03/15/12 8:20 PM ET
Cora eyes reserve role, mentoring youngsters
Veteran playing all over infield, but not with me-first approach
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
On Wednesday, he made his first career start of any sort at first base. On Thursday, he was starting at the other corner. While taking ground balls there during batting practice, the veteran infielder was chatting up prospect Ryan Jackson before moving over to get some work in at second base as well.
After spending several years early in his career as an everyday infielder, Cora has been able to remain a Major Leaguer for 14 seasons thanks largely to his versatility, as well as what appears to be his natural leadership skills. He came to the Cardinals on a Minor League deal with the hopes of bringing those qualities to the defending World Series champions and extending his career just a little bit longer.
"[Manager] Mike [Matheny] picked a great day yesterday with like 20 lefties in the lineup," Cora joked about his start at first. "In the situation I'm in, I'll take whatever comes my way. I'm not going to make excuses. It's a learning process. I'm 36 years old, and every time I come here, I learn something new. If I have to learn how to play first base, I'll do it.
"It's just a matter of repetition. I've done it before, but it was always, like, in an emergency. People think it's an easy position. I was talking to Lance Berkman about it yesterday. There are some ins and outs of the position."
"That's going to be a part of his game," Matheny said. "I thought he looked good over there. I think he can play anywhere on the infield and stand out as a solid defender. A guy that's been around for [14 years] in the big leagues has a pretty good understanding of what he needs to do there even though he hasn't had the starts. We've been talking since Day 1 about having versatility and flexibility, and a guy like that certainly can do that."
Cora has played in 13 regular-season games at first base, but only a handful of innings. Cora has played all over the infield over the course of his career, and he will continue to do so assuming he earns a spot on St. Louis' 25-man roster. Ironically, the position he's played with less frequency in recent years is the one he played every day for the Dodgers: shortstop. Cora is the first to recognize that's one question about his game he needs to answer to stick around, that he can still play the premium position when called upon.
Other players in his position, nearing the end of a robust career and working to win a roster spot, might take a more me-first approach to Spring Training. Yet Cora has been tireless in his efforts to mentor young infielders like Jackson throughout the spring. It's a pay-it-forward attitude that is very much appreciated by the mentees.
"It always means a lot when you have a guy who's had a lot of years in the big leagues and has played a lot of positions," Jackson said. "He's been there and done it. It's a really reliable source in terms of giving you information."
For Cora, it's just what's done. When he first got to Los Angeles, there were veterans like Jeff Reboulet, Dave Hansen and Kevin Elster, who took him under their wings. And of course there's his brother, Joey, a former All-Star and now the bench coach for the Marlins, who was a shining example of how to conduct business on the field from an early age.
Once Cora stopped being an everyday guy, when he got to Cleveland in 2005, he understood immediately that it was his time to take on that veteran role. Jhonny Peralta was Cora's first student. Then there was that undersized middle infielder with the Red Sox who took over at second base in 2007, followed by keeping an eye on Jose Reyes (and filling in for him quite a bit when he was hurt) in New York in 2009.
It was never a question of worrying about the student outstripping the teacher. It's what the previous generation had done for him, and there was never any doubt about whether he would follow suit when the time came.
"I learned from them, and that's what I do, too," Cora said. "I'm a part of this organization, and for us to be better, anything I can do to help those kids out, I'll do it."
Having a coach on the field like Cora is a good thing for any manager, and perhaps an even bigger bonus for a rookie skipper like Matheny. In the short time they've been together this spring, Matheny already sees a future path for the veteran, one Cora's older brother has already taken.
"That's Alex's makeup," Matheny said. "I know it's something our veterans have a desire to do, to help out our younger players and figure out how they can pass on some of the things they know. You can see he's wired, he can be in this game for a long time instructing and teaching if he desires to do so once he's done."
Cora appreciates the kind words, but he doesn't want to dwell on his coaching bona fides just yet. Perhaps it's something that will come down the road, but it's clear he's not ready to talk about career changes just yet.
"I appreciate that, but the less I talk about [coaching], the better it is for Alex, the player," Cora said. "I take it as a compliment, but I really don't want to cross that line yet. I still want to play baseball. I still feel I can contribute."