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STOP THE CHEATER JOKES: ASTROS, THANKS TO BAKER, ARE VERY REAL
Five years have passed since Houston’s electronic sign-stealing scandal, and as the Astros dominate the postseason with pitching and power, the only question is why they cheated to begin with
The mission is to outlast the stain, outrun the shame. The object of the game, for the Houston Astros, is to bury the disgrace of 2017 so deep into ignominy’s cobwebs that their detractors are forced to acknowledge an indisputable truth: Those once-cheatin’ Asterisks happen to be a kickass baseball club, among the century’s best — and have been for a long time.
They’ve reached the American League championship series every season since, and the World Series twice. The Astros are the sport’s most complete team, supporting a knockout offense with innings-devouring starters and a lockdown bullpen. They’re poised to bookend the era with a second Series trophy, according to the visual evidence so far, and the central question isn’t whether anyone can beat them in a series but whether they’ll lose a postseason game after sweeping their first five.
Unless they’re drugging the meals of security guards positioned by the dugout and video room, as required of all teams by Major League Baseball, we can make a definitive assumption. They are not cheating — and haven’t been for a long time.
They are not stealing opponents’ signs via rogue technology, a center-field camera sending a live feed to a monitor in the clubhouse tunnel. They are not banging on a garbage can to alert a hitter in the batter’s box to the type of pitch he’ll face. They are not using code programs to decrypt signs on the basepaths. The general manager in charge during the scandal, Jeff Luhnow, was fired and now operates second-division soccer teams in Spain and Mexico. The manager who knew all about the scheme, A.J. Hinch, was fired and landed in Detroit. The bench coach who oversaw the ruse, Alex Cora, also was fired/forgiven and won an immediate World Series in Boston as a manager. Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Yuli Gurriel have more than re-established that they don’t need to cheat to excel, with Bregman hitting a three-run blast Thursday night to bolster a 3-2 win in Game 2 of the ALCS, giving the Astros a total of 10 espionage-free home runs in the first two playoff rounds.
Truly, the current success should be attributed to the ancient Johnnie B. Baker — you know him as Dusty — the perfect spiritual muse to guide the Astros from the dregs. He has joined another old soul, reborn pitching ace Justin Verlander, to create a culture for a loaded compilation of homegrown talent: including slugger Yordan Alvarez, emerging star Kyle Tucker, Cy Young-caliber pitcher Framber Valdez and rookie shortstop Jeremy Pena, the hero of the division series clincher in Seattle, who replaced Carlos Correa and somehow made the club better. Since he was hired to manage the Astros amid national outrage, which came at the start of the pandemic, Baker has gone 232-154. Not a single trash can has been heard, with the loudest noise made by the train that blows its horn on a 40-second journey above left field after every home run and victory.
“It’s been a good marriage for all of us,” Baker said.
The beneficiaries have been the players, who’ve had to absorb abuse even if they weren’t involved in the scam. Dusty is their protector. “He relates to his players. I think he takes a lot of pride in that,” Verlander said. “He really tries to get to know everybody individually and understand what makes them tick and tries to connect on more than just a manager/player-type level, and that goes a long way. You know that he's always got your back, he's always rooting for the best in you, and that's all you can really ask for as a player.”
Dusty’s culture is contagious. “They're hungry. They’ve been here for so many years, but they still act like it's their first time,” Pena said of the veterans. “They're still hungry in that sense. They show up every single day. They put the work in. You gravitate towards that; you want to be a part of it. And we have a special team, and I think we're going to have a special run.”
So isn’t it time to declare a moratorium on all cheating-related insults and trash-can mockery? That includes the fans this weekend in New York, where fear is profound that the Yankees will fall to Houston in an ALCS for a third time. If so, general manager Brian Cashman had better not humiliate himself and continue to wallow in 2017. It’s 2022, Brian. Deal with it. The Astros look superior to than the Yankees, again. They look better than the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies, too, even as Altuve looks for his first postseason hit.
Asked last spring why the resource-bloated Yankees haven’t won or reached the World Series since 2009, Cashman blamed the Astros. “The only thing that stopped (us) was something that was so illegal and horrific," he said. “So I get offended when I start hearing we haven't been to the World Series since ’09. ... The only thing that derailed us was a cheating circumstance that threw us off.” Actually, numerous factors derailed the Yankees, ranging from Alex Rodriguez’s season-long PED suspension to holding onto manager Joe Girardi for too long, a fate avoided this season by the Phillies, who replaced him with Rob Thomson and reached the National League championship series. Such is pinstriped arrogance, made worse when Cashman conveniently omitted in his rant that the Yankees also had been busted for electronic sign-stealing.
In a letter that the Yankees legally tried to prevent from going public, commissioner Rob Manfred issued a $100,000 fine after determining signs had been relayed to the dugout from the team’s video replay room during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. The Red Sox also were caught red-handed: A trainer in the Boston dugout used an Apple Watch to relay decoded signs in September 2017. The timeline is important, as Manfred issued a sweeping ban on electronic signage theft before the 2017 postseason — when the Astros continued to be the Asterisks in beating the Yankees, then the Los Angeles Dodgers, in winning the World Series. Many teams were stealing signs to some degree at the time, if not all teams, but Cashman insists his club did nothing wrong because the spying happened before MLB’s edict.
Astros owner Jim Crane called b.s. “There’s the letter, and you were doing it, too,” Crane told USA Today. “You were there, dude. What are you talking about? If I was one of the teams, and I knew our team was doing it, I’d keep my mouth shut and just go about our business.”
Rather than leave it alone, Cashman fired back: “I don't think anybody's going to dance to the tune he's singing. I’d say it's called deflection, him trying to equate probably an equivalent of a parking ticket to maybe 162 felonies. … I don't think anybody equates it to what the Astros did except for Houston. (That is) the feedback from everybody in the industry, including Major League Baseball.” Even Aaron Judge, who said 2 1/2 years ago that the Astros should be stripped of their lone championship — “I just don’t think it holds any value. You cheated. You didn’t earn it. That’s how I feel is that it wasn’t earned playing the game right,” he said — now treats the scandal like old news. He knows what’s real here. The Yankees are inferior.
Accustomed to vitriolic backlash, ranging from death threats to trash cans banging in enemy ballparks, the Astros ignored it. I can’t hate or denigrate them. Honestly, can you? Even if they lose in the coming weeks, they have overcome their self-inflicted past sins. “This team is as prepared as any, after all of the boos and scorn we’ve had the last three years,” Baker said.
Dusty is old enough, 73, to have smoked a joint with Jimi Hendrix as a teen. He’s cool enough to stop by a deli and buy matzah ball soup, helping Bregman break his Yom Kippur fast. Last weekend, after advancing to the ALCS, he dominated the clubhouse dance show. “When you get a chance to party, you party. You know what I mean?’ he said.
If Crane was a scoundrel for allowing the sign-stealing to happen a few feet from his Minute Maid Park seat — he pleads ignorance, which is as bad as knowing when you own the guilty team — he was brilliant in hiring Baker to burn sage, so to speak, and blow away the odor. When you watch THESE Astros win 106 regular-season games and sweep the Mariners, before quieting Judge and the Yankees in the first two games, you don’t think about THOSE Astros. Johnnie B. Baker has done a lot of crazy stuff in his life, but he doesn’t steal signs from TV monitors.
He has been the equilibrium amid the storm. The worst has passed. Might he finally win his first World Series as a manager, after 25 years of trying and 50-plus years in the major leagues?
"It doesn't weigh on me," he said. “I feel very fortunate to have been here (in the playoffs) for the 12th time. I've done the best that I can do to this point, and that's all you can do. Twelve has been my lucky number since I was a little kid.”
Peculiarly, Baker’s contract will expire shortly after a would-be trophy presentation. Crane refuses to extend his manager and general manager, James Click, until he sees how the postseason ends. “I ain’t worried. Worrying does no good,” Baker said. “I believe the Lord will always take care of me. It’s been that way my whole life. I had cancer, then I had a stroke … then this job opened up.” He wants to return — and surely will, barring an unforeseen catastrophe (like the Houston version of Steve Bartman interfering with a foul ball) — or a clubhouse of angry admirers might revolt.
“He loves this sport. He loves being in the clubhouse with these guys. So he tries to be as friendly and personable as possible, just because we are here every day with him,” Tucker said. “I think he's done a phenomenal job with that. He loves winning, comes out here every single day — like, if we're at the field, might as well win. So he's really enjoying his time here, and we're happy to have him.”
The tragedy of it all, if it’s the proper word, is that the Astros ever had to stoop and be the Asterisks to begin with. They are much too good to cheat. It took five years of public probation, but the world finally knows.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question 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 gravitated by osmosis to film projects.