As the Boston Red Sox weighed whether to bring back Alex Cora as their manager these past few weeks, it was never the legalities of the move that gave them pause. As far as Major League Baseball was concerned, once Cora served his one-season suspension for his role in a sign-stealing scandal, he was free to return in whatever role he wanted — even the same job he had lost less than a year earlier.

The problem for the Red Sox, if not for Cora himself, was always going to be the optics: How was it going to look for the team to bring back — after what was effectively a 10-month sabbatical — a manager who had been linked to two different sign-stealing schemes with two different World Series champions, one of them being the Red Sox themselves?

The answer: It doesn’t look great.

Is Cora so talented and indispensable that it was worth putting up with all the vitriol and recriminations heading Boston’s way from across the game in the wake of Friday’s news, first reported by MLB Network, that he had been rehired? Apparently, the Red Sox believe so.

The move to renew ties with Cora was not a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention. Even when Boston split from him in January — following the revelation of Cora’s role as an instigator of the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scheme in 2017, when he was the bench coach, but before the report of a smaller scale scheme perpetrated by the 2018 Red Sox, for which Cora, as manager, was found to have had no involvement — the team’s top brass went out of their way to profess their admiration and affection for Cora.

“He does need to go through a rehabilitation process. What he did was wrong,” Red Sox team president Sam Kennedy said in January. “ … But I’m a big believer in second chances. We wish him well.”

Central to the enduring nature of the Cora-Red Sox relationship, of course, was the fact that he had led them to the World Series title as a rookie manager in 2018. Yes, that’s the same season in which the team was found to have used its video replay room to decode the signs of opposing catchers. Winning a championship, even under disputed circumstances, has a way of making everything else immaterial.

Cora was let go in January — the team referred to it as a mutual parting of ways — as MLB was still conducting its investigation of Boston’s scheme. When MLB’s report was released in April, finding Cora not only had no role in the scheme but wasn’t even aware of it, the countdown began in Boston until the day his Astros-related suspension would be over and the Red Sox could hire him back. Dismissing Ron Roenicke, Cora’s bench coach who was elevated to interim manager in 2020, created the opening — as well as the impression Roenicke had merely been a placeholder all along.

The Red Sox conducted an extensive managerial search this fall, interviewing as many as 10 candidates, whittling the field to a handful of finalists — some of them brought back for an additional round of interviews — and reportedly flying to Puerto Rico to interview Cora in person before making their decision late Thursday night. His suspension ended a little more than a week earlier.

Perhaps the Red Sox were looking for someone else who could blow them away during the interview process the way Cora did in the fall of 2017. Perhaps chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, who arrived in Boston in October 2019 and thus had little relationship with Cora, wanted a chance to lead a managerial search and truly found Cora to be the best candidate.

But as recently as May, Bloom was telling Boston’s WEEI radio station, when asked about a possible reunion with Cora: “That’s not part of the thought process at all. It’s not on our radar at all.”

The outside view of Boston’s managerial search is going to be that it was perfunctory at best, with the Red Sox — or at least everyone above Bloom on the organizational flow chart — knowing all along they wanted Cora back. Or at the very least, that was the default move.

This wasn’t the same thing as A.J. Hinch, the Astros’ manager during their 2017 title run, serving a similar, one-year suspension and then being named manager of the Detroit Tigers last week. For one thing, Hinch was not found to have had an active role in the Astros’ scheme — though he knew of its existence — the way Cora was. For another thing, the Astros, who hired Dusty Baker to replace Hinch, had no apparent interest in bringing him back. Hinch had to go somewhere else to rehab his image.

Now comes the damage control. The Red Sox won’t have to worry much about soothing souls in New England, whether inside or outside the organization. Cora’s 2018 title gives him a lifetime pass with Boston fans, and he was a highly popular figure with his players and his superiors alike.

But the move probably won’t sit well with many others across baseball, who, even in conceding that the rehiring of Cora was perfectly legal, might argue that doesn’t make it right. There probably isn’t anything the Red Sox or Cora can say to change those minds, but they’re going to have to try anyway.

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