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Dan shaughnessy

In Red Sox-Astros matchup, it’s impossible to ignore both teams’ scandalous recent history

Alex Cora was bench coach for the champion Astros in 2017, when they used illegal means to steal and relay signs.David J. Phillip

“Until you’ve seen this trash can dream come true, you stand at the edge while people run you through.”

“Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” Elton John and Bernie Taupin

HOUSTON — It won’t be a party starter at Fox Sports, Fenway Park, or Minute Maid Park, but it’s impossible to avoid the years-old cheating narrative in this 2021 American League Championship Series.

Astros vs. Red Sox features those lyin’, cheatin’ Despicable Me(s) from Houston — Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman & Co. — against the upstart Bostons, who are managed by Alex Cora, one of the few culprits of the 2017 Trash Can ‘Stros who was punished for his role in the scheme.


It’s as if the Spygate Patriots faced the Deflategate Patriots in some computer-programmed, analytic-driven, virtual Super Bowl. It’s where “Bang the Drum Slowly” meets “Rounders” at the intersection of “Molly’s Game” and “Eight Men Out.”

The Houston Astros are the most famous cheat-to-win perps in sports history. They won the 2017 World Series in seven games against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In January of 2020, an MLB report found that the ‘Stros cheated their way to the title with a sign-stealing system that (in part) included relaying stolen signs to batters by banging on a trash can at Minute Maid Park. Four years later, Houston’s lineup features four batters who were part of the scam.

The 2021 Red Sox, meanwhile, are managed by Cora, who served as Houston’s bench coach in 2017 and was identified by MLB as a trash can ringleader. Cora received a suspension and served a year in exile while the Red Sox finished in last place in 2020.

Perhaps unfairly singled out, he has owned his role in Houston’s 2017 disgrace. Cora was asked about it before Thursday’s workout at Minute Maid Park, and said, “It feels weird because I was part of it. I made a mistake and paid the consequences. I’m still paying the consequences . . . We live it every day. I live it every day. I mean, we made a mistake, and we’re paying the price.”


Astro players on the 2017 World Series team were given immunity to testify and never punished by MLB. Their sins were never specified nor quantified. In addition, they were spared much of the public stoning they deserved when the 2020 season was shortened to 60 games and played in empty ballparks. Fans never had a chance to boo Houston’s cheaters.

Alex Cora smiles as he responds to questions during a press conference Thursday.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Now the ‘Stros are in the postseason spotlight again for a series that opens Friday night at Minute Maid Park. When Houston plays at Fenway in Game 3 Monday, it’s going to be difficult for Sox fans to take the high ground given that Boston’s manager was identified as one of the orchestrators of Houston’s cheating scandal.

The 2021 Astros are managed by 72-year-old hardball sage Dusty Baker. Houston players were accused of new chicanery during their ALDS against the White Sox. Chicago pitcher Ryan Tepera implied that the ‘Stros were stealing signs in Games 1 and 2 in Houston. The noble Baker responded, “I was listening to Eric Clapton this morning, and he had a song, you know, ‘Before You Accuse Me,’ you need to look at yourself.”


The formidable ‘Stros have been in the ALCS for five consecutive seasons (unmatched since the 1971-75 A’s), including 2018 when they were beaten in five games by the Red Sox. In that series, an Astros employee, stationed in Fenway’s first base photo pit (perhaps fingered by Cora, who was then managing the Sox and aware of Houston’s cheating ways), was caught monitoring the Red Sox dugout with a cellphone camera. He was removed from the photo pit.

Cora’s 2018 Red Sox beat the Astros and won the World Series over the Dodgers, but in April of 2020, they were sanctioned by Major League Baseball after an investigation concluded that the ‘18 Sox illegally used a video replay monitor to decode signs during the regular season. A Boston video staffer was fired and the Red Sox were forced to forfeit a second-round draft pick.

This came one year after the Sox were punished by MLB for illegally using Apple watches to relay signals to hitters. The Sox were fined by MLB after that transgression.

The whole thing makes your head spin like a Garrett Richards Spider Tack fastball. It’s mildly reminiscent of the 1973 Academy Award-winning film “The Sting,” when a card-cheating character played by Paul Newman bests a wealthy businessman (played by Robert Shaw), who also cheats in a high-stakes poker game on a moving train. When the rich guy realizes he’s been had, he asks an associate, “What was I supposed to do — call him for cheating better than me in front of the others?”


Jose Altuve walks past members of the media after a workout in Houston Thursday.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

There you have it. The 2021 ALCS. Our cheaters against their cheaters. May the best team win.

All kidding aside, this should be a great series. The Astros are an offensive wagon. Houston’s infield (Yuli Gurriel, Altuve, Correa, Bregman) features four players who have played in more postseason games together than any other four teammates in MLB history. All have tarnished 2017 championship rings.

The Red Sox are a 92-win wild-card entry who caught fire in October, beating the Yankees, 6-2, in a one-game bakeoff at Fenway, then winning three of four against the 100-win, division-winner Tampa Bay Rays. The Sox hit .341 in four games against Tampa, striking out only 26 times.

Cora makes the Sox better than they are. He is 5-0 in playoff elimination games, and 15-4 as a postseason manager.

Often sloppy during an uneven season, the Sox are playing their best ball of the season and are a real threat to make it to the World Series for the fifth time this century.

Red Sox-Astros.

May the best team win.

On the level.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at daniel.shaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.