relationship. But this is baseball.”

And these days, baseball is more complicated than ever, with the explosion of data emerging as a force for innovation but also temptation. Roenicke is less known for analytical savvy and more for a breadth of experience few peers can match. Only three major league managers — Baker, the Los Angeles Angels’ Joe Maddon and the Atlanta Braves’ Brian Snitker — are older.

Roenicke played for two World Series teams managed by Hall of Famers: Tommy Lasorda’s 1981 Dodgers and Dick Williams’s 1984 San Diego Padres. He coached for the Angels’ championship team in 2002 and nearly won a pennant in 2011 with the Milwaukee Brewers, whose cornerstone, Ryan Braun, was later found to have failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs.

“I really enjoy challenges,” Roenicke said. “The experiences make it way easier to get through the challenges. When I was in Milwaukee, going through the Ryan Braun thing with his suspension, that was half a year of basically every day answering questions about it.

“Knowing what the players feel like, going through different trials helps me to talk to them. The good thing about the players is, when you’re younger, you’re pretty resilient and you get through things way easier,” he added. “You all know how I feel about Alex and I’ve said a lot about that, and these players certainly feel the same way. But they’ll bounce out of this pretty quickly. They’re so focused on what they need to do to get their game right that the outside stuff doesn’t worry them.”

Roenicke, likewise, said he was not concerned about potential club sanctions from M.L.B.’s investigation, and the Red Sox clearly do not expect him to face any personal discipline. The bigger question for Roenicke is how to wring more from a team that won only 84 games last season — and then traded away two stars.

The Dodgers deal seemed inevitable, in hindsight. Boston’s principal owner, John Henry, said publicly that he hoped to reset the team’s luxury tax rate, and hired a top lieutenant from the frugal Tampa Bay Rays, Chaim Bloom, to run baseball operations.

Roenicke brings continuity from the Cora years, and right field will not be barren without Betts: Verdugo has plenty of talent, and the veteran Kevin Pillar, a star defender, is headed to Boston as a free agent. But almost half of the 2018 World Series roster is gone now, and there is no replacing Betts’s talent and soul.

Betts now plays at Dodger Stadium, where Vazquez jumped into Chris Sale’s arms after the final out in 2018, but his six years in Boston leave a lasting imprint.

“He brought a lot of memories to us, all those years,” Vazquez said. “He brought a World Series ring. He was a very special player for us. He’s going to be a champion for life.”

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