There will be no sympathy in this corner for the Houston Astros and their smug, soulless management — or former management, we should say.
The consequences dropped like an anvil on general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch — both of whom saw lengthy suspensions for their see-no-evil roles in a sign-stealing scandal turn into unemployment in a matter of minutes Monday — and they deserved the wallop. Sometimes comeuppance and justice are one and the same.
There will be no sympathy either for Alex Cora, the Red Sox manager for the last two seasons until he and the team parted ways Tuesday night. Major League Baseball has not yet finished its investigation into accusations from former players that Red Sox hitters had cooked up a similar scheme on his watch.
That is both damning and a damn shame — he was a good manager and a thoughtful person — but it is also just. MLB officials need this sign-stealing saga to go away, and they’re doing it by making those involved go away.
Cora was the common thread through the Astros and Red Sox scandals. Right about now, I sure wish Terry Francona was about to begin his 17th season as Red Sox manager, don’t you?
No, the lament here is not for the punished. It’s for us, fans, people who care genuinely and personally about the game, who have had it woven into the fabric of our families and friendships for as far back as we can remember.
Because none of us knows what is authentic anymore.
Think of how this scandal affects our perceptions of individual players. Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Mookie Betts (don’t trade him, FYI), and Xander Bogaerts are among some of baseball’s most appealing stars. They put up enormous numbers, and do it with style and flair and an abundance of charisma. They are some of the best things about the game right now.
But we cannot help but wonder whether they benefited, perhaps in a significant way, from dubious tactics during some of their best moments. They’re great players, truly, but were they made even greater by ill-gotten information?
I hate that that cloud is over them, but there it is, and the sun isn’t coming out any time soon. Even Jose Altuve’s 2017 American League MVP award is coming into question, and I’m sure there will be similar skepticism about Betts’s MVP the next year.
Much was made in the New York tabloids Tuesday about Aaron Judge, the runner-up that year, deleting an old Instagram post congratulating Altuve on winning the award. The stain of what the Astros did that season is on Altuve — and yet he hit .381 on the road compared with .311 at home, where the chicanery was executed. It doesn’t matter, though; the Astros all wear this.
What about the opposing players this affected? In Ben Reiter’s 2018 bestseller “Astroball: A New Way To Win It All” — I’ll pause here while you snicker at how that intended meaning has changed — there’s compelling insight on the Astros’ knowledge of Yu Darvish’s pitch-tipping during the 2017 World Series. The Astros lit up Darvish twice — once at Dodger Stadium, and once at Minute Maid Park — including Game 7. He didn’t know it, but he had no chance.
And should we perceive Clayton Kershaw differently? He’s one of the premier pitchers of all time, but his postseason track record is undeniably subpar. In the 2017 World Series, he pitched very well in Game 1 at Dodger Stadium (7 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 11 K’s), then got hammered in Game 5 at Houston (6 ER in 4⅔ IP, just 2 K’s). Was the deck in Houston stacked against his hopes of World Series redemption?
While we’re asking, we must note that Kershaw gave up 9 runs in 11 innings against the Red Sox in the World Series the next year, though the better of his starts was at Fenway Park. Maybe he’s just been comparatively bad in big moments. Or maybe there were times when he was up against forces he didn’t know were working against him.
Speaking of inauthenticity, this story is hitting amid Hall of Fame balloting and the mess the performance-enhancing drug era has inflicted there. And is it ever a mess. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, two tainted legends, are merely on the fringe of the conversation because of their PED connections. Manny Ramirez and Sammy Sosa, two of the most fun hitters ever to dig into the batter’s box, have no chance.
Meanwhile, we must assume others are clean when we really have no clue, and the likes of Omar Vizquel, a rich man’s Mark Belanger, are getting Hall of Fame consideration over far superior and impactful players.
There’s so little we know about who used and who didn’t, when PED use began in MLB and who might have been the PED patient zero. Pretty much every modern player can be looked at with some skepticism, even the sainted and the saviors.
I mean, Cal Ripken Jr. hit .340 at age 38. Derek Jeter, who may well be a unanimous choice this year, had an .871 OPS at age 35. I don’t believe they were dirty, and this is not an accusation but an acknowledgment that we just don’t know. Cheating has damaged the Hall of Fame, too, and forced all of us to be cynical.
I know, baseball hasn’t always been innocent. Bobby Thomson knew what pitch was coming when he hit the Shot Heard ’Round The World. Gaylord Perry flaunted throwing a spitter, and he sailed into Cooperstown. Players popped amphetamines in the ’70s as if they were Tic-Tacs. And spy-versus-spy-style sign stealing has been going on as long as there have been signs.
But much of it in the old days could be chalked up to gamesmanship. Technology has made it easier and more tempting to cheat, and it’s turned baseball from a sport for romantics to one full of cynics.
It’s too bad. Every time baseball cooks up a so-called “new way to win,’’ all we end up with is a long list of losers.