Alex Cora, prodigal manager

Red Sox manager Alex Cora (right) in a 2018 ALCS handshake with his Houston counterpart A.J. Hinch. Cora’s been re-hired by the Red Sox, while his fellow Astrogater Hinch gets his second chance in Detroit.

Well, I was wrong. About Sam Fuld possibly having the faster track to the job and Alex Cora finding a new one elsewhere. The Red Sox rehired Cora to manage them Friday. Have they let a cheater come back to the scene of the crime?

Cora’s Astro Intelligence Agency culpability was deep enough it was too easy to believe he had a hand or at least a fingertip in the 2018 (and maybe 2019) Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring. It’s also a truism oft repeated (including by me) that when you lead you take responsibility for what’s done by the troops.

But baseball’s government pinned that replay reconnaissance responsibility on Red Sox video room operator J.T. Watkins. Pinned it on him or scapegoated him for it, depending on your point of view. Either he or someone he allowed decoded opposing signs and signaled them to Red Sox baserunners to send home to the hitters at the plate.

Watkins took the fall. The MLB investigation that discovered the Astros went above and beyond just using what MLB itself provided in the replay rooms behind all dugouts but that the Rogue Sox just got caught doing what a few other teams at minimum must have been doing likewise.

“I know J.T. and how he works,” Cora said when Watkins was taken on the perp walk. “I trust the guy. Was I surprised at what came out? Yes, I was.”

Whether Cora beat the Rogue Sox rap on a technicality, or really didn’t have any clue as to what Watkins and who knows which Red Sox players were up to, Cora has his old job back. His Astrogate suspension ended the moment the World Series did. Officially, anyone with the opening was free to hire him.

If he was in it up to his neck in Houston he was found caught pants down with everyone else in Boston, officially. Unofficially, suspicions will cling. That’s the nature of the human beast. Begging the question for many as to why the Red Sox elected to bring back someone who’d been caught dead to right cheating above and beyond in one town even if he just might have been innocent enough in theirs.

“Forgiveness comes a little easier,” writes The Athletic‘s Chad Jennings, “when there’s a [World Series] ring involved.”

In that sense, Cora was the Red Sox safest choice. Any other manager would have faced an inevitable comparison. Early losing streak? Cora could have stopped it. Under-performing player? Cora would have known what to say. Disappointing season? Not on Cora’s watch. He maintains some benefit of the doubt, even beneath the weight of his past transgressions.

In other words, the hapless Ron Roenicke—handed the bridge after Cora’s exit, but helpless to keep the Red Sox together following their winter trade of franchise player Mookie Betts, the ownership’s greater concern for staying beneath the luxury tax threshold over fortifying the team’s compromised pitching staff, and several key injuries (Andrew Benintendi, Eduardo Rodriguez, Chris Sale)—didn’t stand a chance.

According to Jennings, Roenicke might have felt Cora’s “spectre” hovering overhead—except that he denies it. “No, never,” the skipper who’d been Cora’s bench coach said. “And the reason I can say that is because Alex should be managing . . . I’m hoping he does this again, whether it’s here or somewhere else, he should be managing.”

“At the time that we parted ways with Alex,” says Chaim Bloom, the Red Sox GM/chief baseball officer, whose longtime knowledge of Fuld—former outfielder turned Phillies player information coordinator—helped drive speculation of Fuld taking the bridge, “we were clear that that was a result of his role and what happened with the Astros and everything the investigation over there revealed. It had nothing to do with what may or may not have occurred in Boston.”

It’s enough to make you wonder whether bringing Cora back was Bloom’s ultimate choice or whether—the way then-GM Ben Cherington had Bobby Valentine jammed down his throat after the 2011 collapse—the Red Sox ownership likewise stuck Cora down Bloom’s throat.

Valentine, of course, took on a fragmented team and detonated a season-long bomb worth of divide-and-conquer dissipation. His firing after that 2012 disaster practically detonated block parties around New England. Cora’s departure practically detonated mass mourning that a guy with his brains and his ability to keep his players on board had to go.

Players and others within the Red Sox organisation couldn’t bear to let Cora go entirely even as the Red Sox leadership pushed him away with little choice following the affirmation of his Astrogate culpability. For those players partaking of Watkins’s replay room espionage, it must have felt like Dad going to the calaboose unfairly for the kiddies’ breaking the neighbourhood.

Hinch was popular with his Astros players, too, but once the Astros fired him and GM Jeff Luhnow upon their Astrogate suspensions the Astros showed little inclination or longing to bring him back. Even as the Red Sox put distance between themselves and Cora, they kept their eye on him a little longingly in the distance, ultimately re-narrowing it.

“[O]nce he departed,” writes NBC Sports Boston’s John Tomase, that opened the door for Bloom to make his own hire, since the manager-GM relationship is the most important in baseball operations”

And Bloom sent consistent signals that he planned to look elsewhere, a point reinforced by the process that ultimately led us back where we started.

With Cora available and ready to be rehired, Bloom still conducted a lengthy search, interviewing multiple candidates and eventually identifying five finalists. The choice reportedly came down to Cora vs. . . . Fuld, whom Bloom knew from Tampa.

The Red Sox will insist that at the end of this process, Bloom and Bloom alone chose Cora, and that had better be true. Because otherwise it means that ownership either tacitly or explicitly overruled its baseball boss on his most consequential hire . . . Imagine bypassing a beloved figure for a first-timer like Fuld? The last thing a rookie manager needs to be greeted with is resentment.

Surely Tomase isn’t alone in pondering what might have been if the White Sox had reached out for Cora instead of Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, who was only too clearly an ownership move instead of their GM’s. Would Bloom have felt free to hand Fuld the Red Sox bridge after all? We’ll never know.

It’s not that cheaters haven’t been forgiven before. The New York Giants’ leadership may have been well aware of Leo Durocher’s telescopically-buzzing cheating scheme down the 1951 stretch, but it was a third-place finish the year after they swept the Indians in the World Series that got Durocher fired.

Fred Hutchinson may or may not have sanctioned scoreboard-based sign-stealing by his pennant-winning 1961 Reds, but it took 1964’s courageous but fatal battle with lung cancer, not 1961’s telescopic cheating, to seal Hutch’s fate.

Cora’s culpability in the Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring isn’t even close to being as cut and dried as his Astro Intelligence Agency activities proved to be. For now, no matter. Officially, Watkins paid for any and all Rogue Sox sins. Unofficially, Lucy, they’ve still got some splainin’ to do.

Every baseball eye in and away from Boston will put Cora and the Olde Towne Team under the most acute microscope since Zachariah Janssen invented the thing—in the year Urban VII became the shortest-reigning Pope (three months) in the history of the Catholic Church. It won’t necessarily be inappropriate.

Does Luhnow still not get it?

Jeff Luhnow, in front of the uniforms of two Astros Hall of Famers about whose baseball counsel he couldn’t have cared less—but probably should have.

Deposed and disgraced former Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow wants you to know that those who brewed what became Astrogate went rogue on him. He also wants you to know that nobody told him a blessed thing about the off-field-based, illegal sign-stealing scheme, and things would have been different if they had.

Where have I heard that before?

Oh, yes. Once upon a time, in 1971, I heard it from deposed New York City police commissioner Howard Leary. He’d either looked the other way, or denied what was in front of him for years, as graft ran even more rampant in his department than a decade earlier, when bookie Harry Gross had almost as many New York cops on his payroll as the city did.

Luhnow gave an extensive interview Monday to Vanessa Richardson of KPRC, Houston’s NBC affiliate. “Whether it’s the players or the video staffers, they just decided on their own to do it and that’s a shame,” Luhnow told Richardson, “because had they come and asked me for permission I would have said no. Had they gone and asked Jim for permission, he would have said no. There’s just no reason why that should have happened.”

When Leary in 1971 was hauled before the Knapp Commission empaneled to get to the depths of what clean cops Frank Serpico and David Durk exposed to The New York Times, the ex-commissioner told the panel wearily that nobody told him anything, either, and by God things would have been different if anybody had.

The original Times story actually prompted Leary to denounce the paper for McCarthyism of the worst sort (his words). Serpico biographer Peter Maas revealed in due course that, when one of the few superiors Serpico trusted suggested to Leary that the plainclothesman was due a promotion and commendation for trying to expose rampant corruption, Leary snapped, “He’s a psycho!”

“In that case,” the superior rejoined dryly, “maybe the department needs more psychos.”

The Astros don’t need psychos to move past Astrogate. But they could use a lot better than their former general manager continuing to throw people under the proverbial bus while insisting falsely enough that it wasn’t him or didn’t begin with him.

Richardson asked Luhnow for a kind of timeline of the Astro Intelligence Agency’s operation. After beginning his reply by mentioning “a cabal” of video staffers and “coaches” executing the sign-stealing scheme via illegal camera operation—and saying they actually opened for business in 2016—Luhnow said, “It was pretty blatant. They were assigning duties, ‘Who’s on codebreaker duty tonight’.”

Pay close attention to “codebreaker.” Now, remind yourself that last February Wall Street Journal reporter Jared Diamond exposed a front office-developed algorithm called  Codebreaker, and shown to Luhnow in September 2016, brought to him by an Astros front-office intern who told him the algorithm could steal opposing catcher’s signs.

That was already far above and beyond traditional on-field gamesmanship, baserunners or coaches catching and deciphering opposition pitch signs to transmit to batters. (Or, catching pitchers tipping pitches.) That also preceded whoever it was that decided to either take an existing center field camera off mandatory transmission delay or install an additional camera transmitting real-time to clubhouse monitors.

If Luhnow wants you to believe nobody told him a bloody thing about any such espionage, beware the for-sale sign on whatever North Pole beach shop he owns.

Former longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Jose de Jesus Ortiz pounced at once. “If Luhnow wants to say [Astros] players & [former manager] AJ Hinch didn’t tell him, he can go there,” Ortiz tweeted angrily enough. “Some might even believe him, but in my 23 years of covering ball I’ve found that players rarely spill info outside of the group. You can think you know, but you don’t. But he hired the ‘code breakers’.”

That was after Ortiz fumed, “Here’s the [fornicating] truth about Jeff Luhnow & baseball ops under him. They didn’t take into consideration what Nolan Ryan, Craig Biggio, Reid Ryan & Enos Cabell had to offer on baseball ops. It’s quite rich of him to [be] wondering why they didn’t know” about the Astros’ extralegal sign-stealing.

Luhnow didn’t mention a specific name, and Richardson hadn’t even prompted him to go there, but when he said, “one of the people who was intimately involved, I had demoted from a position in the clubhouse to a position somewhere else, and after I was fired he was promoted back into the clubhouse,” the assumption quickly became that he referred to Reid Ryan—the son of Hall of Famer Nolan.

Craig Biggio, of course, is a Hall of Fame second baseman. Enos Cabell was a corner infielder/outfielder for the 1972-80 Astros. They may not be the only baseball people whose counsel their baseball employers ignore, but the Astros’ apparent ignorance thereof hurt worse than any of the 285 pitches that hit Biggio during his long playing career.

Reid Ryan was the president of the Astros’ business operations for seven years until he was re-assigned in November 2019. (And, replaced by Crane’s son, Jared.) He was known if anything for applying himself to enhancing the fan experiences at Minute Maid Park.

When he was demoted his father quit the organisation outright at once. (Reid also insisted after his reassignment that the Astros’ 2017 World Series title wouldn’t really be tainted by the AIA cheating operation.) That wasn’t exactly part of the future Nolan Ryan had in mind after he threw his final major league pitch and accepted his plaque in Cooperstown.

Luhnow was the president of baseball ops. Jim Crane made clear Reid Ryan handled business & Luhnow handled baseball ops,” Ortiz reminds us. “It was Luhnow’s culture. I wish him well, but he exits Houston as he arrived, [defecating] on people who devoted their lives to the Astros.”

Luhnow’s Astro “culture” was long exposed as a result-oriented culture in which human relationships were cheap and too often disregarded.”Luhnow had all year to speak,” Ortiz continued. “But as was the case throughout his tenure Luhnow is as calculated as ever. That’s why baseball folks throughout the country say he’s dismissive of traditional baseball folks, scouts, players, etc. He sees them as assets, people to manipulate.”

He practised what legendary football coach Vince Lombardi is still misquoted as saying, even today: Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. He denied responsibility when the Astros were exposed and caught in the first place. He barely flinched when it turned out the most apologetic Astros for Astrogate were such former Astros as J.D. Davis, Tony Kemp, Dallas Keuchel, and Jake Marisnick.

But he said little to nothing about the former Astro who blew the Astrogate whistle in the first place. Mike Fiers’s revelations included that he and several other players tried convincing sportswriters to expose the AIA only to discover those writers couldn’t convince their editors to let them run with it without even a single player willing to put his name on it.

The Oakland Athletics, for whom Fiers has pitched since mid-2018, filed formal complaints with Manfred’s office. So, apparently, did a few other teams. Manfred made a point of saying his office investigates any and all such complaints, yet nothing really seemed to move until Fiers spilled to Athletic reporters Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich almost a year ago.

When Hinch spoke to Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci after his own firing, he, too, was remorseful over his Astrogate role, which was kind of a non-role of sorts: aside from destroying a couple of the clubhouse monitors receiving the illegally-pilfered intelligence, he did nothing much if anything.

“I should have had a meeting and addressed it face-forward and really ended it,” he admitted. “Leadership to me is often about what you preach. Your pillars of what you believe in. Leadership is also about what you tolerate. And I tolerated too much. And that outburst . . . I wanted to let people know that I didn’t like it. I should have done more. I should have addressed it more directly.”

That’s still a great deal more owning up than Luhnow has done. The former GM still thinks he was targeted specifically on behalf of Manfred needing a head or two on plates to show the commissioner meant business. He also still thinks it was just about everybody else’s fault.

“The reality is, the Astros cheated in 2017, and cheated a little bit again in 2018 using just the decoder method, and it was wrong, and it should never have happened, and I’m upset,” Luhnow told Richardson.

I’m really upset that it happened. I’m upset for our fans, I’m upset for players on other teams that gave up hits as a result of this that should never have happened. If we won games because of it, it should never have happened, and we didn’t need to do it. We had a great team. The team we put together in 2017, a lot of which is still together today is one of the best teams of the 21st century, and has had an incredible stretch. And there’s no reason why we needed to explore breaking the rules to gain an advantage, it made no sense to me.

Now he tells us. On the threshold of a World Series in which his former Astros won’t be appearing thanks to the Tampa Bay Rays.

If there was no reason for the 2017-18 Astros to break the rules to gain an advantage, why didn’t Luhnow kill it in its Codebreaker crib? The Los Angeles Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves may win their next World Series titles sooner than the answer arrives.

Luhnow would have done far better to heed not the actual or alleged Vince Lombardi credo but that of another sports legend, writer Grantland Rice:

When One Great Scorer comes
to write against your name,
He marks not that you won or lost,
but how you played the game.

The Astros in the ALCS? Relax.

Manager Dusty Baker gets a hug from catcher Martin Maldonado as the Astros celebrate bumping the Athletics off in their ALDS Thursday.

We just got one step closer to the possibility of at least one losing irregular season team turning up in the World Series, anyway. Maybe it’ll still be enough to make commissioner Rob Manfred’s hopes of too-far-expanded postseasons future, which may or many not involve as many as sixteen teams, disappear. Maybe.

The best way to make that disappearance happen would have been a Houston Astros-Milwaukee Brewers World Series, of course. Unfortunately, the Brewers didn’t keep their side of the bargain. The National League West champion Los Angeles Dodgers wouldn’t let them. If anything, the chance of an Astros-Dodgers World Series re-match got a lot bigger after Thursday’s doings.

On Thursday night, the Dodgers destroyed the plucky, exuberant, fun-fun-fun San Diego Padres 12-3, to finish a National League division series sweep in which only one game turned out close thanks to a near-imploding Dodger bullpen. At least they know who they’ll face in the National League Championship Series, thanks to the NL East champion Atlanta Braves wiping the suddenly-upstart Miami Marlins out 7-0 in a dissimilar sweep.

The Padres at least scored in each of the three games. The Marlins scored five in Game One but got shut out in Games Two and Three. By a Braves pitching staff that’s now pitched shutouts in four of their five postseason games. Maybe the chance of an Astros-Dodgers World Series re-match isn’t quite as powerful as you might think?

The Astros wrecked any Oakland Athletics comeback hopes by turning an early 3-0 deficit into an 11-6 Game Four demolition so profound that the A’s ninth-inning pushback resembled unanswerable cries for help from the bottom of the ocean after falling off the Bay Bridge just when they’d finally decided life was too precious to jump.

Admit it: When the A’s jumped Zack Greinke for three in the second it looked for awhile as though they’d force a Game Five. About a blink of awhile when all was said and done.

Matt Olson snuck a base hit through an Astro infield shift, Mark Canha hit one for which Astro shortstop Carlos Correa dove and barely missed for his first lifetime hit off Greinke, Ramon Laureano hit a full-count slider into the left field bleachers, and it looked like the Astros gamble with Greinke—sending him to start with his sore arm possibly not fully recovered—would fail.

Then the A’s starter Frankie Montas’s fortune ran cold in the fourth. How cold? Try Antarctic cold. Michael Brantley hit a two-run homer and Correa hit a three-run bomb, then Montas two more or less excuse-me outs while leaving first and second when manager Bob Melvin lifted him to go to his usually reliable bullpen.

This time, that bullpen didn’t have it. The Astros tore six runs out of that pen before they were finished. Between them, the Astros and the A’s finished setting a new division series record by hitting 24 into the seats all set long. Each team hit twelve. Including Brantley, Correa, and Laureano twice in Game Four. Altuve joined the Thursday bomb squad when he hit one out off Jake Diekman with Martin Maldonado aboard to complete the Astros’ scoring.

But there’s unfinished Friday business to come. The Astros don’t know yet whether they’ll meet the American League East champion Tampa Bay Rays or the AL East runner-up New York Yankees. The Yankees held the Rays off 5-1 on Thursday, somehow, some way, and they’ll open Friday with a distinct advantage named Gerrit Cole. Sort of.

The sort-of is that Cole has never pitched on short rest in his entire major league career. Ever. He’s pitched 106 games on four days’ rest, 67 on five days’ rest, and 31 on six or more days’ rest. It may be the first time in Cole’s sterling career when the phrase “roll of the dice” applies to him.

Can they get a miracle from Cole Friday? He faces Tyler Glasnow, credited with the Game Two win despite surrendering four Yankee runs. Glasnow hasn’t done it since he pitched nine games in relief for the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates. They were the only nine relief gigs of his career to date. And the Rays will likely turn it over to their bullpen if Glasnow gets into trouble early enough.

Either way, Friday’s Yankees-Rays show will be must-see TV for baseball lovers in general but the Astros in particular. What a way to have to spend one of their only two days off before the ALCS begins—in San Diego’s Petco Park, under the pandemic-inspired semi-bubble/neutral-site plan.

As if the Astros didn’t have enough migraines this year. They lost Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery and Cole to free agency. Greinke pitched better than his 4.03 irregular season ERA tells you before his arm soreness kicked over. (His 2020 fielding-independent pitching [FIP]: 2.80.) If their set with the A’s went to a fifth game, they’d have gone most likely to Framber Valdez to open and turned it over to their bullpen at the first sign of trouble.

Now they get to open the ALCS with Valdez—who beat the A’s with seven two-run innings in division series Game Two. Setting them up to work Greinke on his regular rest including a Game Seven if need be. Jose Urquidy will look to prove his ALDS Game Three outing—slapped silly for four home runs in four and a third innings—was an aberration, but beware: his irregular season 2.73 ERA was deceptive looking considering his 4.71 FIP.

They also get to show a little more that their 29-31 irregular season record just might have projected to an acquitting winning record, maybe even another AL West title, if the season had been full and normal. Might.

One key reason for that 29-31 record was being hit with an injury bug enough to rival the battered Yankees of the past two years. But, deeper reality check: this year’s Astros aren’t really as good as last year’s. Even if manager Dusty Baker finally overcame his lifelong prejudice and learned how to have as much faith in his youth as in his elder players.

They lost their best player of the future, 2019 Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez, to a season-ending injury. Altuve struggled early, found his stroke later in August, then hit the injured list with a knee sprain. They’ve lost key pitchers Chris Devenski, Brad Peacock, and Roberto Osuna to season-ending injuries. This postseason Astro staff could be called, plausibly, Greinke, Urquidy, and the Newer Kids on the Block.

Even with those compromises, this year’s Astro Core Five (Altuve, Correa, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel, and George Springer) had a lower weighted on-base percentage than last year’s edition. It looked better for the Astros that they bombed twelve homers and averaged 8.3 runs a game against the A’s better-than-they-look pitching staff. Of course, the chatter about slightly deadened balls on the irregular season and slightly amplified balls for the postseason is entirely coincidental.

It bodes well for the Astros whether they get the Rays or the Yankees in the ALCS, and they know neither of those teams are pushovers. Scoring 33 runs against a crew of A’s that scored 22, knowing that often as not 22 runs are good enough to win a short set, gives the Astros a little extra comfort to take in.

It even bodes well for them that somehow, some way, they’ve managed to get this far even under the still-hovering clouds of Astrogate. They hit the irregular season running with only nine men left on the roster from the 2017-18 cheaters. They’re closer than you might think or accept to turning what’s left of that roster over and finally putting the Astrogate stain behind them.

Turning what’s left of that roster over? Well, Gurriel has re-upped for another season. But Springer and Reddick face free agency this winter. New general manager James Click has said he’d like to keep Springer on board even with young Kyle Tucker’s emergence, but whether the Astros have the dollars to do it (they’d like to avoid luxury tax penalisation if possible) is another question yet to be answered.

The pandemic did the Astros a huge favour in keeping them from normal ballpark crowds who surely would have let them have it long and loud, over both the scandal of their illegal electronic sign-stealing cheating and their more sad than sickening, mealymouthed non-apologies at that disaster of a February presser.

(Don’t even think about it. Once more with feeling: there’s a Grand Canyon-size difference between a team like the Boston Rogue Sox using what MLB itself provided already in video rooms to steal signs and send them to baserunners to send hitters—you know, Mom and Dad give the kiddies the liquor cabinet keys daring them not to drink unlawfully—and the Astros who a) took an existing outfield camera off mandatory transmission delay, or b) installed a second, illegal real-time camera to send enemy signs to extra clubhouse monitors.)

Now, let’s be absolutely fair about this. Continuing to bop this year’s Astros on the nose over Astrogate when they have only eight men left playing from that tainted 2017 edition is unfair. Unfair but unstoppable, unfortunately, human nature being what it is.

Human nature includes being aghast that genuinely great teams  who would have demolished the league regardless felt compelled to operating the 2017 Astro Intelligence Agency or the 2018 Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring.

To too many people, cheaters once, cheaters always. Right? But nobody claimed the San Francisco Giants remained tainted for how their 1951 edition in New York cheated telescopically to pull off that dazzling pennant-race comeback and playoff force. Nobody really thinks the real curse upon the Cleveland Indians has to do with their 1948 telescopic cheating. (It doesn’t really have that much to do with trading Rocky Colavito at the end of spring training 1960, either.)

By all means hold the 2017-18 Astros to account in public opinion if Commissioner Nero didn’t, beyond a fine, a couple of stripped draft picks, and suspending their since-fired general manager, manager, bench coach (the Red Sox squeezed Alex Cora out as manager), and designated hitter. (The Mets squeezed Carlos Beltran out as manager before he even got to manage a spring training game for them.)

But don’t keep hammering this year’s Astros for it, until or unless someone discovers and produces proof of this year’s edition crossing to the dark side. (The Red Sox didn’t need anyone hammering them for their 2018 taint and similarly mealymouthed non-apologies. They plotzed this year all by themselves.)

You don’t have to root for or even like the Astros to give them whatever fair shake they deserve now. They’re a lot easier to like when you just watch them play baseball the way they normally play than they are when you have to listen to them talking to reporters. Which is what people have said about teams like the Yankees, the Dodgers, and even the St. Louis Cardinals for several generations, too, no?

Yet new manager Dusty Baker took their bridge and kept his and their marble (singular) through this season’s pandemic weirdness and Astrogate aftermath to sneak into the postseason at all. That has Baker in the Manager of the Year conversation and the Astros  on the brink of a possible third pennant in four seasons. The last team to go to three World Series in four seasons? Ladies and gentlemen, your 1998-2001 New York Yankees.

Consider this, too: With fans still kept out of the stands so far this postseason, it became too simple to hear every sound, noise, and utterance coming from the dugouts. Nobody heard anything this week that’s comparable to the Astrogaters banging the can slowly in 2017.

About the most suspicious sound coming out of Dodger Stadium during the Astros-A’s ALDS was the PA system DJ playing Booker T. & the MGs’ “Green Onions” at every opportunity. (That song was a huge hit—the year Dodger Stadium was born.) Some might wonder since when do today’s ballpark sound people have that kind of historic music sense. Speaking personally, it was music to my rhythm and blues ears.

Here’s what enough are gonna say now, Astros

Carlos Correa hitting a tiebreaking homer to put the Astros up to stay and win Wednesday? Good. Carlos Correa challenging Astrogate critics after winning one sneak-in wild card set? Not so good.

So the Houston Astros bumped the Minnesota Twins to one side almost in a blink in their American League wild card series. They swept the Twins in the best-of-three in the Twins’ own playpen. Their 4-1 and 3-1 wins weren’t exactly overpowering but they don’t have to be bombing raids or ground massacres to be wins.

Not only does it make for the Twins losing eighteen straight postseason games they’ve played since 2004, it makes for losing them at home after being the best in Show at home this irregular season. When you beat a team in their house when their irregular season winning percentage was .774, you earn a couple of days’ bragging rights.

What you haven’t earned yet, you Astros who snuck into this overcompensating sixteen-team postseason with a 29-31 irregular season record, is the right to call out your Astrogate critics after this early two-game uprising by asking, as shortstop Carlos Correa—whose home run in the top of the seventh Wednesday busted a one-all tie—did post-game, asking, “What are they gonna say now?”

Let’s see. They’re gonna say the Astros haven’t even reached the World Series yet. They’re gonna say the Astros haven’t even played a division series yet, and don’t know at this writing whether they’ll face the Oakland Athletics or the Chicago White Sox in that set. The A’s regrouped after losing their Game One to beat the White Sox and former Astro Dallas Keuchel, 5-3, Wednesday.

Like it or not, whatever the reasons that got them there, they’re gonna say the Astros are still one of the two losing teams that got into this postseason thanks to Commissioner Nero and his ownership minions deciding the pandemically-irregular season required eight teams per league starting the postseason even at the risk of losing teams winning any of the six designated wild cards.

Like it or not, some of them are gonna say the Astros are still evoking the old maxim that even the worst teams in baseball can heat up, stand up, and iron up to win in a short burst. We’re still waiting for the likewise 29-31 Milwaukee Brewers to show if they’ll do likewise, since I sat down to write before they played so much as a single out against the Los Angeles Dodgers Wednesday.

And, as much as we’d love to see the Astros and the Brewers iron up enough to meet each other in the Series, the better to make Commissioner Nero think twice (if he can think) about making permanent the prospect of losing teams going to the postseason, it’s not going to make Astrogate just an unpleasant memory just yet.

What else are they gonna say now? It’ll take a lot more than one shortstop throwing down such a gauntlet, and one not-yet-likely 2020 World Series appearance, to eradicate the stain.

Don’t even go there, Astros. The Boston Red Sox getting caught sign-stealing with an AppleWatch in the dugout and, in due course, with deciphering signs in the video rooms to relay to runners to signal hitters, isn’t even close to what you did.

The AppleWatch coach was foolish enough to do it in plain sight and get caught by the New York Yankees. That was his own bright idea. But the video rooms were provided all teams by MLB itself. Do I have to say it again? It was Mom and Dad giving the teenagers the keys to the liquor cabinet while they went out of town for the weekend.

The only shock would have been if the Rogue Sox and any other team (including the Yankees, apparently) availing themselves accordingly had resisted the temptation to accept MLB’s gift horses without developing and operating their reconnaissance rings.

So far as we know for dead last certain, those teams didn’t either alter an existing ballpark camera off its mandatory eight-second transmission delay or install a second camera to transmit in real time. Nor did MLB provide second cameras or give exemptions allowing them to alter the first.

Nor did those teams tie such cameras to monitors in the clubhouse for translators to decipher opposing signs and transmit them by banging the can none too slowly depending on which pitch they wanted hitters to expect.

Those cameras, those monitors, and that trash can drumming were the Astros’ own ideas. They were above and beyond boys being boys and figuring out how to get away with unlocking and indulging the liquor cabinet.

What else are they gonna say now? How about that the Astros haven’t yet proven how elite they are at the plate this postseason. They’ve still got the horses no matter how feebly too many of them swung during the irregular season. The one thing they do have in common with the Rogue Sox is that they had (and have) too many talented hitters (still) for them to have needed a surreptitious intelligence agency.

But when they muster a mere seven runs on thirteen hits over two wild card games, they’re not exactly earning an image as this postseason’s Murderer’s Row II just yet. Zack Greinke, Jose Urquidy, and the Astros’ bullpen deserve more credit for stopping the Twins’ thumpers than their bats deserve for delivering close enough to the bare minimum.

Remember, too, that most of the rest of baseball and most of baseball’s fans were outraged not only that the Astros were exposed as extra-legal sign-stealing cheaters but that Commissioner Nero for various reasons saw fit to give the cheating players immunity in return for spilling.

The spilling didn’t outrage people, the getting off the hook did. So did owner Jim Crane and since-deposed general manager Jeff Luhnow trying to blame everyone else for the poisonous organisational culture they brewed that opened the passway through which the Astro Intelligence Agency passed.

A.J. Hinch—the hapless manager, who couldn’t or wouldn’t muster enough strength to do more to stop his high-tech cheaters except smashing a couple of the clubhouse monitors, and maybe telling them if he caught them doing it again he’d be . . . very, very angry at them—is long enough gone. Of any Astrogate figure Hinch, whose Astrogate suspension from baseball ends when the World Series does, probably deserves a second chance the most. But he’s liable to find it elsewhere. Sadder but, hopefully, wiser.

Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran, the 2017 bench coach and designated hitter who co-masterminded enough of the Astro Intelligence Agency’s operating apparatus, are also gone. So are all but eight members of the 2017-18 players’ roster.

It’ll probably take the final, complete remake of the roster and overhaul of the organisation for the Astros to lose the entire Astrogate stain. Even that may not remove all of it. Just as history renders the 1951 New York Giants forever not as a daring thirteen-game-out comeback team but as off-field-based, illegal telescopic cheaters (The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!), history renders the 2017 (Astros) and 2018 (Rogue Sox) World Series winners as tainted forever.

Because Astrogate took until late 2019 to expose, this year’s Astros were going to take their lumps no matter what. Their mealymouthed pre-pandemic shutdown February presser just compounded the outrage.

But the Giants got past the ’51 cheaters in due course. So did several other pennant-winning teams whom history has long since exposed as comparable cheaters.

The Philadelphia Athletics got past 1910-14, never mind periodic suspicions that their off-field-based sign-stealing had almost as much hand as economics in Connie Mack’s first notorious fire sale. The Detroit Tigers got past their 1940 cheaters. So did the 1948 World Series-winning Cleveland Indians. So did the 1961 Cincinnati Reds. So, too, will the Astros and the Red Sox in due course.

Just a World Series presence this year—as unlikely as it might still seem now, but achieved straight, no chaser—would be a flood of Febreze removing a lot more of the Astrogate stain. Until it does, Correa may want to remember God gave him two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and only one mouth for a very good reason.

The Athletics have it—and how, potentially

This is not the Oakland Athletics and Houston Astros in a handshake line after a game. This is the social distance-defying debate triggered when Astros coach Alex Cintron insulted A’s outfielder Ramon Laureano after Laureano took his third plunk in the same series including two this day in August.

Ladies and gentlemen, your American League West champion Oakland Athletics. The first team in this pandemic-truncated, pandemic-weirded season to clinch their division. Hands up to everybody who thought the National League West-owning Los Angeles Dodgers would be 2020’s first division clincher.

Now, hands up to everyone who thought the A’s division clinch would happen on a day off for them while the Houston Astros spent the same day losing to the Seattle Mariners, 6-1. To those who did, hands up to every A’s fan whispering to themselves or to each other, with the appropriate social distancing, that karma’s indeed a bitch.

The last time the A’s ruled the AL West was 2013. Since then, they’ve had three second-place finishes including last year and three fifth-place finishes. Detractors over those seasons, including the young man/Los Angeles Angels fan in southern California who grants me the honour of him calling me Dad, referred to them gleefully enough as the Chokeland Athletics.

That was then, this is now, and this is also two weekends after their arguable best player, third baseman Matt Chapman, went down for the rest of the season facing hip surgery. Chapman hadn’t been quite the overall hitter this year that he was in 2018-19, but his third base play remained top of the line. Late season free agent pickup Jake Lamb has proven a pleasant surprise in just six games (1.144 OPS over them) prior to this week.

That’s good, because the A’s will need all the pleasant surprises they can get. As if going 19-8 in August and 11-8 this month, following a 3-4 July, aren’t pleasant enough. They may still have a pleasant surprise coming in round one of the intolerably tolerable weirdness of the postseason to come.

This will also be the first time since 2015 that the Astros finish any season without the AL West crown on their heads. The Astros could still claim the final of six American League wild cards. Guess who’d tangle with them in the opening round if they do?

Hint: It’s the team whose pitching staff includes the former Astro who finally blew the Astrogate whistle last November, after he and plenty of others in the know couldn’t find sportswriters who could convince their editors to expose it without someone in the know going on record.

The entire Show gunned for the Astros this season once the Astros’ illegal, off-field-based electronic sign-stealing scandal’s depth plus the organisation’s seeming shortage of remorse became manifest in full. Nothing would have pleased the Show more than seeing the Astros humbled. Nothing would have pleased Astro fans—already coming to heartsick terms with their team’s subterfuges—less.

The A’s certainly did their part, taking the truncated season’s series against them 7-3, including a five-game set earlier this month in which they beat the Astros four out of five with two of the four decided by a single run and a third by two. The most satisfying of the five had to be when A’s center fielder Ramon Laureano singled trade deadline pickup Tommy La Stella home off Ryan Pressly in the bottom of the ninth, the day after the two teams split a doubleheader.

Earlier this season, the Astros spent a weekend drilling Laureano thrice, including twice in the final game of the set, the last of which provoked Laureano into a social distance-defying dugout confrontation when—after Laureano merely pantomimed a slider grip at Astros reliever Humberto Castellanos—Astro coach Alex Cintron threw him an insult that Latino men (Cintron himself is Latino) often answer with justifiable homicide at minimum.

In maybe the only instance in which commissioner Rob Manfred seemed to be whacked with the smart stick all year long, Cintron earned a twenty-game suspension to Laureano’s six. Cintron was offered no right of appeal; Laureano was. Appropriately.

At that point of the season the A’s had been hit by fourteen pitches. That weekend, Laureano wasn’t the only A to take three for the team; left fielder Robbie Grossman also took three drills from Houston pitching. The flip side: as of Monday, the Astros have taken twenty drills, led by utility infielder Abraham Toro’s six.

When the Astros tried mealymouthing their way through that February spring presser, during which the world hoped they’d own their 2017-18 espionage, practically seven eighths of players not wearing Astro uniforms swore their ranks would administer the justice Manfred didn’t.

Toro leading the Astros with six plunks isn’t right. He wasn’t even an Astro until down the stretch last year. Hitting him six times in the interest of Astro justice is rather like suing a new surgical intern for malpractise because of what his or her attending surgeon did two years earlier.

When Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly decided to send his own messages, at least he targeted two Astros (Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa) who’d been there and, unfortunately, done at least some of that. In a way, the Astros merely showing up to play— knowing they were the single most hated team in baseball, knowing they could have targets on their backs at any given time—showed character enough.

There were those, including Kelly, who pondered whether Manfred’s immunity in return for Astro players spilling their Astrogate secrets made them the snitches too many accused Fiers of being. When Astros pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr. lamented that nothing would be enough to satisfy Astrogate’s critics, he harrumphed concurrently, “By the way, there was only one snitch. And that’s the person who spoke to The Athletic.”

The pandemic also kept real fans out of the stands on the regular season, handing the Astros a big enough break. They didn’t have to try playing through live catcalls and boos and nasty banners in the stands. Road ballpark DJs were probably under orders not to even think about playing canned booing or nastygrams, never mind trash-can banging noises, whenever the Astros batted.

About the worst the Astros might have dealt with this season was the occasional cutout in the stands referencing their 2017-18 cheating. From what I’ve seen, trash can references were the most popular. When the Astros traveled to Los Angeles for a set with the Dodgers, fans outside Dodger Stadium’s entrance road let the Astros aboard their team bus have it. Trash can bangers abounded there. (One sign: “You’re lucky there’s a pandemic!”)

Even the independent league St. Paul Saints joined in the fun. They prepared an Astro the Grouch souvenir—showing a variation on the Sesame Street character in a trash can, with two baseball antennae on the lid, and a push-botton voice box calling the pitch or banging a can—as a late July giveaway and also for general sale. The demand overwhelmed their supplier.

The Saints issued an e-mail earlier this month saying Astro the Grouch would be on his way to his buyers at last, starting this week. (I’ll let you know when mine arrives.)

The A’s have resisted joining in the Astro trolling fun this year. Mostly. About the only team-delivered troll was a late July game in which the A’s didn’t play the Astros but did put a cutout in the stands of the Astros’ team mascot, Orbit . . .in a trash can. In early August, though, some A’s fans hired an airplane to fly around above the Oakland Coliseum towing a banner saying “Houston Asterisks.”

Of those who haven’t resisted Astrotrolls, maybe none was more relentless than Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer. He’s waged troll war against the Astros all year. His latest salvo: wearing cleats festooned with trash can images when he started against the postseason-bound Chicago White Sox this past Saturday. God only knows what Bauer has planned if some now-undetectable alchemy has his Reds meeting the Astros in the World Series. Big “if.”

Fiers proved himself made of tougher stuff than suspected after he spent a winter surviving everything from mere opprobrium to death threats. The A’s have proven themselves made of tougher stuff than suspected when coronaball finally got underway. Purely by dint of his rotational schedule, Fiers hasn’t faced the Astros on the mound this year just yet.

That could change if the Astros hold on to make the postseason and draw the A’s in round one. Add the likelihood of most of baseball world rooting for these much-burdened A’s to (sorry, can’t resist) can the Astros early, and that could make that round-one set must-listen radio or must-see TV.