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STOP THE CHEATER CHANTS: THE ASTROS — AND CORA — ARE REAL
It’s obvious now, years after the electronic sign-stealing scheme, that Houston doesn’t need scams (props to Dusty Baker), and that Alex Cora has graduated from co-conspirator to top manager in Boston
At what point, 2021 America, does a reasonable statute of limitations trump the fangs of cancel culture? The answer: When it’s obvious those labeled as baseball cheaters in the past — the Houston Astros, and the bench coach who helped facilitate their electronic sign-stealing scandal — no longer are cheating as they thrive years later.
The new truth crystalized during an 18-hour period in the autumn of their collective washing. The Astros, called out by an obscure Chicago reliever as suspicious for their hitting prowess in their home ballpark, again shut down all doubts Tuesday about more dirty business. They executed a South Side takeover, where White Sox teams have been known to cheat, and advanced to the American League Championship Series with a 10-1 victory in front of uncouth, vulgar fans who continued to moronically chant “F—k Altuve!’’ as Jose Altuve was blasting a late three-run homer without the aid of an illicit shaman or trash-can bang.
This while Alex Cora, who helped the Astros in their World Series-winning scheme in 2017, was managing the Boston Red Sox to the same ALCS without benefit of Houston-like trash-can banging. Like the Astros, who have reached their fifth successive ALCS, Cora is proving he doesn’t need to defraud the opposition to thrive in October. Unless he’s planting microchips in the Green Monster — and we would know by now, as Major League Baseball scrutinizes all previous miscreants — he is establishing himself as a premier manager and motivator seeking his second Series trophy in four seasons.
“He’s a guy you would run through a wall for,’’ Red Sox reliever Garrett Whitlock said. “If he told me to run through that wall, I’d believe that he had something there to make sure it would fall for me.’’
“He’s like a father, brother, manager, whatever,’’ pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez said. “He trusts us. He trusts everybody in that clubhouse.’’
Just the same, there is praise to heap upon Old Manager River, 72-year-old Dusty Baker, brave and desperate enough to accept the Astros’ gig in the throes of their universally hated disgrace and savvy enough to guide a gifted ballclub out of its deceptive abyss without a hint of sign-stealing. What’s fascinating is that Baker and Cora will try to make the same point against each other in the upcoming seven-game series: History’s smudges aside, these are winners first.
“We’ve been constantly bombarded by negatives, especially on the road. But these guys, they come to play and they love each other,” said Baker, who has embraced his role as defense attorney and encourages an us-against-the-world mantra.
In the purview of the unforgiving, the Astros and Cora are irreparable crooks. Try, please, to observe their dominance without technological help — and leave it alone. Cora suffered with a season-long suspension last year. The Astros have been abused, mocked, spit on and trash-can-serenaded as one of the most loathed teams in sports history. Monday, White Sox pitcher Ryan Tepera suggested they were stealing more signs during Game 1 and 2 romps in Houston. “They've obviously had a reputation of doing some sketchy stuff over there, and we can say that it's a little bit of a difference,’’ Tepera said after Astros batters struck out 16 times in Game 3 at Guaranteed Rate Field. “I think you saw the swings and misses tonight compared to the first two games at Minute Maid (Park).’’
To his credit, Baker pulled out his songbook and didn’t overreact. Haven’t the White Sox orchestrated their own sign-stealing schemes through time? During Tony La Russa’s first go-around as Sox manager, when he was a young man and not a doddering and misplaced 77-year-old fool, he was accused of arranging for a camera to steal signs from the catcher at old Comiskey Park, where a 25-watt refrigerator bulb in the scoreboard alerted batters to the pitch. La Russa was ratted out as the perpetrator by former Sox pitcher and Cy Young Award winner Jack McDowell, who said last year in a radio interview, “We had a system in the old Comiskey Park in the late 1980s — the Gatorade sign out in center had a light, there was a toggle switch in the manager’s office and camera zoomed in on the catcher. I’m gonna whistle-blow this now because I’m getting tired of this crap. There was that, Tony La Russa is the one who put it in. He was also the head of the first team where everyone was doing steroids. Yet, he’s still in the game making half a million, you know? No one is going to go after that. It’s just, this stuff is getting old where they target certain guys and let other people off the hook. … Everyone who’s been around the game knows all this stuff.’’
Yet it didn’t stop the White Sox, a bullshit organization, from letting Tepera mouth off without repercussions. “I try to realize this is America and players can say what they want to, and I can say that I don’t get into it if I want to,’’ La Russa said. Never mind that the Astros have scored more runs this season on the road and have a similar OPS at home and on the road. Never mind they scored 10 runs in the clincher. Deflecting the gamesmanship as cheap and hollow, Baker one-upped the enemy with his trademark cool.
“So, I don't have much response to that other than I was listening to Eric Clapton this morning, and he had a song, ‘Before You Accuse Me (Take a Look at Yourself).’ ’’ he said. “You know what I mean? That's all I got to say.”
With that, and a resulting offensive barrage, Baker became America’s rooting interest while managing the team America loathes. Though it always will be deplorable that Houston’s players weren’t reprimanded by Major League Baseball — which allowed Cora, manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow to take the fall — Baker has stabilized the disarray and reminded the world that Altuve, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman are three of the sport’s best players. The abuse will continue in Boston and, possibly, in Los Angeles — where the cheatin’ Astros cost the Dodgers a championship with their scammery four autumns ago — but Baker’s steadying of baseball’s Titanic is an all-time managerial achievement. And if he fills the only hole in his ample resume, a World Series title, the Hall of Fame can carve a place for him.
“We don’t talk or discuss it because it’s a waste of time and a waste of energy,” Baker said of the ongoing hatred. “You know, there’s too much good stuff in life to have to live your life in the past forever and ever and ever, and you know, how long must you pay for a crime? I don’t think anybody thrives on it. I mean, everybody thrives on love. They don’t thrive on hate or thrive on whatever people are saying. So part of my job here — and part of the job of the city of Houston — is to at least get love when you are at home. You know what I mean?”
Today, as usual in October, the South Side is quiet. The Sox have won only one World Series since they threw one in 1919. And the hiring of La Russa by 85-year-old owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who has done little right in sports beyond the massive sphere of Michael Jordan, fell miserably short of expectations. La Russa hadn’t managed in 10 years and only was hired because Reinsdorf, a sentimental crackpot, wanted to make amends for the 1986 dismissal of La Russa by another piece of work, general manager Hawk Harrelson.
Rather than congratulate the Astros for having the better team, La Russa tapped into his age-old rivalry with Baker. When Astros reliever Kendall Graveman hit Jose Abreu with a pitch in the eighth inning, a likely reprisal for Tepera’s comments, Tony the Tiger lost his mind and screamed at umpire Tom Hallion.
“There is a character choice there that they should answer for,” said La Russa, indirectly referring to Baker. “Stupid, too. I’ll be interested to see if they admit it. If they don’t admit it, then they’re very dishonest. ... It will be a good test of the character and credibility of the winning team because it was intentional. Catcher kept looking in the dugout, so they did hit him intentionally. I'll be really curious. They should have the guts to admit that they did it."
Said Baker, satisfied to advance while the Sox expire: “I should admit it? No, there’s no way. I beg to differ with Tony. There was no intent, and there was no reason to do that. Zero.’’
I would have paid to see two old men — combined age: 149 — brawl in the parking lot. Reinsdorf could have joined La Russa as a tag team, upping the age count to 234.
In the same dugout of historic hoodwinking, Baker will try to make champions of cheaters in the coming weeks. He will have to get past Cora, who somehow has overachieved with a COVID-and-injuries-stalled team that wasn’t supposed to reach the postseason. You think he hasn’t paid a personal price? After the Red Sox ousted the AL’s best regular-season team, the Tampa Bay Rays, Cora shared a tearful hug with his daughter, Camila, who stuck by her father through his suspension.
“She suffered a lot and it was my fault,” Cora said. “And sometimes we make bad decisions, and I made a horrible decision in baseball and I paid the price. But what really hurt me was for (his children) to suffer because of my mistakes. And for her to enjoy this is very gratifying.”
Call them cheaters, forevermore, if you must.
But at least acknowledge their survivalist skills.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he has gravitated by osmosis to film projects.