Lance McCullers, Houston Astros pitcher, is distinctly unamused that Joe Kelly, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher, walked Astros third baseman Alex Bregman on 3-0 with a pitch up, in, toward Bregman’s head, but flying past his shoulders as he ducked Tuesday night. Most of the Astros weren’t amused, of course. But McCullers goes further.
Kelly threw behind Bregman “on purpose,” USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale quotes McCullers. “Not only did he take it upon himself to send a message, but he wasn’t even a part of that team. We knew coming into the game he likes to go off script. What he did was unprofessional.”
Notice that McCullers didn’t say Kelly’s subsequent double-dusting of Astros first baseman Carlos Correa on breaking balls before striking Correa out to end the bottom of the sixth lacked professionalism. But notice, too, what McCullers forgets.
We’re not necessarily condoning fastballs to or toward the cranium when we remind McCullers—and any other Astro who forgets—that Kelly might not have been a 2017 Dodger, but he was a 2017 Red Sox pitcher. And the Red Sox lost that year’s American League division series to the Astros in four games, the only Red Sox win a 10-3 blowout for which Kelly, ironically, received pitching credit.
Kelly the 2017 Red Sox surely had as much right to fume over the subsequent Astrogate revelations as the Dodgers who lost the 2017 World Series had, considering the Manfred Report suggested very powerfully that the Astro Intelligence Agency—illegally-installed extra center field camera sending stolen pitch signs to a clubhouse monitor, where their translator banged the can slowly to send them to Astro hitters—didn’t go out of business for that postseason.
The fact that Kelly has worn a Dodger uniform since 2019 would normally be irrelevant. But the Dodgers were one of numerous teams whose players sniped over Astro players getting away with Astrogate murder, thanks to Manfred foolishly giving them immunity to spill instead of using his office’s powers to tell them spill or be spilled.
Many of those sniping players suggested strongly enough that there should be and likely would be justice administered on the season, whenever the season might have gotten underway since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered spring training and sent the Show into an untoward battle over when to start something resembling a regular season.
If any team had reason to want Astro heads on plates, the Dodgers did. “They may be playing baseball in the middle of a world-wide pandemic, where social distancing is strongly encouraged and breathing on one another is prohibited,” Nightengale writes. “But sorry, it wasn’t about to stop three years of built-up anger and rage.”
“You going to throw at somebody,” fumed Astros manager Dusty Baker, who has enough on his hands trying to steer his charges through and past the iceberg-heavy waters of Astrogate’s aftermath, “you don’t throw at a guy’s head. That’s dirty baseball. Now you’re flirting with ending his career.”
Baker’s 2017 ended when his Washington Nationals imploded in Game Five of their own division series against the Chicago Cubs. So did his tenure managing that team. Surely he wasn’t so isolated since as to miss the truth and depth of Astrogate. If throwing at a dome is dirty ball, what does Baker call illegal electronic off-field-based sign-stealing? Clean ball?
After Bregman’s walk, Astros outfielder Michael Brantley forced him at second base. Somewhat emphatically, Brantley stepped on Kelly’s foot as Kelly covered first base on the play. Kelly lingered near the base a few moments and someone in the empty-but-for-cutouts Minute Maid Park was heard hollering something along the line of, “Get the [fornicate] back to the mound,” unless it was, “Get back to the [fornicating] mound.”
Someone asked Baker if Kelly’s subsequent dustings of Correa equaled payback for those utterances. “No,” the manager said sharply enough, “don’t give him an excuse. I’m not going to give him an excuse because we didn’t say anything. My guys didn’t do nothing, OK?” Eight of Baker’s guys now were also 2017 Astros. (For the record, ten Dodgers today were 2017 Dodgers, too.) They certainly didn’t do nothing that year and at least part of 2018.
Nothing actually got done about it, despite others around the league the next two seasons putting bugs (if you’ll pardon the expression) into the ears of reporters reluctant to press editors to run with stories for which those people refused to go on the public record. Not until Mike Fiers—pitcher, 2017 Astro turned Detroit Tiger turned Oakland Athletic—got fed up at last and blew the whistle last November.
Someone on Kelly’s Red Sox was caught red-handed during that regular season using an AppleWatch to try stealing New York Yankees signs, while the Yankees were caught with an extra and unlawful dugout phone presumed to have been a sign-stealing aid. Commissioner Rob Manfred slapped them on the wrists and handed down a near-toothless directive saying, basically, if you guys do that again we’re going to be . . . very, very angry at you.
The Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring, also exposed and harrumphed by Manfred in Astrogate’s immediate wake, didn’t go into business until 2017 Astros bench coach/AIA co-mastermind Alex Cora became the 2018-19 Red Sox’s manager. They pushed the Astros aside in the 2018 American League Championship Series and beat the Dodgers in the World Series.
Those who still demand to know why the Rogue Sox don’t draw even half the fury the Asterisks have, the answer is simple enough: replay room video equipment is already there, at home and on the road. With a plan dependent entirely on having men on base to transmit the de-coded, pilfered intelligence to their hitters, the Rogue Sox didn’t have to think about installing an extralegal camera transmitting to an isolated closed-circuit television network.
The replay room wasn’t exactly designed to nourish team intelligence agencies, of course. But the Rogue Sox at least honoured the spirit if not the legal letter of gamesmanship. Baseball’s government could be considered to have handed them the keys to the cookie jar, which compares admittedly to giving teenagers the keys to the hooch hutch. It didn’t exactly give the Asterisks any opening to cross the line from mere gamesmanship to illegally-equipped underground espionage.
When Dodger players sniped with particular harshness among the players around the league in spring, demanding Astro justice, Kelly wasn’t one of them. He didn’t say, “Everybody knows they stole the [World Series] ring from us.” Cody Bellinger did. He didn’t say, “It’s pretty evident to me that it wasn’t earned, and it’s not something that a banner should be hung at their stadium, a trophy should be put up.” Justin Turner did.
When the Astros greeted spring training with those distinctly unapologetic apologies for the AIA, Bregman and Correa were thought to have been two of the more vocal such unapologetics. If Kelly didn’t keep that in the back of his mind, it might be almost as shocking as the pandemic-provoked, health-and-safety-seeded regional schedule that matched the Dodgers and the Astros early enough this truncated season.
“There is a lot of tension between the Dodgers and Astros, mainly because the Astros won the 2017 World Series, beating the Dodgers in seven games, and the Dodgers haven’t won a World Series since the Reagan administration,” writes Houston Chronicle columnist Jerome Solomon, who thinks the “cult” fuming over Astrogate is almost exclusively Los Angeles-based.
Wrong, Mr. Solomon. Astrogate outrage didn’t and doesn’t remain confined to the greater Los Angeles area. A lot wider community of baseball fans across the country was outraged that a genuinely great team needed an in-house illegal intelligence agency to abet them when their own mass of talent and skill should have been more than enough.
Mr. Solomon would do better asking the Astros why they were so apologetically unapologetic when questioned in spring, instead of dismissing the national fury as Los Angeles’s alone. And, asking McCullers and Baker why throwing at or near a head isn’t professional but illegal electronic sign-stealing is.
Manfred’s government gave the cheaters immunity but dropped the hammer on Kelly Wednesday with an eight-game suspension for throwing at Bregman and taunting Correa, never mind that Correa taunted Kelly first after the pitcher left the mound for the dugout. Kelly’s appealing the suspension; Dodgers manager Dave Roberts will serve a single-game suspension tonight. Because the benches cleared, Baker was fined.
With the health and safety protocols mandating nobody in the stands other than cardboard cutouts of man, woman, and sometimes even beast, the coronavirus inadvertently gave the Astros a phenomenal break from the crowds who otherwise might have greeted them on the professional road with lusty booing, hissing, howling, and even their own trash can bangings.
The pandemic also gave the Astros a break when the benches cleared after Kelly’s and Correa’s mutual assured schoolyard spewing as Kelly approached the third base line returning to the Dodger dugout. Though, I repeat, it might have been mad fun to watch them obey social distancing guidelines and have a pantomime brawl.
It may seem between silly and frivolous that boys will be boys even playing baseball in the time of coronavirus. But there’s still something reassuring in at least one team and possibly more to come not forgetting the AIA, the damage it did baseball itself, and the seeming indifference of the Astros themselves to the ramifications even after Manfred’s marshmallow hammer dropped.
If they don’t hand Kelly the keys to Los Angeles, they might at least be tempted to name a candy bar after him. We’ve had Mounds, Snickers, Crunch, and Krackel. Maybe they could create the Hey, Joe!