It makes a fellow not so proud to be an Astro

2019-12-10 AJHinch

A.J. Hinch, looking as though at minimum he’s been sent to the principal’s office.

Once upon a time a very different generation of Astros amused themselves on team buses and planes by singing a randy song to the tune of legendary musical humourist  Tom Lehrer’s “It Makes a Fella Proud to Be a Soldier.” The late Jim Bouton, an Astro from August 1969 until his aging arm plus the hoopla over Ball Four farmed him out to stay in 1970, said every new Astro received a copy almost at once. Then, he recorded the complete lyrics including this verse:

Now our pitching staff’s composed of guys who think they’re pretty cool,
with a case of Scotch, a greenie, and an old beat-up whirlpool.
We’ll make the other hitters laugh
then calmly break their bats in half,
it makes a fellow proud to be an Astro.

Those Astros hung on the fringe of the National League West race in divisional play’s first season. Today’s Astros, long since moved to the American League (they were the team to be named later in former commissioner Bud Selig’s move of his formerly owned team, the Brewers, to the National League), are three-time American League West winners in the midst of which also came two pennants and a World Series conquest.

Now the Astros have lost a pitcher who didn’t necessarily make the other hitters laugh while he broke their bats in half: Gerrit Cole, who served them better than well for two seasons and proved off-the-charts magnificent down this year’s stretch and in the first two postseason rounds. Reaching his first career free agency, Cole couldn’t resist the Yankees’ extending him a deal for nine years at $324 million, the highest ever to be paid to any major league pitcher.

Which tells you something about what can happen when a good pitcher in sound condition finally became a great pitcher in sound condition in 2019, after joining a team with deeper knowledge of the art and its array of correctives than his former team (the Pirates) ever seemed to allow. And Cole joins the team he helped defeat in this year’s American League Championship Series, the team he would have faced in Game Seven if not for Jose Altuve’s stupefying, game-set-and-pennant winning two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth in Game Six.

Everyone including myself ponders the immediacy of the winners and losers on this winter’s market after Cole’s signing. Including the Astros themselves, whose owner Jim Crane, as CBS Sports’s Dayn Perry observes, “is pointlessly worried about staying under the Competitive Balance Tax threshold. According to multiple reports, the Astros are even shopping star shortstop Carlos Correa in the name of payroll efficiency. The Astros are one hundred percent in win-now mode, and the idea of trading Correa and not bidding vigorously to retain Cole should have fans calling Crane to account.”

For that and a few other things, of course. And some of us including myself ponder, too, whether Cole will bring the Yankees such knowledge as he might have, intimate or otherwise, as regards, you know, the other stuff buffeting the Astros now. The Astrogate probe is now said looking beyond 2017, into both the seasons during which Cole suited up and pitched for the Astros, and you’d be less than human if you didn’t contemplate whether Cole would enlighten his new teammates on the Astro Intelligence Agency as did Mike Fiers when he signed with the Tigers, and subsequently joined the Athletics, after 2017.

Hours before the Cole signing detonated the world in general and the Twitterverse in particular, Astros manager A.J. Hinch discovered his presence at this week’s winter meetings in San Diego meant the press finding it impossible to resist asking him about Astrogate. It was certain that he wouldn’t answer questions about it because the commmissioner’s is an ongoing investigation. And far be it for Hinch to break the rules in this instance, one of which enjoins against speaking up or forth while such an investigation proceeds and progresses.

The cynic would chew on the continuing strain of accepting those rules you’re comfortable accepting and breaking those you’re comfortable breaking, on the assumption that Hinch was surely well aware of the AIA, since the concurrent presumption is that a baseball manager a) is responsible for the doings or undoings by those under his command and b) unlikely under most such circumstances to have disapproved above or beyond the customary “just don’t get caught, boys” admonition.

But still . . . but still . . . “If I was in your shoes, I would be on the other side of this table,” Hinch told the gathering in response to a question. “And I would want to ask questions and find answers and get some more information on the investigation and all the allegations and things like that. I know you’re probably expecting this, but I can’t comment on it. It is an ongoing investigation.”

Associated Press reporter Jake Seiner translated thus that Hinch “is eager to tell his side of the story regarding allegations Houston used electronics to steal signs en route to a 2017 World Series championship, but he is going to let Major League Baseball talk first.” The Athletic‘s Spink Award-winning Jayson Stark (presented his award in Cooperstown this past July) tweeted at about 5:34 p.m. Pacific time Tuesday, “”AJ Hinch just finished 19 uncomfortable minutes of meeting with the media. Mostly declined comment on anything related to the cheating investigation. Said he’s talked to MLB ‘a couple of times’ and now is just ‘waiting’ for a verdict. ‘Everything is in their hands’.”

If you’ve lost the track of the AIA flow chart, it’s this: Live, real-time camera operated from somewhere behind the center field playing area transmits live, real-time signs to the opposing pitcher, which transmission is seen on a large enough, duly connected monitor in the Astro clubhouse adjacent to the steps from the clubhouse to the dugout, in front of which someone, who knows whom just yet, deciphers the signs and transmits them to an Astro hitter with one or two bangs on a large plastic or vinyl trash can, dependent upon which pitch the victimised catcher called.

“I’ve committed my time and energy to cooperate with MLB,” Hinch went on to say Tuesday evening. “I’ve talked to them a couple times, and we continue to work with them as they navigate the investigation, and now we’re waiting with everything in their hands. So I know there’s still going to be questions. I hope there’s a day where I’m able to answer more questions, but I know today’s not that day. I know it will disappoint some people.”

In some other words, Hinch may be anxious to lay it down about Astrogate but any time you need Hinch—heretofore considered one of baseball’s most sensitively intelligent managers—don’t just whistle, and he won’t blow the whistle himself until he has some sort of official dispensation or pang of conscience to do so. If the rules of his profession enjoin against commenting publicly about an ongoing investigation, his immediate answer still leaves Hinch with a dubious look, though not even close to the one left to Crane when, at last month’s owners’ meetings, he, too, dismissed Astrogate questioning.

“If you want to talk about baseball, I’ll talk about baseball,” was Crane’s dismissal, as if electronic cheating from off the field, violating baseball’s specific rule against such espionage, and the likelihood that the Astros aren’t the only team operating such spy operations, had absolutely nothing to do with the game. The painfully few Astrogate comments from within the Astros’ apparatus have included hopes that the Astros don’t become the poster children for something not restricted to themselves, and that’s very much to do with baseball.

If Hinch and Crane were employed instead in the business of the government, answers like theirs might harry reporters and investigators toward exhuming a cover-up almost as ardently as they already harried to the original crime, misdemeanour, or contra-constitutional mischief. Reporters and investigators alike on the Astrogate trail are doing just that, surely. The safest assumption is that more than a handful of Astros knew about and availed themselves of the AIA that sauntered far past the accepted bounds of on-the-field gamesmanship.

Believing Hinch knew nothing of or ignored the operation particularly when the bangs! or the bang-bangs! on the can went booming forth insults our own intelligence. What could he believe they were? Teammates rooting? Between-turns batting practise by players anxious not to be more than a few hops from stepping in as a pinch swinger and thus not repairing to the underground batting cages? Practise for banging a drum slowly during a victory parade?

Commissioner Rob Manfred and his bloodhounds may discover very well that the Astros aren’t the only major league team with a taste for espionage—if they haven’t discovered that already. (Published reporting suggests that as of this writing almost sixty witnesses and over seventy thousand e-mails have been gathered with more, much more to come.) But Hinch is in a position that can’t hold very long, and he may yet experience a pang of conscience akin to that of his former pitcher Fiers, who blew the whistle on and pulled the covers off the AIA in the first place.

Hinch heretofore earned a reputation as one of baseball’s most sensitively intelligent managers, a reputation in danger of being very badly vaporised. His face Tuesday evening showed every suggestion of the schoolboy who knows his trouble has only just begun after he’s finished in the principal’s office. Like Fiers, his conscience pang wouldn’t necessarily mean naming or implying suspects. But Hinch would be to baseball as Alexander Butterfield to the Nixon White House, exposing its sophisticated in-house taping system under Senate questioning during the early Watergate peaks.

Butterfield installed the White House system and owned up. Hinch may or may not have conceived the AIA himself. If he didn’t but he was genuinely unaware, his looks could well become those of a man whose smarts were invaded by incompetence that would strike some as cruelly comic and others as tragic. It makes a fellow not so proud to be an Astro.

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