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.

Astrogate by the coming book

Astrogate Protest

If the Astros think (erroneously) that winning will fix everything, they ain’t seen nothing yet—one of the reporters who helped Mike Fiers blow the Astrogate whistle is about to publish a book about the plot.

The Astros can talk all they wish about winning fixing everything, including and especially Astrogate. They’re finding out the hard way that it doesn’t, and it probably won’t. Not until the last Astro standing from the Astrogate team isn’t in Astro fatigues anymore.

Like it or not, Astrogate isn’t going gently into that good gray night. Especially not when one of the two Athletic writers who took Mike Fiers’s whistleblowing and went excavating deep is on the threshold of publishing an Astrogate book.

Once an Astros beat writer himself, Evan Drellich is calling his book Winning Fixes Everything: The Rise and Fall of the Houston Astros. It comes forth from Harper Books on 17 August. Both the publisher and Amazon are taking pre-orders now.

Count on it: Drellich’s book is unlikely to resolve any serious question to the Astros’ overall liking. It remains to be seen whether he convinced any of the players who escaped formal Astrogate punishment to cop to even small avail of the infamous illegal, off-field-based, electronic sign-stealing Astro Intelligence Agency.

The ones upon whom you should really take pity are today’s Astros who had nothing whatsoever to do with Astrogate because they weren’t there, including manager Dusty Baker. And, Astro fans who’ve lived for over a year with the stings, arrows, and ramifications of the team they loved as the lords of the American League West being exposed as almost unapologetic cheaters.

Drellich’s book will arrive in the stores on and off-line at approximately the seventieth anniversary of the first act in baseball’s most notorious Astrogate precursor. There’s a splendid book still in print about that one, too, Joshua Prager’s 2006 book The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca, and the Shot Heard Round the World.

It finished the job Prager began in The Wall Street Journal four years earlier. It affirmed what was mostly just whispered or spoken of back-door for decades—that the pennant race comeback against which all future arise-from-the-living-dead comebacks would be measured (the 1964 Cardinals, the 1973 Mets, the 1978 Yankees, the 1995 Mariners, the 2019 Nationals) was tainted.

For the final ten weeks of the 1951 season the New York Giants cheated their way back from thirteen games out of first place to a final-day tie with the Brooklyn Dodgers to force a three-game pennant playoff. And the Giants probably cheated their way through the playoff, right down to the moment Bobby Thomson awaited Ralph Branca’s 0-1 pitch with second and third and one out.

For decades to follow, Branca epitomised grace in defeat and Thomson modesty in triumph. The Giants went on to lose the World Series in six games to the imperial Yankees, but the two protagonists in the Shot Heard Round the World rose above the occasion. As Branca himself once put it, “I lost a ball game, but I gained a friend.”

The whispers turned to shouts and screams when Prager confirmed the decades-old speculation.

Giants manager Leo Durocher discovered his new utility infield acquisition Hank Schenz owned a hand-held Wollensak spy glass he’d acquired during his World War II military service. He also discovered Schenz wasn’t averse to using the spy glass to steal signs for the Cubs by perching himself up and inside the scoreboard behind the Wrigley Field bleachers.

So Leo the Lip, ever on the lookout for any and every edge he could find, fair, unfair, clean, dirty, or downright criminal, had an idea.

He dispatched catcher-turned-coach Herman Franks to the clubhouse high enough above and beyond the deepest Polo Grounds center field region. A buzzer would be wired from the clubhouse to the Giants’ bullpen in deep right field. Franks would see the enemy catchers’ signs through the Wollensak and signal the pen accordingly. The designated signaler in the pen, usually reserve catcher Sal Yvars, would relay the pilfered intelligence to the batters.

According to Prager, Yvars or others would do nothing if it was a fastball sign but do something, from tossing a ball to standing up or raising a hand or an arm, if the sign was breaking ball. All a Giants batter had to do was see past the opposing second baseman to see the signal or lack thereof.

Those who wanted such stolen intelligence, that is. According to Prager, Durocher asked his players who wanted it—but Hall of Famer Monte Irvin was one of those who rejected it. Prager has written that Irvin told him in 2001, when the outfielder was 81, “I told [Durocher] no. He said, ‘You mean to tell me, if a fat fastball is coming, you don’t want to know?’ ”

And if Irvin said no, so did fellow Hall of Famer Willie Mays, a rookie on the ’51 Giants. Don’t delude yourself. Irvin took to Mays as a kid brother and Mays took to Irvin as a big brother. He followed Irvin’s leads to the letter and the final syllable. No matter Mays’s actual or mythologised fealty to Mister Leo, he wasn’t that eager to let Mister Leo lead him into a life of crime.

Monte Irvin, Willie Mays

Monte Irvin (left) refused to accept stolen signs in 1951. His protege Willie Mays (right) surely followed Irvin’s lead to the letter no matter how much Mister Leo also meant to him.

The Dodgers themselves suspected Durocher was up to some sort of no good down that stretch. “In September ’51, Brooklyn coach Cookie Lavagetto took binoculars to the Dodgers’ bench to try to dope out the Giants’ system,” wrote Thomas Boswell in a column reviewing Prager’s original Journal essay. “Umpires took the binoculars away immediately. Why, it would be unfair for the victims to use binoculars to expose the telescopic cheaters!”

Branca may have learned for certain that the Giants were playing spy games when he was a short-term Detroit Tiger and heard a few whispers from pitcher Ted Gray, who was friendly with ’51 Giants reserve Hal Rapp—who told Gray about Durocher and Franks’s spy operation, enabling Gray to tell a Branca who didn’t know what to believe just yet, if at all.

When Associated Press sportswriter Joe Reichler published a 1962 story discussing the Giants’ 1951 sign-stealing, it came and went quickly enough, despite then-Commissioner Ford C. Frick’s threat to declare the Branca/Thomson game forfeit if he had absolute proof of the plot. Reichler was tipped off by utility infielder Danny O’Connell; Thomson himself called it “the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of.”

“Over the years, when interviewing Thomson and Branca,” Boswell wrote, “I’ve been struck that Thomson seemed a bit ambivalent about his Moment while Branca never seemed the least ashamed. I took it that Thomson felt apologetic because he’d caused Branca a lifetime of nagging questions . . .

“Whether Thomson took the stolen sign, Branca has been a man of honor for fifty years. He has never raised the cheating issue without proof or tarnished the game’s most replayed moment. Even now, Branca says, ‘He still had to hit the pitch’.”

Prager’s first Journal missive and then The Echoing Green put paid to all speculation once and for all and stamped “case closed” that the Giants cheated their way back from oblivion to the pennant playoff—and even to the pennant. Interviewed by a Utah newspaper in the post-game bedlam, Franks said, “Maybe we caught the sign for a fastball.”

Nobody paid attention in ’51. They did now. Once and for all time, the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff should be known forever after as the Mugging at Coogan’s Bluff.

Thomson was cited in Prager’s book as telling New York Daily News writer Jim McCulley that Branca’s 0-1 fastball “was a pitch that [Hall of Famer Stan] Musial or any other good hitter would have taken. It was high and inside. I didn’t deserve to do a thing like that.” Prager also cited Branca telling New York Times writer Roscoe McGowen that the pitch “wasn’t a bad pitch . . .”

I didn’t think he hit it too well. It was sinking when it went into the stands. I guess we weren’t meant to win it. The ball was high and inside, not a good pitch [to hit], and it only cleared the wall by [a very few inches].

In fact, when Prager caught up to Franks shortly before the old catcher-coach-manager died in 2009, Franks described the spy glass spy—in the third person—as “tilt[ing] his scope up to the eyes of the batter.”

The spy did so to watch the batter glance toward right field, where a player in the bullpen relayed the stolen sign. The eyes of the batter also filled the scope’s field of view. And at 3:57 p.m. on October 3, 1951—with two on and one out in the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Giants down 4-2 in the third and final game of the playoff—Franks had just spied Brooklyn catcher Rube Walker call for an 0-1 fastball when he looked up at the eyes of Bobby Thomson.

“For 50 years,” wrote Boswell in 2001, “Thomson has been baseball’s ideal clutch hero and Branca the game’s most symbolic goat. Now it seems that Branca, the Dodger who gave up the homer that lost the pennant, may be a victim and Thomson less than a hero.”

Bums author Peter Golenbock cited a longtime Dodger fan leaving the Polo Grounds for pizza . . . and seeing the pizza joint displaying rolls of toilet paper marked “Dodger Crying Towels,” plus a rope tied into a noose and with the sign, “Dodger fans, hang yourself [sic] here.” You thought today’s road fans showing and banging inflatable trash cans when the Astros come to town is rough stuff?

But Golenbock also got Branca to re-tell a story once circulated well enough, Branca’s fiancee taking him to see her cousin—a Catholic priest, who told the stricken pitcher, “God chose you because He knew your faith would be strong enough to bear this cross.” Branca died in 2016, six years after Thomson. “He carried the cross of the Thomson home run,” said Vin Scully, “with dignity and grace.”

Neither the snarking Giants fans nor the stricken and suspicious Dodgers and their fans knew for dead last certain in that hour that the Giants got there in the first place with a plot as underhanded then as the Astro Intelligence Agency was in 2017-18.

The Astros weren’t baseball’s only electronic cheaters when they won the 2017 World Series, but they were the only ones known to have altered an existing camera off mandatory eight-second delay or to have installed a furtive new and illegal camera, either of which sent stolen real-time pitch signs to clubhouse monitors and a trash can banger.

The only thing left is to await Drellich’s book. (Try to imagine what Boswell snarked sadly—The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!—happening in the Internet social media era.) Stay tuned. It could make the original Astrogate revelations resemble mere flickers through the spyglass darkly.