ORLANDO, FL (Oct. 12, 2020) – Will baseball fans’ suffering this season never end?
First, the pandemic wiped out the first several months of Major League Baseball’s regular season. Then there was the squabbling between team owners and the players association on how to divide billions of dollars in TV revenue, which threatened to derail the season altogether. Then there was the Baseball Commissioner-mandated, truncated, 60-game schedule with games played in empty stadiums, each half inning of extra innings beginning with a runner on second base, the universal Designated Hitter, seven-inning games in doubleheaders, and the watered-down, expanded playoffs.
Now, here we are with the Houston Astros – instigators of baseball’s worst cheating scandal since the 1919 Chicago White Sox and the Steroids Era in the 1990s and early 2000s, and atop the list of “teams you’d most like to see lose” by most every fan outside the Houston area – in the American League Championship Series for the fourth consecutive year, and as of this writing just four wins over the Tampa Bay Rays from reaching the World Series for the third time in the last four seasons. Oh, the ignominy of it all!
Adding further insult to injury, the Astros finished the regular season with a losing record, and got into the playoffs only because MLB expanded its postseason to 16 teams for the first time in history. No team with a losing record has ever reached a World Series.
Say it ain’t so, Joe. Is there no end to our Astros nightmare?
Emotions Remain High
The Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League long have called themselves, “America’s Team.” Well, the Houston Astros may be “America’s Contempt.” It has been three years since, according to an MLB investigation, that the Astros illegally used technology to steal opposing teams’ signs while on their way to winning the franchise’s first World Series title in 2017. Three seasons removed, yet emotions still run high and wounds are still raw.
For instance, on July 29, Los Angeles Dodgers’ reliever Joe Kelly was suspended for eight games (later reduced to five) for throwing at Astros’ hitters. “They’re not respectable men to me,” Kelly said afterward.
Once a model for how to build a team through draft choices and astute trades – albeit, many critics argue, with a healthy dose of tanking that resulted in 416 losses in four seasons, 2011-14 – the Astros have become the villains of the game, the team that baseball fans love to root against. Houston is MLB’s version of cinema bad guys, like Biff Tannen in Back to the Future, Hans Gruber in Die Hard, Commodus in The Gladiator, and Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption – characters that by their actions and attitude invited contempt, disdain and anger.
The Astros even have been given a nickname that reflects the fans’ scorn: the Houston Asterisks. Plus, there is a Twitter account, Astros Shame Tour, established before the start of this season by a Chicago writer and Cubs fan, that delights in providing a daily posting of the Astros’ troubles (the account has grown to around 300,000 followers).
The Sounds of Silence
Some fans’ catcalls in spring training games prior to the pandemic-induced stoppage of play and Kelly’s brushback pitches have been about the extent of the wrath to which the Astros have been subjected this season. Because of the social distancing and health guidelines for dealing with the coronavirus, the Astros did not have to listen to 81 road games of insults and boos from fans; instead they played 30 road games in front of silent, cardboard cutout spectators.
As Dusty Baker, a respected veteran manager and former player in his first season as Astros’ manager (he took over when manager A.J. Hinch was first suspended from baseball for a year and then fired over the cheating incident) told reporters before the first game of the American League Division Series against the Oakland A’s, “The role of villain was given to us. It’s not something we took on, even though some of it was probably merited, or most of it was merited.”
It is merited because Houston crossed the line, spit on the game’s integrity, thumbed its nose at baseball, and then brushed off the guilt as if flicking a fly from its shoulder. Dodgers’ utility player Enrique Hernandez tweeted back in February, after the MLB investigation’s findings were released, “(The Astros) cheated. They got away with it. They got a ring out of it.”
The Astros are what Major League Baseball feared, and hoped for, when it expanded this year’s postseason: a team that muddled through the regular season and then got hot at the right time. The No. 6-seed Astros swept the third-seeded Minnesota Twins in an American League Wild Card Series, and then pounded second-ranked Oakland with 33 runs in four games in the ALDS. They’re the embodiment of the “just get in, because anything can happen” mantra that baseball likes to evoke when talking about the excitement of the postseason.
Privately, Houston likely is not one of the teams that MLB wanted to see in its version of the Final Four, because it will again shine a harsh light on the Astros’ illicit actions during their 2017 championship season. Houston, nonetheless, has crashed baseball’s party and intends to stay until the end.
To be fair, the Astros are a good ball club. In a three-year stretch, 2017-19, they won 311 games, and would have had people debating where they stood among baseball’s best teams in the last 25 or 30 years. But, the cheating scandal is the 800-pound gorilla that cannot be dismissed, and tarnished its reputation.
So, the Astros’ Redemption Tour rolls on. Except that redemption implies being saved from a sin or evil. The Astros don’t want our forgiveness; they don’t care. This is more of a “We’re Here, So Deal With It Tour.” As Astros’ star shortstop Carlos Correa said after his team eliminated the Twins, “I know a lot of people are mad. I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here. But what are they going to say now?”
What fans and opposing players – particularly those of the Yankees and Dodgers, who lost to the Astros in the 2017 ALCS and World Series, respectively – are saying is a variation of the famed “We was robbed” quote by fight manager Joe Jacobs after his client, heavyweight boxer Max Schmerling, lost a 1932 title bout to Jack Sharkey despite having clearly outfought his opponent.
“I was sick to my stomach,” Yankees’ slugger Aaron Judge said in February. “To find out that it wasn’t earned, they cheated, that didn’t sit well with me.”
The Cheating Scandal
The facts of the scandal are by now well known. According to MLB’s investigation, during home games at Minute Maid Park in 2017, the Astros used a TV monitor in their clubhouse to steal the opposing pitchers’ signs, and then relayed that information to Houston hitters by banging on trashcan lids.
After one opposing pitcher appeared to have noticed the banging, the Astros’ players removed the TV monitor from the wall and hid it in an office. According to MLB’s report, they later substituted a portable monitor that could be placed on a table and hidden after games.
The use of technology has muscled its way into the game in numerous ways over the years. Using it before games to try to detect if a pitcher is tipping his pitches is permissible. But, such in-game use of technology is forbidden. According to the investigation, that’s the line that the Astros crossed.
“It was definitely an advantage,” Correa, one of the few Houston players who appeared to express any remorse over their actions, told reporters. “I’m not going to lie to you, know what was coming, you get a slight edge.”
Dodgers’ left-hander Clayton Kershaw, who suffered the loss in a pivotal Game 5 in that 2017 World Series, told Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated in a Feb. 20 article, “I’m sure a lot of teams were going up to that line, but once (Houston) started doing it in real time and using technology in real time, that’s what separates it.
“I’m sick of people saying that everybody was the same, that everybody was doing it. No. We weren’t all doing it.”
Astros Got Off Scot-Free?
As much as fans and opposing players are unhappy about Houston crossing the line, they are even more upset that the Astros appear to haven gotten off scot-free, and with the Astros’ unrepentant attitude.
Much to the chagrin of many baseball fans across the nation, the Astros did not have to vacate their title. There is no asterisk behind their name in the record books. No players were fined or suspended. They got their championship rings and their share of the $30 million for winning the World Series. And, the memories of playing in a Fall Classic.
In one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in Major League Baseball history, Commissioner Rob Manfred declined to strip Houston of its 2017 title, or to punish any of the players involved (manager Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for one year and later fired; plus, the team was fined $5 million and made to forfeit some draft picks). Instead, Manfred offered players immunity in exchange for their cooperation in baseball’s investigation, he said, because he wanted to get answers to what happened. That’s like a prosecuting attorney telling some bank robbers, “We know you did it. We have the proof. If you just tell us how you pulled off the robbery, we’ll let you walk free.”
Manfred has said that stripping the Astros of their championship would have set a bad precedent. The problem with punishing the players, he noted, was how to determine the degree of culpability and punishment for each player. Issuing a blanket suspension of, say, one season most assuredly would have been met with protests by the players association and court challenges from the players and their legal representatives. Suspending the entire team for a year wasn’t an option, either. Better to sweep the matter under the rug and move on. For the Astros, there was safety in numbers.
Most infuriating of all, has been the Astros’ cockiness, smugness, and lack of genuine remorse over their actions. Houston’s attitude pretty much has been, “So we may have stretched the rules a bit. We have our title and our championship rings, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
From the team’s February press conference to address the investigation and the penalties, in which the Astros danced around any direct admission of guilt and apology (about the closest any came was third baseman Alex Bregman’s prepared statement, which said, in part, “I’m really sorry for the choices that were made”, and outfielder George Springer regretting “that we’re in this situation today”) to their ALDS-clinching victory over the A’s, after which Correa said, “We’re motivated because we want to win. We want to bring another championship to Houston,” the Astros have had an “us against the world” chip on their shoulders.
Houston’s Good Fortune
It is the Astros’ good fortune that games this season were played in empty stadiums, that the postseason was expanded, and that the players got hot at the right time. Lady Luck smiling on the Astros? That may be the biggest indignity of all for the anti-Astros crowd.
In the 1996 movie Independence Day, Randy Quaid plays Russell Casse, a former pilot who claims to once have been abducted by aliens. He destroys an alien mother ship by flying a jet fighter into the center of the space craft, yelling, “Hello, boys. I’m back!”
The Astros’ are MLB’s Casse. They’re back, and flying right into the heart of baseball’s contempt and scorn. As they say, deal with it. The Astros are focused on other business.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and senior special sections writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.
Photo credit: Thomas Park/Unsplash.com