Two Mondays ago, MLB moved against the Houston Astros. It banned general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch for a year; an hour later, Astros owner Jim Crane dismissed both. Those among us who’d gathered early at the Superdome for the CFP title tilt were monitoring dizzying developments. This correspondent said to Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post: “First they were banned; then they were fired.”
Said the Post man: “That’s what you’d call a bad day.”
MLB being MLB, it has had nothing but bad days since. A day after the banning/canning of Luhnow/Hinch, the Red Sox parted with manager Alex Cora, who in 2017 – the season of sign-stealing and trash-can-banging — was the Astros’ bench coach. Two days after that, the Mets bid adieu to newly hired manager Carlos Beltran, who’d been an Astros player in 2017. On the morning of Jan. 13, MLB had no managerial vacancies. By the close of business on Jan. 16, it had three.
MLB instructed other front offices to have no comment on the Astros’ sanctions, which did not include forfeiture of the 2017 World Series championship. This didn’t stop Jessica Mendoza, who works for both the Mets and ESPN, from saying that former Astro Mike Fiers’ exposure of the cheating to the Athletic “didn’t sit well with me … It’s something that you don’t do.” Got that? An employee of Big Media opined that players shouldn’t speak the truth to, er, the media.
Smaller media leapt into the breach. A Twitter account said to belong to Beltran’s niece — the account has been deleted and any familial link to Beltran denied — indicated that in 2019 Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman wore electronic buzzers inside their jerseys. Scrutiny of Altuve after hitting the walk-off home run to win the 2019 ALCS was determined by some to be evidentiary: For reasons unclear, he instructed his teammates not to tear off his shirt in celebration. This was deemed significant for two reasons: MLB hadn’t said anything about the Astros cheating in 2019 — only in 2017 and 2018 — and, if true, the cheating had gone from can-thumping to higher-tech. (Altuve has denied wearing a buzzer.)
The Astros held their FanFest on Jan. 18 and evinced no contrition. Said Bregman, who called reports of a buzzer “stupid”: “The commissioner came out with a report, MLB did their report and the Astros did what they did.” It wasn’t until Friday, when Dallas Keuchel — an Astro from 2012 through 2018, an Atlanta Brave last season, a member of the White Sox now — did any player say what needed saying. His quote: “Apologies should be in order … for everyone on that team.”
Luhnow and Hinch, both out of jobs, had apologized. In firing the two on live TV, Crane didn’t quite. After the unapologetic FanFest, the owner told reporters: “When we get down to spring training, we’ll all get (the players) together and they’ll come out with a strong statement as a team and, I think, apologize for what happened and move forward.” Because, you know, there’s no stronger statement than a rehearsed one made four weeks after you’ve been caught.
It’s unclear what MLB thought would happen in the wake of these penalties, which included — perhaps you’ve noticed — no sanctions of players. As Jared Diamond of The Wall Street Journal wrote, that’s because MLB made a deal with the almighty players association: If your guys talk, we’ll grant immunity. (MLB long ago learned not to buck the union.) On the one hand, that led to a fuller investigation. On the other, it left the outside world wondering: Who was involved? Everybody? Pitchers included? Did anyone refuse to have the signs can-thumped — or buzzed — to him? Should everyone associated with the 2017/2018 Astros be forever besmirched?
Local angle: Should Brian McCann? He was an Astro those two years. He began and ended his distinguished career — part of which was spent instructing erring opponents on how to Play The Game The Right Way — as a Brave. He’s scheduled for a bobblehead night at Truist Park on April 6. Should we look on the beloved B-Mac the same way?
Bigger picture: Should we fault the Astros for trying to win? Didn’t Gaylord Perry cheat his way to the Hall of Fame? Didn’t Ty Cobb sharpen his spikes? Didn’t a generation of players take PEDs? (Didn’t MLB gladly bank the box-office receipts from the McGwire/Sosa Home Run Derby of 1998?) Didn’t earlier generations take greenies? Didn’t The Wall Street Journal report in 2001 that the most famous moment in baseball history — Bobby Thomson’s home run off Ralph Branca in the bottom of the ninth of Game 3 of the 1951 National League playoff between the Giants and Dodgers — might have involved an electronically-aided stolen sign?
There’s no worse sport at public relations than MLB. The gasbag Bowie Kuhn was elsewhere the night Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record. The blithering idiot Bud Selig presided over a canceled World Series and the steroids era and is somehow in the Hall of Fame; meanwhile, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens keep falling 16 percent shy of the votes needed for enshrinement. Rob Manfred is the commissioner now, and the best thing about him is that he’s not Bud Selig. He’s not David Stern, either.
This Astros Affair has been, even by MLB standards, a botch of the first rank. It left way too many questions unanswered. Do we now take at face value the historic nature of the 2019 Astros’ hitting? (They led the majors in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage — and had the fewest strikeouts. Were no signs stolen in the process?) Was it fair to ban a manager, who didn’t like the sign-stealing and twice destroyed TV monitors, and leave the architects of what MLB deemed “a player-driven” scheme untouched? Can you imagine the NBA’s Adam Silver telling one of his teams: “Don’t worry about saying you’re sorry”?
And the elephant in the room: Are we to believe the Astros were the only stealers of signs? Did not the Athletic report that the 2018 Red Sox of Cora, who also won the World Series, made improper use of the replay room? Did Cora not suggest that, when the Yankees hired Beltran as a “special adviser,” his role was to impart the joys of surveillance to Boston’s ancient enemy? Is the entirety of big-league baseball a den of sign thieves?
I’d like to think not, but I have no confidence in MLB to do anything right. And now you’ll have to excuse me. I need to vent. Think I’ll go bang on a trash can.
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