What the Yankeegate letter won’t do

Affirming the 2017 Yankees as cheaters won’t exonerate or excuse that year’s Astros or the next year’s Red Sox.

Remember the somewhat infamous admonitory letter from commissioner Rob Manfred to Yankee general manager Brian Cashman, regarding proof that the Yankees were up to some 2017 electronic sign-stealing of their own? The letter the Yankees have fought to suppress with the same ardor as they exercise trying to break a decade-plus World Series ring drought?

The Yankeegate letter’s going to come forth in a fortnight, ESPN says. We’re going to learn at last whether Manfred told the whole story of any such Yankee panky or, if he did, just what it actually involved, other than the once-infamous dugout phone/Apple watch slap on the wrist. It only took two years from the day federal judge Jed S. Rakoff ordered the letter unsealed and disclosed to the public with minimal redaction.

Maybe it was only the dugout phone and/or the Apple watch. Maybe it included the Yankees trying to get cute using a television broadcast camera/monitor for a little extracurricular intelligence gathering. Maybe it included the Yankees operating a replay-room reconnaissance ring similar to that known to have been run by Red Sox players in 2018. Maybe.

The bad news, at least for the DraftKings fantasy baseball group, is that releasing the Yankeegate letter won’t reinstate their $5 million lawsuit over Astrogate and Soxgate and aimed at both those clubs plus MLB itself. The worse news is that, whatever is or isn’t in the Yankeegate letter, it won’t take the 2017-18 Astros especially, or the 2018 Red Sox as well, off the hook.

Memory summons back that some around the Astros—and no few of their fans—believed to their souls that high-tech sign-stealing was prevalent enough that they would have been left in the dust if they didn’t think about a little such subterfuge themselves. Mostly, it involved replay-room reconnaissance. The Red Sox got bagged for it over 2018, but few pretended they were the only team with that kind of spymanship.

The Rogue Sox and their fellow replay-room spies, whomever they were, still required a little of the old-fashioned gamesmanship technique: their pilfered intelligence was useless unless there was a man on base to receive it and thus signal it to the man at the plate. That doesn’t justify, either. Sign-stealing from the basepaths or the coaching lines is one thing. Picking it off replay monitors is something else entirely.

But those rooms were provided by MLB itself, to the home and visiting teams in each ballpark. Expecting them to be there without one or another team giving in to the sign-stealing temptation was (I repeat, yet again) something like Mom and Dad making off for a weekend getaway without the kids and leaving the liquor cabinet keys behind.

The 2017-18 Astros took it quite a few bridges farther. For one thing, a front office intern created a sign-stealing algorithm (Codebreaker) that he warned was legal to use before and after games but not during games, a warning then-general manager Jeff Luhnow pooh-poohed while fostering a since-exposed organisational culture in which, to be polite, human decency, never mind honest competition, was seen as an encumbrance.

For another thing, there was that little matter of either an existing camera altered illegally from its mandatory eight-second transmission delay; or, a second, illegally deployed real-time camera. Either or both of which sent signs to be deciphered from an extracurricular clubhouse monitor and then transmitted to Astro hitters with the infamous trash can bangs.

Nobody with credibility says the replay-room reconnaissance rings were right. And nobody with credibility should ever say those rings made the 2017-18 Astros less guilty. As things turned out, the Astros had such a broad reputation inside baseball for their kind of cheating that their 2019 World Series opponents took themselves to extraordinary lengths to thwart it.

No, the 2019 world champion Nationals didn’t build their own extralegal closed-circuit television spy network. They merely provided every one of their World Series pitchers with five individual sets of signs each to switch up in a split second’s notice, with their catchers provided wrist-band cards featuring every one of those sign sets just in case.

Whataboutism is no defense whether you’re a rogue police officer, a corrupt politician, or an illegal off-field-based electronic sign-stealing cheater. The Astros couldn’t just whatabout their Astro Intelligence Agency and get away with it in the public mind. Nor could the Rogue Sox whatabout it when their 2018 edition was exposed for replay-room reconaissance cheaters.

The Yankees won’t be able to whatabout it if the infamous letter shows their 2017 edition to have been replay-room or broadcasting-camera cheaters, either. But we’ll have to wait at least a fortnight before we know at least some the rest of the Yankeegate story.

The Twins deliver a stunning signing: Carlos Correa

Carlos Correa

Almost nobody expected the longtime Astros shortstop to sign with the Twins.

It’s hard to look at Carlos Correa signing with the Twins for three years and $105.3 million without knowing the Astros’ remaining Astrogate contingent is reduced officially by one. There are now only three position players and one pitcher remaining from the tainted 2017 World Series winners.

This should be good for the Astros in terms of leaving the Astrogate taint further and further behind them. But I suspect it won’t be. With only four Astrogate-team members left last year, the Astros still heard it loud and long from fans on the road. Some of it was mere booing, catcalling, and “chea-ter!” chants. Some of it was inflatable and actual trash cans hitting fields.

I still suspect it’s not going to stop until the last Astrogater standing no longer wears an Astro uniform. Not until second baseman Jose Altuve (who actually didn’t partake all the way in the Astro Intelligence Agency’s 2017-18 off-field based, illegal camera-abetted, electronic sign-stealing operation), third baseman Alex Bregman, first baseman Yuli Gurriel, and pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr. move to other teams if not into retirement.

As it happens, I have tickets for what will now be Opening Day, period, in Angel Stadium on 7 April. Guess who the Angels host to start their regular season. My son and myself will probably wonder en route the ballpark how many other Angel fans will turn up with inflatable trash cans, bangable trash cans, and more to continue letting the Astros have it.

It took decades before the 1951 New York Giants were verified once and for all as off-field based sign-stealing cheaters en route the comeback that forced the fabled pennant playoff. It took only two years from the 2017 World Series to expose and verify the AIA. And it took only a couple of hours during the pandemically-aborted 2020 spring training for the Astros to show the world they didn’t quite think their cheating was that big a deal.

Correa since the infamous spring training 2020 presser has been maybe the most stubborn defender of the Astros’ 2017 Series title. “When you analyze the games,” he said before the coronavirus closed that spring training and half the season to come, “we won fair and square. We earned that championship.”

Funny, but that’s not exactly what Correa said at the infamous presser. While Astros owner Jim Crane tripped over himself, Bregman tossed word salad, and since-gone outfielder Josh Reddick “couldn’t really say [the AIA operation] did or didn’t” give the Astros an advantage, Correa said, essentially, not so fast:

It’s an advantage. I’m not going to lie to you. If you know what’s coming, you get a slight edge. And that’s why [then-general manager Jeff Luhnow and then-manager A.J. Hinch] got suspended and people got fired because it’s not right. It’s not right to do that. It was an advantage. But . . . it’s not going to happen moving forward.

After the Braves nailed last fall’s World Series at the Astros’ expense, Correa spoke in terms that would have made him a fit on the 20th Century Yankees.

Second place is not good enough for us. I know it’s not good enough for you guys. But it speaks volumes of how good our organization is, how talented our clubhouse is. Five ALCS in a row. Three World Series in five years. I don’t know what else you want to ask from a great ball club . . .People expect greatness when you talk about the Houston Astros. They expect us to make the playoffs every year. They expect us to be in the World Series every year.

But the only one they won is the one that just so happens to be tainted.

And, speaking of the Yankees, take a poke around the vast multitudes that root for or at least follow them and it seemed as though the number one thought in and out of their minds Saturday morning was, How on earth could the Yankees miss out on signing Correa? Did they really take Josh Donaldson’s contract on in that trade with the Twins just to let the Twins snatch Correa with the savings?

Others thought Correa outsmarted himself into taking considerably less with the Twins than he thought he might get on a market that got forced into overdrive thanks to that ridiculous owners’ lockout. But he’ll pull down the fourth-highest single-season salary of 2022, behind pitchers Max Scherzer (Mets) and Gerrit Cole (Yankees) plus outfielder Mike Trout (Angels).

The deal also includes opt-outs after this season and next. Turning 28 in the final third of this coming September, and assuming he has a typically Correa season in Minnesota, he could still opt out and play next winter’s market for something more to his supposed liking. Maybe he didn’t really outsmart himself, after all?

Maybe the Yankees still have a spring surprise yet to play. They unloaded Gio Urshela (shortstop) and Gary Sanchez (catcher) to bring Donaldson (third base), Isiah Kiner-Falefa (shortstop), and Ben Rortvedt (catcher) aboard. Maybe they have Kiner-Falefa in mind to play support after they sign free agent shorstop Trevor Story? Maybe?

Or maybe the Twins have decided, yes, they’re coming into it to try to win it, including enticing the shortstop anchor from the penthouse of the American League West for a season at least. Maybe they can make Correa happy in the Twin Cities, after all.

Maybe he can join his fellow high 2012 draft pick Byron Buxton (Correa and Buxton were numeros uno and two-o in that draft) to yank them from the basement to the penthouse. He did prove last year that he knows how to win without any funny business that anyone knew of, even if the Astros came up two bucks short in the World Series.

‘[T]he makings of a formidable lineup are present in Minnesota, though they’ll need a few things to break right,” writes MLB Trade Rumors’s Steve Adams, who also notes their “patchwork starting [pitching] rotation” remains a cause for some alarm even with trading for Sonny Gray from the apparently tanking Reds.

From the defensive side of things, Correa gives the Twins a pair of Platinum Glove winners, joining Buxton in that regard. With quality defenders like [Max] Kepler, Urshela and young catcher Ryan Jeffers also occupying key spots on the diamond, the Twins should have a strong defensive team overall. The Twins already ranked 12th in the Majors both in Defensive Runs Saved and Outs Above Average in 2021, and Correa should boost both marks.

There’s something else Correa could do now that he’s become a Twin, too. Something not exactly unprecedented. He could become the latest 2017 Astro to drop all pretenses, denials, and whataboutisms, and come a lot cleaner about Astrogate.

That began with utilityman Marwin Gonzalez, who signed with the Twins as a free agent for 2018, then with the Red Sox as a free agent for 2021, got released by the Red Sox last August, and signed to return to the Astros for their run to the World Series.

Gonzalez broke the ice around the time of the infamous 2020 Astro presser. “I’m remorseful for everything that happened in 2017,” he told reporters, “for everything that we did as a group, and for the players that were affected directly by us doing this.”

He, too, didn’t use the C word. Maybe it’d be too much to expect Correa to use it, too, if he decides it’s safe to come all the way clean now. But it would give him a better look either way than the one he often had clinging stubbornly to the idea that the 2017 World Series title wasn’t really tainted.

2021: Wanted—a Laundromat

Rob Manfred, baseball’s version of Rube Goldberg’s evil twin.

Once upon a time, when you could be sure . . . if it was Westinghouse, that once-ubiquitous home appliance maker trumpeted its angular front-loading washing machine thus: “You’ll love your Laundromat more every day!” There are those, and they may be legion, who think baseball today needs a Laundromat it can love more every day, too.

But the game may first need to remember where 2021’s laundry hamper is located. “[Major League Baseball]’s dirty laundry,” writes the irrepressibly irreverent Deadspin, “was only forgotten by the general public when some newer, shinier scandal made its way onto the scene.”

Deadspin thus began its proclamation of commissioner Rob Manfred as the eighth biggest idiot in 2021 sports. By the time you finish reading just that particular bill of particulars, you may come to think it’ll take an entire Laundromat—those vintage, Westinghouse-stocked,  self-service laundry versions of the very vintage self-service Horn & Hardart Automats, that is—to get MLB’s washing done.

Thanks to baseball’s owners and their off-season lockout, the keys to the Laundromat can’t and won’t re-open it for badly needed business. Thanks to Manfred’s determination to leave a legacy as having been baseball’s version of Rube Goldberg’s evil twin, baseball has continued calling the repairmen to fix what wasn’t broken while calling the dentist to set the limbs that were.

Manfred has dropped more balls than ever eluded the grasp of legnedary first base fumbler Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart. From almost the moment he succeeded Bud Selig in the commissioner’s chair, Manfred has seemed to administer baseball even further down the line Selig and his then-fellow owners once engineered while ignoring blissfully their roles laying the tracks: Baseball sucks! Bring the wife and kids! 

The Astros caught red-handed in an elaborate and illegal off-field-based electronic sign-stealing operation? The Red Sox caught using their replay room for sign-stealing reconnaissance assuming men on base to receive and transmit the purloined letters? By the rules, Manfred could only fine Astros owner Jim Crane $5 million, “which is roughly the price equivalent of a Nachos Bell Grande at Taco Bell to you or I,” Deadspin snarks. He couldn’t quite hit the Red Sox like that over turning what MLB itself provides each team at home or on the road.

But he could have imposed far more stern measures than stripping the Astros of a pair of key draft picks. He could also have imposed something more grave upon the Red Sox than letting them skate by suspending their manager and banishing their video room operator. As one presidential candidate once purred about the other’s party, in debate and on the campaign trail, he had his chance but he did not lead.

That was in 2020. Over a year later, all of that was almost (underline that) forgotten by your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Tack. As in, that new old-fashioned medicated goo pitchers deployed the better to get a grip on something upon which Manfred lacks a grip—making baseballs that are as viable for pitchers to throw as for hitters to hit. The inconsistent surfaces of the balls today compelled enough pitchers to seek medicated help. That some of them saw it as a fine shield for chicanery should have been anticipated, but wasn’t.

So Manfred cracked down . . . about a couple of months after he should have done so. It simply reinforced the suspicions of too many that this commissioner picks and chooses when to enforce particular rules. It also provoked them to ask why Manfred was more alarmed about potentially cheating pitchers than he was about the continuing lack of umpire accountability.

He certainly wasn’t all that alarmed about cheating baseballs. You read that right: after the season, it came forth from Business Insider that two types of balls were used during the year. One was a little more on the dead side, the other a little more on the lively side. The magazine cited an astrophysicist who analysed the balls, found them suspicious, and even spoke to an unidentified pitcher who thought, as I wrote elsewhere early this month, that baseball’s government might have engaged a little game chicanery of its own:

This pitcher thinks MLB was also looking to manipulate particular matchups with the variable balls: send the slightly more dead balls to such lesser sets as, say, the Detroit Tigers versus the Kansas City Royals, since nobody was going to be interested in them, but send the slightly livelier balls to the marquee sets such as the Boston Red Sox versus the New York Yankees.

If you’re looking for a thorough MLB investigation into what we might call Ballgate, save your vision. It hasn’t happened yet. Whether it will happen is only slightly more difficult to guess than it once was to guess which one among about eight different leg kicks and about sixteen different windups Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal was likely to use to throw the next pitch your way.

(Which reminds me that the splendid staffers at Baseball Prospectus, in their book Extra Innings, once posited with splendid evidentiary supposition that the era of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances might have been at least as much the era of actual or alleged performance-enhancing baseballs. So Commissioner Goldberg didn’t start ball chicanery, but it’s possible he’s presided over its current tricks and treats.)

After a few comical responses to on-the-spot Spider-Tack and other substance searches that could have and almost did provoke strip teases by the suspects under potential arrest, Manfred and his administration provided further evidence that today’s baseball handles scandal by engaging one somewhat worse than the incumbent. This time, the name was Trevor Bauer.

This time, Bauer was place on administrative leave over sexual misconduct  accusations described politely as salacious, with each period of leave extended going, going, going, until he was gone, goodbye, for the final two-thirds of the season. His Dodgers—who’d signed him big without doing complete due diligence last offseason; who won 106 games and still had to win the wild card game for postseason advancement (because their historic and division rival Giants won one game more)—almost went to the World Series without him.

Meanwhile, Manfred persisted with his COVID-shortened 2020 season’s tinkerings over the full 2021. On behalf of his often-questionable or at least mis-directed alarm over the length of baseball games, Manfred persisted with the free cookie on second base to open each extra half inning. He persisted with his rule that relief pitchers must face three batters at minimum before they can be relieved. The former remained a mere nuisance. The latter could have gotten someone killed.

That would be Bryce Harper, now the National League’s defending Most Valuable Player, but then taking an errant fastball off his nose and onto his batting-side wrist courtesy of Cardinals reliever Genesis Cabrera—on the first pitch of the top of the sixth. It could have knocked Harper’s block off. It did knock his batting helmet off. It scared the hell out of both teams and the Busch Stadium audience.

The next pitch Cabrera threw hit Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius. The three-minimum rule still prevented Cardinals manager Mike Schildt from lifting a pitcher whose lack of control was obvious to all but the blind. Harper ended up suffering a terrible slump while he struggled to play through the wrist compromise yet recovered to post an MVP season. He also texted Schildt after the fateful game to say he knew Cabrera wasn’t trying to decapitate him.

“Whoever’s a fan of Bryce Harper, whoever has children that are fans of Bryce Harper, support that guy,” Schildt told reporters postgame. “Because what he sent over in a message today was completely a class act.” It was the diametric opposite of the commissioner’s act.

Commissioner Goldberg has also sought, ham-handedly, to make the game pay through the nose for any agreement to make the designated hitter universal. He wants a trade-off: I’ll give you the universal DH, but you give me an agreement that you lose your DH if you lift your starting pitcher sooner than six innings or thereabout. If you think he’s learned nothing from his three-batter relief minimum, wait until you see him flunk this one.

Just as relievers might enter a game having nothing left, for assorted reasons, starting pitchers often enough begin a game on the vulnerable side. If Manfred really thinks he’s doing the game a favour by forcing a team to sacrifice a game’s designated hitter, because the manager got his roughed-up starter out of there early enough before getting the guy killed to death, I think I may have found a buyer for that cut-rate Antarctican beach club.

If and when the owners and the players return to the negotiating table on behalf of ending this lockout, the players should give the owners and their barely-trained seal one answer to that:

Don’t even think about it. It’s long past time for the DH to be universal. Pitchers overall have never been hitters; those very few who were were outliers, and everyone with a brain knows it. We’re tired of wasting pitchers at the plate and watching rallies die. We’re really tired of losing pitchers to the injured list when they get hurt at the plate. The DH is long overdue in the National League, one of whose ancient owners dreamed it up in the first place. Deal with it. End of subject.

Manfred’s alarm at the length of baseball games has yet to address the truest of the culprits, broadcast advertising. You can look it up: Two minutes worth of commercials between half innings equals 36 minutes per nine-inning game. That’s before the commercials during in-inning pitching changes. (You might notice it takes less time for a relief pitcher to come in from the bullpen and throw eight game-mound pitches than it does to run the first minute’s commercial.) And, before extra innings, which are the two second-loveliest words in a true baseball fan’s vocabulary. (The loveliest, of course, are, “Play ball!”)

The next time you watch a game on television or listen on radio or online, make note of every commercial played during the broadcast from the first pitch to the final out. When you add the times of those commercials, you can’t say you weren’t warned that you might have seen a mere two hours’ worth of baseball for your trouble. Thus persists Manfred’s likeliest definition of the common good of the game: making money for it.

Thus, too, were soiled such luminous matters as the emergence of Shohei Ohtani as an international two-way major league mega-star. (And, the American League’s Most Valuable Player.) Such matters as the Braves picking themselves up from the loss of their franchise player-in-waiting Ronald Acuna, Jr. for the second half of the season, dusting themselves off with a trade deadline array of outfield-remaking deals, then wrestling their way to a sixth World Series game in which one of those newly-acquired outfielders, Jorge Soler, led the way bludgeoning the Astros home without another lease to the Promised Land.

Manfred presenting the Braves with the World Series trophy (you know, the one he once called a mere piece of metal) and Soler with the Series MVP award carried all the duplicity of Dmitri Muratov winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight to restore and enhance freedom of expression in Russia—and the Norwegian Nobel Committee enlisting Vladimir Putin to present it to him.

Is it going to take a one-hundred-washer Laundromat to clean up this mess? You can be sure . . . if it’s Manfredhouse.

ALCS Game One: The world didn’t implode

Jose Altuve

Jose Altuve’s two-run homer tied Game One and turned the game’s momentum to the Astros . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Before the American League Championship Series began, it was easy to remember but so hard to forget. The elephant still lingered in the room.

The American League West-winning Astros. The American League wild card-winning Red Sox. Electronic sign-stealing cheaters versus electronic sign-stealing cheaters. Right?

Not quite that simple. Not even if Red Sox fans and others still cringe over the 2017-18 Astro Intelligence Agency. Not even if Astro fans and others still think the 2018 Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring proved the Astros weren’t alone in high-tech cheating.

Those Red Sox got nailed using their replay room as a sign-stealing helpmate. But they didn’t install the video apparatus in there, MLB did—for them and all thirty teams, behind all home and visitors’ dugouts in all thirty ballparks. Their way, and they probably weren’t the only team doing it, depended on having men on base to relay stolen signs to their batters.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it one more time: With the best intentions, MLB in essence were Mom and Dad leaving the keys to the liquor cabinet behind expecting the kids were mature enough not to open up and party while they were out of town for the weekend. The 2018 Rogue Sox opened up and partied. The 2017-18 Astros built their own distillery.

Their front office used an in-house-designed computer algorithm devised for sign stealing during games, despite the designer’s warning that doing it in-game was illegal. They used a high-speed, real-time camera to abrogate the mandatory eight-second transmission delay and send opposing signs to clubhouse monitors, next to which someone sent the hitters the dope via the infamous trash can bangs.

Both teams cheated then. Both teams seemed like deer frozen in the proverbial headlights when asked to show public accountability and contrition. The Astros were far, far worse. They went far, far above and beyond both the traditional on-the-field, in-the-dugout gamesmanship and the sort of boys-will-be-boys thing the Rogue Sox and others did with the MLB-gifted replay rooms.

Commissioner Rob Manfred may have erred in granting players from those teams immunity in return for the details, but his investigation did at least turn up and discipline the key overseers.

He suspended then-Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch before owner Jim Crane fired the pair. He suspended then-Astros bench coach Alex Cora over Astrogate, but determined the 2018 Rogue Sox’s prime culprit was video room operator J.T. Watkins while manager Cora, his coaches, the front office, and maybe half the Red Sox’s players weren’t in on the replay room reconnaissance ring.

Nobody can redeem those Astros or Red Sox, even if the Red Sox did re-hire a contrite-enough Cora to manage them this year. But we can remind ourselves that, today, only five Astrogate players remain with the team. We should remind ourselves that at least one such suspect, second baseman Jose Altuve, actually demurred from accepting stolen signs and even told his teammates and others to knock off the trash can banging while he was at the plate.

Only nine Rogue Sox members remain in uniform today, too. And, the rules against electronic sign-stealing were tightened in Astrogate’s aftermath. Video room security is now three people deep. Video feed delays are now fifteen seconds over the previous eight. Players caught stealing signs electronically can be suspended without pay or credited major league service time.

This year’s Astros and this year’s Red Sox got to this year’s ALCS regardless. Remove their former taints, and you have two opponents who entered the set with suspect pitching (particularly the Astros, losing Lance McCullers, Jr. to a forearm issue) but very strong offenses. Then, you watched Game One Friday night, even if in spite of yourselves.

You watched Red Sox center fielder Kike Hernandez strike long twice but Altuve strike once to change the game’s momentum toward the eventual 5-4 Astros win.

You watched Astros starting pitcher Framber Valdez and Red Sox starter Chris Sale unable to get out of the third inning alive. You watched the ordinarily suspect Astros bullpen hold the Red Sox to four hits, one walk, and one measly run, when Hernandez—who tied the game leading off the top of the third by hitting a Valdez curve ball far over the left center field seats—caught hold of a Ryan Pressly slider and send it deep into the Crawfords in the top of the ninth.

You watched the Red Sox take a 3-1 lead in that third a ground out, a walk, and a base hit up the pipe later, when designated hitter J.D. Martinez’s hopping grounder bumped off Altuve’s glove to send shortstop Xander Bogaerts (the walk) home, before right fielder Hunter Renfroe ripped an RBI double past Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and down the left field line to score Bregman’s Red Sox counterpart Rafael Devers (the base hit).

You watched Altuve ruin that lead in the bottom of the sixth, with Astros center fielder Chas McCormick aboard on a one-out single, when he hit the first pitch he saw from Red Sox reliever Tanner Houck into the Crawfords.

You watched another Red Sox reliever, Hansel Robles, fire sub-100 mph bullets in the bottom of the seventh to get rid of Bregman on a grounder to short and left fielder Yordan Alvarez on a hard-swinging strikeout, before offering Astros shortstop Carlos Correa a changeup that hung up enough for him to yank into the Crawfords to break the three-all tie.

You watched a Red Sox reliever who hadn’t pitched in almost two weeks, Hirokazu Sawamura, surrender a leadoff walk to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel before McCormick bounced a base hit in front of Red Sox left-field insertion Danny Santana (a top-of-the-eighth pinch hitter). You saw Martin Maldonado take a pitch off his right wrist to load the pads with nobody out.

And you saw Altuve hit a sacrifice fly to center to send Gurriel home with the fifth Houston run, though a slightly more on-line throw might have gotten Gurriel at the plate to keep things within a single run for Hernandez’s second launch of the night.

Kike Hernandez

Hernandez’s dive-and-roll catch of Michael Brantley’s second-inning-ending, bases-loaded sinking liner wasn’t enough to stop the Astros Friday night. Neither were his two long home runs. (Fox Sports screenshot.)

Hernandez’s mayhem—the two homers on a 4-for-5 night (the first such leadoff hitter in the Show to do it), bringing him to fourteen hits in 28 postseaon at-bats this time around, his MLB-record third lifetime postseason game of ten total bases—may not have been quite enough for the Red Sox to take Game One. But it was more than enough to impress Astros manager Dusty Baker.

“I haven’t seen a hitter this hot in the last week than Kike Hernandez,” the skipper said post-game, after Hernandez’s first launch came during Baker’s brief turn talking to Fox Sports broadcasters Joe Buck and Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz. “Boy, when I saw that ball go up, I was like, oh man, that was a blast. Then he blasted another one. It’s not a good feeling when you know you’re live on air and you see that ball leaving the ballpark.”

Hernandez wasn’t the only one dancing with the record books. Altuve and Correa became the first teammates to homer in the same postseason game for a fourth time. “He is just so dangerous,” said Correa of Altuve post-game. “His track record in the playoffs is insane, and he just inspires me. He inspires me without saying much.”

That track record includes tying Hall of Famer Derek Jeter for number three on the all-time postseason bomb roll with his 20th such launch Friday night. But you should have heard Altuve speak of Correa, too. “He is amazing,” the compact second baseman said of his keystone partner at shortstop. “He likes this kind of game. He wants to go out there and hit big homers. It seems like he expects to go out there and do it, so if you’re expecting something, eventually you’re going to make it happen, and that’s him.”

Hernandez also impressed the Astros and maybe even some of their home crowd Friday night with a few defensive gems, particularly his dive-and-roll catch of designated hitter Michael Brantley’s bases-loaded, sinking line drive to end the bottom of the second. But he’d have swapped all that for a Red Sox win.

“I think overall we played a good game,” he said postgame. “Once again, we didn’t do a good job of adding on to the lead, and at the end of the day, that’s why we lost. We weren’t able to add any more runs.” That was in large part because the usually suspect Astro bullpen managed to keep them to a measly four hits and a walk in the unexpected bullpen game.

With Nathan Eovaldi starting Game Two, and the still-fresh memory of being shut out by the Rays to start a division series in which they won the next three straight, the Red Sox don’t exactly have reasons to cringe just yet. Even Sale admitted Eovaldi was their best foot forward to launch Saturday.

“We’ve got the right guy on the right mound, and that’s all we can say,” he said. “Our lineup is going to bang with the best of them. There’s no doubt about that. We’ve got to do the little things right, and with Nate taking the ball, that’s everything we could ask for.”

So guess what didn’t happen when the two teams still recovering from their own Astrogate and Rogue Sox scandals—yes, listed in the order of true gravity—tangled in Game One? Knowing that no one will be comfortable with either one wholly, but the Astros especially, until the last Astrogater or the last of the Rogue Sox no longer wears either uniform?

The world didn’t implode. The flora didn’t wilt. The fauna didn’t commit mass suicide. The moon didn’t fall into the river. The sun didn’t awaken before its appointed time. The nations didn’t fall from the earth. The earth didn’t go flat.

Unless there comes fresh contravening evidence, the Astros and the Red Sox played it straight, no chaser, in a game that would have classified as a bit of a thriller had it not been for that still-lingering elephant. The one aboard which the Astros, like it or not, still look far, far worse than the Red Sox or their fellow unverified-but-certain replay room rogues do.

Keep it in the stands, Astrogate protestors

Dodger Stadium

This Dodger ball girl is not rushing to take out the trash—she’s disposing of an inflatable trash can thrown on the field Tuesday night when the Astros hit town. (USA Today photo.)

Dodger fans finally had their chance to let the Astros have it over Astrogate Tuesday night. Over the Astro Intelligence Agency very likely remaining in operation during the 2017 World Series. Over the hapless Rob Manfred forced to issue immunity to Astro player culprits in return for their spilling the deets—then having to walk back his temporary-insanity dismissal of the World Series trophy as a hunk of metal.

Over what Mike Fiers finally blew the whistle on about the Jeff Luhnow-era Astros’ systemic, illegal, off-field-based electronic cheating, opening the way to further exposure of Luhnow’s amoral results-before-people operating ways. Over the Astros’ failure to own up at the notorious spring 2020 presser before the pan-damn-ic shut spring training down and delayed what proved the 2020 irregular season.

Over owner Jim Crane putting his foot in his mouth repeatedly. (This didn’t impact the game; we won the World Series; I didn’t say it didn’t impact the game.) Over Astro players doing everything in their power not say flat-out that they and the organisation cheated.(We’re not going into details. Never mind how many details were exposed over almost three months preceding.)

Last year the pan-damn-ically mandated fan-less stands deprived one and all of letting the Astros have it live and in person. They had to settle as Dodger fans did for milling outside the ballparks, social distancing properly enough, but heckling, hollering, and banging when the visiting Astros’ team bus arrived for the games.

This year, different story. The returning fans began making up for lost time. The bad news is that no few of those fans took things a few steps too far. Maybe not as far as the Astros took high-tech sign stealing, but far enough.

For one thing, the Astro roster is whittled down to only five remaining members of the 2017 World Series roster. For another thing, it’s been demonstrated plausibly since that Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, the arguable face of the franchise, objected to the trash can bangings that sent the pilfered intelligence to the batter’s box while he was at the plate.

For a third, protesting fans have crossed the line too often from heckling, booing, and catcalling to throwing things on the field. Things from the harmless enough stuff such as inflatable play trash cans to honest-to-God real trash cans and other none-too-soft projectiles. Astros reliever Ryne Stanek swore that fans near the right field bullpen threw “basically full beers at people for a half an inning” when the game was two-thirds done.

Dodger fans Tuesday night threw down hollers of “cheaters,” rounds of expletives in English and Spanish, and rather impassioned booing when Dodger Stadium’s public address announcer threatened the sellout crowd with ejections for throwing things onto the field, possibly even including any foul balls or home runs the Astros hit into the seats.

Somewhere in the middle of the racket the Astros and the Dodgers played a baseball game. Somewhere in the middle of it, the Astros won, 3-0, despite Dodger starter Walker Buehler pitching six stout innings with only one run against him, courtesy of Michael Brantley’s RBI double in the third.

Somehow, another Astro relief pitcher, Blake Taylor, still thought it took “a special player” to wear an Astro uniform still bearing the taint of the 2017-2018 cheaters.

“If you’re not willing to withstand the criticism you’re gonna get at every stadium we walk into, you can’t handle it — it’s tough. It’s tough thing to ask a lot of guys to do,” he told reporters.

But the crew that we have right now, they’re all in on this. They know that they’re not the only ones going through this. Every single person in this clubhouse gets booed every time we walk on the field and just gets called “cheaters” and things like that. So at the end of the day we’re just one big family and we have each other’s backs, no matter what.

Even leading the American League West by five games, it isn’t always a thrill to be an Astro these days. I say again: Fair or not, the Astros will wear the Astrogate stain until the last member of that tainted 2017-18 team no longer wears the uniform. Even if it’s patent nonsense to hold the entire 2021 roster responsible for what Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel, and Lance McCullers, Jr. were part of in 2017 and couldn’t own up to in pre pan-damn-ic shutdown spring 2020.

(Why let Altuve off the hook? There also turned out to be not a shred of real evidence, after all, that Altuve wore any kind of wire device under his uniform, as suspected after he ducked the jersey shredding following his pennant-winning walkoff bomb in the 2019 American League Championship Series.)

I say again, further: Go ahead and make all the racket you want denouncing the Astros. Boo them if you must. Insult them if you must. Wear those Oscar the Grouch costumes if you wish. (The independent league St. Paul Saints couldn’t keep up with the demand for “Astro the Grouch” figurines playing recorded trash can bangs last year.) Hoist the inflatable trash cans, bang your plastic ones loud and long if you must, sing anything from “Secret Agent Man” to “The Spy Who Loved Me.”

But keep it in the stands and quit throwing things onto the field. Manfestly, Joe and Jane Jerk-fan, that makes you look at least as bad as the Astros made themselves look when they got exposed as illegal off-field-based electronic-and-algorithmic cheaters and then—given the chance to own up and man up—told the world the dog ate their homework.