Genius playing with mental blocks?

Tony La Russa

Even Hall of Fame managers aren’t always the geniuses they’re cracked up to be.

No baseball manager is a perfect specimen, whether he lucks into the job, performs it long enough and well enough, or gets himself elected to the Hall of Fame because of his actual or reputed job performance. Many have been the managers whose reputations for genius are out of proportion to their actual performances.

Even the certified geniuses made their mistakes. Maybe none was more truly egregious than Casey Stengel’s failure to set up his rotation so his Hall of Fame lefthander Whitey Ford could start three 1960 World Series games instead of two. Unless it was Tommy Lasorda deciding it was safe to let Tom Niedenfeuer pitch to Jack Clark, with first base open and the Dodgers one out from forcing a seventh 1985 National League Championship Series game.

Maybe it was Dick Williams, placing public perception ahead of baseball to start gassed ace Jim Lonborg instead of a better-rested arm in Game Seven, 1967 World Series. Unless it was Gene Mauch, the Little General panicking down the 1964 stretch (with the Phillies, using his two best pitchers on too-short rest and blowing a pennant he had in the bank), or in Game Five (with the Angels) when he was an out away from winning the 1986 American League Championship Series.

Regardless of his foibles since what proved his first retirement, Tony La Russa still has an outsize reputation as one of the most deft ever to hold the manager’s job. He’s been called a genius. He’s been called one of the smartest baseball men of the last half-century. They point to his Hall of Fame plaque, the 33 years he managed prior to returning to the White Sox this season, eleven division titles, six pennants, and three World Series rings.

Those plus his longtime reputation for volumnious pre- and post-game thinking and analysis (observed perhaps most deeply in a chapter of George F. Will’s Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball) still allow La Russa absolution from his most egregious errors.

He threw his 2021 White Sox star Yermin Mercedes under the proverbial bus, and maybe even invited the Twins to retaliate the following day, after Mercedes swung on 3-0 (violating La Russa’s fealty to the Sacred Unwritten Rules) in the eighth inning of a White Sox blowout, and hit a home run . . . off a middle infielder sent to the mound.

La Russa is still considered one of the smartest of the Smart Guys whatever they think of Mercedes’s homer or La Russa’s definition of “sportsmanship.” (They don’t always stop to ponder what La Russa thought of the Twins’s “sportsmanship” in giving up the ghost with two innings left to close even a fat deficit and sending a position player to the mound with real pitching still available to them.)

Perhaps they haven’t read Keith Law, writing in The Inside Game last year: “Sometimes you do all the right things and are stymied by bad luck. Other times you do everything wrong and are subsequently rewarded for it. That’s outcome bias.” There’s a case to be made that La Russa’s reputation, and maybe even his Hall of Fame case, is a little more than half a product of such outcome bias.

It’s hard to argue against a manager with three decades plus on his resume plus those division titles, pennants, and three Series rings. But maybe it’s easy to forget or dismiss how often La Russa either outsmarted or short-sighted himself when the games meant the absolute most.

“Tony, stop thinking,” Thomas Boswell wrote, after La Russa’s Athletics were swept out of a 1990 Series they could have tied in four and gone on to win, instead of being swept by a band of Reds upstarts who didn’t know the meaning of the words “shrink under pressure.”

If the A’s had picked an usher at random to manage them in this Series, they’d have been better. The usher would have brought in [Hall of Fame reliever Dennis] Eckersley to start the eighth inning of Game Two with a 4-3 lead. The usher would have brought in Eckersley to start the eighth inning of Game Four with a 1-0 lead. And this Series would be two-all.

La Russa could write a book on why did he did what he did. But the bottom line is that every manager in the Hall of Fame would have brought in the Eck. Twice Tony didn’t and twice the A’s lost. This time, the goat’s horns stop at the top.

Outcome bias didn’t help La Russa then, a year after he’d won his first Series. But it sure helped him after a 2011 Series he won despite himself. Because smart baseball men don’t do even half of what La Russa did to make life that much tougher for his Cardinals than it should have been.

Tony La Russa

La Russa’s 2011 Cardinals won a World Series despite the skipper’s missteps.

Smart baseball men don’t take the bats out of the hands of future Hall of Famers with Game One tied at zero. La Russa took it out of Albert Pujols’s hands by ordering Jon Jay to sacrifice Rafael Furcal, guaranteeing the Rangers wouldn’t let Pujols swing even with a swimming pool noodle, walking him on the house. (The next batter got lured into dialing Area Code 5-4-3.)

Smart baseball men don’t lift better clutch hitters (especially those shaking out as Series MVPs) with late single-run leads for defensive replacements who might have to try a lot harder to do the later clutch hitting with insurance runs to be cashed in—and fail. La Russa did that lifting David Freese (after he scored a single tiebreaking run) for Daniel Descalso (grounded out with two in the eighth) in Game Two.

Smart baseball men don’t balk when their closers surrender two soft hits in the Game Two ninth with a groin-hobbled bopper due up and a double play possibility very distinct. La Russa balked. He lifted Jason Motte for Arthur Rhodes with Josh Hamilton coming up. Rhodes gave the lead away and Lance Lynn gave the game away—on back-to-back sacrifice flies.

Smart baseball men don’t look past three powerfully viable and available bullpen options with their teams down a mere 1-0 and reach for . . . a known mop-up man, with the opposition’s hottest Series bat due up. La Russa learned or re-learned the hard way in Game Four. Mike Napoli thanked him for offering Mitchell Boggs as the sacrificial lamb—Napoli hit the first pitch for a three-run homer. (Final score: Rangers 4, Cardinals 0.)

Smart baseball men don’t snooze for even a moment and forget to flash the red light when their batter (Pujols, in this case) signals their baserunner Allen Craig to try for a steal in the Game Five seventh.  Craig got arrested by half a mile, inviting another free pass to the bopper and—following a base hit setting up second and third when the batter advances on the throw to third—another free pass and an inning-ending fly out.

Smart baseball men also don’t let a little (ok, a lot of) crowd noise interfere with getting the pen men up that he wants to get up in the bottom of the Game Five eighth—after ordering one relief pitcher tough on righthanded hitters to put a righthanded hitter aboard on the house, yet, instead of getting the second out—then try sneaking a lefthanded pen man past a righthanded danger who sneaks what proves a game-winning two-run double.

They don’t try to make the Case of the Tangled Telephone out of it, either, after they end up bringing in the wrong man when nobody claimed to hear them ordering the guy they really wanted to get ready. (La Russa wanted Motte but got Lynn. Oops.)

Neither do smart baseball men drain their benches in the eighth of even a do-or-die Game Six. La Russa did. It compelled his Cardinals to perform their still-mythologised ninth and tenth inning feats of down-to-their-final-strike derring-do without a safety net beneath them. Freese took one and all off the hook with his eleventh-inning, full-count, game-winning, Richter scale-busting leadoff bomb.

The Cardinals won that Series despite their skipper. (And, because they pinned the Rangers in Game Seven, after allowing a 2-0 first-inning lead on back-to-back RBI doubles. They made it impossible for La Russa to overthink/mis-think/mal-think again after they tied in the bottom of the first and scored four more from there.) La Russa was thatclose to blowing a Series his Rangers counterpart sometimes seemed to do everything within reach to hand him.

Fairness: La Russa did plenty right and smart winning those division titles. He did plenty right and smart winning the 2006 Series in five. (It didn’t hurt that he knew what he had turning his resident pest/Series MVP David Eckstein loose.) That was two years after nobody could have stopped the Red Sox steamroller from plowing the Cardinals in four, following their self-yank back from the dead to take the last four ALCS games from the Empire Emeritus.

But the 2011 Series got La Russa compared in the long term to . . . Bob Brenly, the Diamondbacks manager who won the 2001 World Series in spite of his own mistakes, too. Batting his worst on-base percentage man leadoff; ordering bunts ahead of and thus neutralising his best power threat; overworking and misusing his tough but sensitive closer, even throwing him out a second straight night after the lad threw 61 relief pitches the night before. (You’re still surprised Scott Brosius faced a gassed Byung-Hyun Kim and tied Game Five with a home run?)

Lucky for Brenly that he had one Hall of Fame pitcher (Randy Johnson) and another should-have-been Hall of Fame pitcher (Curt Schilling, his own worst enemy) to bail him out. Brenly hasn’t managed again since the Diamondbacks fired him during a 2004 skid to the bottom of the National League West.

When La Russa retired three days after that 2011 Series ended, he didn’t announce it until after the Cardinals’ championship parade and after he called a meeting with his players. “Some grown men cried,” he said of the meeting, adding, “I kind of liked that because they made me cry a few times.”

The smartest men in baseball with even half La Russa’s experience don’t invite comparisons to comparative newcomers who trip, tumble, and pratfall their way to World Series rings. Three Series rings keeps him a Hall of Fame beneficiary of the outcome bias Law described. It’ll probably keep La Russa cushioned with the White Sox for now, despite his early tactical mistakes.

And, despite the perception the Mercedes incident leaves that he’d rather burn his players in the public eye than handle real or alleged issues the mature way. (Name one manager who ever invited the other guys to retaliate for a real or alleged rookie mistake.) All that previous outcome bias won’t save him, if he costs himself his clubhouse and the White Sox turn from early-season surprise to season-closing bust.

No, it wasn’t Baldelli’s fault

Luis Arraez

This off-balanced throw from third by Luis Arraez finished what Travis Blankenhorn’s bobble at second started for the Twins Wednesday. Neither was the manager’s fault.

Sometimes you can believe to your soul that second-guessing is in a dead heat with cheating as baseball’s oldest profession. Twins manager Rocco Baldelli may be re-learning the hard way since Wednesday’s 13-12 loss against the Athletics.

All Baldelli did was make one smart move in the top of a tenth inning the Twins shouldn’t have had to play in the first place . . . and watch in horror with every Twin fan in creation when it blew up in his face in the bottom of the tenth. Through absolutely no fault of his own.

Baldelli inserted a speedy young pinch runner, Travis Blankenhorn, for his slower free half inning-opening cookie Josh Donaldson. He found himself with a swift and fresh two-run lead after Byron Buxton, who may yet prove the Twins’ answer to Mike Trout, hit a two-run homer to return the Twins a two-run lead.

With Donaldson out of the game Baldelli shifted his second base incumbent Luis Arraez to third and inserted Blankenhorn at second. Bottom of the tenth: the pillows stuffed with A’s after Twins reliever Alex Colome walked veteran Elvis Andrus to load them up after he opened the inning with two outs and nobody on.

Then A’s left fielder Mark Canha whacked a none-too-sharp grounder right to Blankenhorn. And Blankenhorn—with double play obviously on his mind—lost his grip on the ball as he made a right-arm motion to throw without the ball secure in hand, the ball hitting the ground and A’s inning-opening free cookie Matt Chapman coming home.

And then Arraez double-clutched before throwing Ramon Laureano’s grounder with his right leg slightly unbalanced. The throw sailed wide enough behind first base to pass a train through the space, but this time the only things passing through were Andrus and pinch-runner Tony Kemp scoring the tying and winning runs.

The A’s ought to send Colome roses for really enabling the sweep that shouldn’t have been. Twin Territory ought to knock it off with hanging the goat horns on Baldelli’s none-too-bald head.

This game had no business getting to the extra innings in the first place. Not until Colome opened the bottom of the ninth by hitting Laureano with a pitch, continued by surrendering a one-out base hit to Matt Olson roomy enough for Laureano to take third, and finished by surrendering a game-tying sacrifice fly to Chapman. Picking Olson off for the side with Stephen Piscotty at the plate didn’t quite atone for Colome’s original sin.

“It’s just baseball and it’s hard to understand,” said Laureano, taking the simpler view. “We were still loose and having fun, so we knew we would win.”

“The way the first two games went and then neither team could hold either down,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin after putting his gift an an eleven-game A’s winning streak safely in the bank, “it was almost like it was going to go down to the last at-bat regardless. And then you know what? You put a ball in play. At that point in time it’s not about walks and strikeouts and all that. Put it in play and something good can happen.”

That’s a matter of opinion, of course. Put a ball in play and something terrible can happen, too. If you’re an A’s fan, something wonderful happened. If you’re a Twins fan, you might want to think back to why the game shouldn’t have gotten to the extras in the first place.

For Baldelli to want some extra speed on the bases to open the top of the tenth wasn’t even close to the dumbest baseball move you’ll see. Blankenhorn had an .844 stolen base percentage in the minors. He was also a rangy enough second baseman who projected as a potential plus defender particularly adept at turning double plays.

You want to blame Baldelli for a rookie mistake, feel free. But a rookie mistake is just what Blankenhorn committed on the Canha grounder. A guy who turned 120 double plays in the minors should have remembered not to count his double plays before he turns them.

Arraez hasn’t played half the Show games at third that he’s played at second, and he isn’t the rangiest man on the planet at either position. But what he reaches or comes right to him, he handles under normal circumstances. Over three Show seasons Arraez entered Wednesday’s game with a measly four errors.

“In extra innings, if you don’t find a way to put a run on the board, you’re going to end up losing a lot of those games,” Baldelli told reporters after the game. “Doing everything possible to put that first run on the board is, I think, instrumental to finding ways to win those games.”

He did just what he thought possible opening the tenth and got immediate return when Buxton turned on Lou Trivino’s meatball up and drove it about seven rows into the high left center field seats.

And that was after Buxton spent the earlier portion of his evening going 2-for-5 with a double and taking an Olympics-like dive to spear Olson’s long sinking liner for the side, in the bottom of the sixth, preserving what was then a 10-9 Twins lead. Not to mention Nelson Cruz’s two-bomb night.

The Twins’ Wednesday starting pitcher, Kenta Maeda, the former Dodger, blamed himself for the disaster, after surrendering seven runs (three in the second, four in the third) to tie his career worst. “I could not set the tone,” he mourned. “If I had done that, we would have gotten that W.”

Yet the Twins hung up three-spots in the third, fifth, and sixth, after Donaldson himself hit A’s starter Frankie Montas’s first pitch over the left field corner fence in the top of the first.  That’d teach him.

“It’s been a hell of a trip, and not in a good way,” Baldelli said of the Twins’ now-concluded road trip, which involved postponements against the Angels due to COVID concerns followed by a loss to those Angels and now three straight losses to the A’s.

“Today was a game where we’re finding ways to not win games, even games that we should be winning,” he told the postgame questioners. “What we saw today is something we haven’t seen a ton from our group, and I stand in the front of it and take responsibility for all of it. It was a very difficult day.”

It wouldn’t have been that difficult if his man on the mound held fort in the ninth and his tenth-inning smarts weren’t rendered dumb by an anxious rook and an off-balance leg at third. Those mistakes can make Casey Stengel resemble Clyde Crashcup.

It’ll take more than winning . . .

What Carlos Correa took on the shouhlder from Chris Bassitt on Opening Night isn’t likely to be the last such drill—not until the absolute last Astrogater isn’t an Astro anymore.

“Got to hear some boos, finally,” said Astros righthander Zack Greinke after Opening Night in Oakland. “That wasn’t fun to listen to, I didn’t think, but we played good so it didn’t matter. Hopefully we’ll keep playing good and it won’t be as big of an issue.”

Greinke wasn’t a member of the Astros in 2017. The season-opening roster now has only five remaining from that World Series-winning team: second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Alex Bregman, shortstop Carlos Correa, first baseman Yuli Gurriel, and pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr.

But there’s a reasonable enough suspicion that the Astros won’t stop hearing boos and catcalls until every last member of the 2017-18 team is gone, either to other teams or from the game itself. The pan-damn-ically truncated, fan-less, irregular 2020 season kept the Astros shielded from anything beyond fans outside the parks serenading their team bus.

Lucky them. Until now. With fans returning even in limited numbers this season, the Astros won’t be immune to road fans letting them have it. If Greinke thinks wins will neutralise them—wins such as their 8-1 Opening Night win over the Athletics—he may be guilty of wishful thinking.

That’d be a far less grave offense to be guilty of than the one over which the Astros remain convicted by the evidence and in the eyes of the rest of the game and its fans. The stain won’t leave for a long enough time. The pan-damn-ic didn’t really amputate the long arm of Astrogate after all.

Fair? Probably not to the 89 percent of the Astro roster who weren’t there and had nothing to do with Astrogate. More than fair to the eleven percent remaining.

Limited though it was by safety protocols, the Oakland crowd wasted no time. During pre-game introductions they booed the Astros loudly, accompanied by a few who carried assorted trash cans to bang just as loudly. The Astros should consider themselves lucky if lusty booing and can banging on the road are all they get.

“That’s fine,” said outfielder/designated hitter Michael Brantley of the Oakland crowd. “This is a veteran team. We’ve been in the World Series, we’ve been in the playoffs. The guys know how to compete day in and day out. They can boo, they can yell, they can do whatever they want. But at the end of the day we have each other’s backs, and that’s all that matters.”

Having each other’s backs is one thing. Genuine contrition for the worst cheating scandal major league baseball saw since the at-long-last-affirmed exposure of the 1915 New York Giants as pennant race comeback telescopic cheaters seems not to be Astro policy. That non-apologetically apology at last year’s spring-opening presser, pre-COVID shutdown, was no act, apparently.

They still don’t seem to get it so far. They still don’t seem to get just how terrible a look it was when commissioner Rob Manfred handed all 2017 players blanket immunity from discipline in return for spilling the deets about the Astro Intelligence Agency—the ones who either took an existing center field camera off its mandatory eight-second delay, or installed a new and illegal real-time camera, to steal signs from a clubhouse monitor and signal the stolen intelligence to their hitters with bangs on a large vinyl trash can nearby.

They still don’t seem to get, so far, that the AIA went a lot farther than went any team (the 2018 Boston Rogue Sox for certain, others quite possibly) who merely used existing video rooms at home and on the road to steal signs and relay them to baserunners to send the batters.

They still don’t get what then-Dodger pitcher Alex Wood meant when he said he’d rather face a batter using actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances than an AIA-like sign stealer, because the former still doesn’t know what’s coming and lacks the 50 percent or better chance of hitting it before he even sees the pitch.

They still don’t get why Astrogate team member Correa inspired lusty cheering when A’s starter Chris Bassitt drilled him in the fourth inning despite a runner being aboard. Or why Correa, Altuve, Bregman, and Gurriel are liable to be ongoing targets for brushbacks and knockdowns so long as they’re Astros.

Former Astrogater George Springer, now a Blue Jay, opened the season on the injured list. Will he face the catcalls from Blue Jay opponents unable to forget he was one of the Astrogate team? Time will tell, though other former Astrogaters haven’t really felt it in the hips or on opposing fans’ lips. Yet.

Remember: When Astrogate exploded from mere revelation in November 2019 to Manfred’s final report and limited discipline—the team fined and stripped of draft picks, general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch suspended for the season, then Luhnow and Hinch fired by owner Jim Crane who seemed himself barely able to grok the outrage—it wasn’t just fans outraged by the AIA.

Long ago, the father-in-law of convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald, fearing his son-in-law might yet remain free on appeal in the deaths of his pregnant wife and two young daughters, proclaimed publicly, “If the courts of this country won’t administer justice, I most certainly will.” More players than you may remember said much the same thing about administering to the Astros the justice Manfred truly denied, though they didn’t quite have murder in their hearts for the unjudged.

Dodger relief pitcher Joe Kelly showed such players weren’t kidding, late last July, when he got his chance and sailed ball four past Bregman’s shoulder and subsequently threw one behind Correa’s head. For every one soul a little put-off by Kelly’s dusters, there were probably three who thought he didn’t go far enough administering Astrogate justice.

Too many fans would love nothing better than to see every last being in Astro fatigues pay such prices as Bregman and Correa. I observed one social media poster writing, and probably speaking for too many “Bean balls, mound charging, spiking, spitting, fighting, punches, headlocks, punches to the face hard and often. Umpires should call every pitch against them a strike.”

And then we should get really mad?

Actually, we should have Wednesday night—at home plate umpire Brian Gorman. He called strike on a wide outside pitch to Brantley early in the game, called balls on two more strikes so obvious Helen Keller could have seen them, and then Brantley slashed a single more or less into center field on one of the upper strikes that Gorman might have called a ball if taken. Brantley should have been out on strikes in that plate appearance.

Gorman was an equal opportunity offender. He called strike three on the A’s Matt Olson on a pitch that was far enough off the outside corner to slide a bat through without it touching either side. All night long Gorman’s strike zone was more improvisational than music legends John Coltrane, Cream, and Miles Davis. Robby the Umpbot may be closer to arriving at last than people think or might like.

You can search the archives of this journal and see precisely where I stood (and continue to stand) on Astrogate. So you know I’m not just looking to take the culprits off the hook when I say there’s a limit to how much Astrogate justice their opponents can administer and road fans can demand.

I get the urge and itch to send messages to Altuve, Bregman, Correa, and Gurriel. (McCullers being a pitcher won’t be batting unless he’s in the game and the Astros are playing a National League team on the road, thanks to Commissioner Nero forcing the absence of the universal designated hitter for this season at least.) They were members of the Astrogate team and they got away with murder.

But Brantley didn’t join the Astros until 2019. The rest of the roster had nothing to do with Astrogate. Joe and Jane Fan don’t always draw the proper distinctions, but the players can, do, and should. Save the return messages for the real culprits. Right?

Sort of. Nobody held a gun to the Astros’ heads to compel them to extend Gurriel another year with an option for next year. Nobody held guns to their heads to compel them to try for an extension for Correa, who now says he’s looking forward to the free agency market he’ll hit after this season.

Altuve and Bregman are locked in as Astros until 2024. Nobody will hold guns to the Astros’ heads and force the team to extend or re-sign them further. If any team reads the appropriate tea leaves and decides to make a trade play for either one, nobody will hold the Astros hostage until they agree to retain the pair.

It’s not fair to blame the entire 2021 Astro roster for the crimes of the eleven percent remaining Astrogaters. But it’s entirely understandable. The Astros will have to live with the continuing ramifications of their cheating and the continuing outrage of opponents and fans until the absolute last Astrogater no longer wears their fatigues.

The A’s re-up the whistleblower

Mike Fiers—the A’s re-sign the Astrogate whistleblower.

Under ordinary circumstances a team signing a good pitcher who’s a worthy number-four man in a starting rotation isn’t extraordinary. But then there’s Mike Fiers, whom the Athletics have re-upped for 2021 on a one-year, $3.5 million deal. There’s also San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Susan Slusser dropping a troublesome suggestion.

Now the Giants’ beat writer and a former president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, Slusser was a longtime A’s beat writer for the Chronicle. So when she says, “The A’s were the only team to make Fiers an offer, I’m told. Interesting – was he being blackballed for being a whistleblower? I certainly hope that’s not the case,” it ought to sound an alarm or two.

Lots of teams have been in need of third and below starters. It shouldn’t have been that difficult for an innings-eating righthander with fourth-starter solidity to find a job even in this winter’s somewhat surreal market. Except that Fiers, who did say his preference was to stay in Oakland, isn’t just an ordinary fourth starter.

Whistleblowers don’t fare as well as some people think after their whistles blast cases of wrongdoing to smithereens. When Fiers blew his on the Astros’ illegal off-field-based electronic sign-stealing cheating of 2017 and some of 2018 (at least) to The Athletic, it seemed as though half of baseball considered him a hero and half a rat bastard.

He moved to the Tigers for 2018 and to the A’s later that season. He warned both collections of new teammates that the Astros were playing with a stacked deck. He and others suspecting the Astros of extracurricular pitch intelligence also tried futilely to convince members of the press to run with and investigate it; those writers couldn’t convince their editors to let them run without a name willing to go on public record.

That’s when Fiers finally put his name on it to Athletic writers Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich in November 2019. From which point it swelled toward Commissioner Rob Manfred’s marshmallow hammer, the hammer constructed when he handed Astro players immunity in return for spilling, suspended a GM and a manager, voided two key draft picks and fined owner Jim Crane pocket money.

The Astros likely weren’t the only team in the Show using extracurricular off-field-based sign stealing, just the most sophisticated. They took an existing center field camera off the mandatory eight-second delay or installed a surreptitious new such camera, set monitors up in the clubhouse, and translators would decode the pitch signs and signal hitters with bangs on an adjacent trash can.

The 2018 Red Sox turned out to have enlisted their video rooms at home and on the road for a little extra aid to old-fashioned gamesmanship: the signs would be decoded off the feeds and sent to baserunners to signal batters. They—and anyone else thinking and doing likewise (would you be shocked?)—didn’t install anything extra.

Essentially, the Show handed those Rogue Sox and others, who knows how many yet, the keys to the liquor cabinet and dared them not to imbibe while Mom and Dad high tailed it out of town for the weekend.

Some looked at Fiers’ membership on the 2017 Astros and discovered a rank hypocrite, never mind that if he’d blown his whistle then he’d also have been denounced most likely as a backstabber on the spot. (Fiers wasn’t on those Astros’ postseason roster.) It’s called hell if you do and hell if you don’t.

“Even in cases of obvious right and wrong,” wrote The Athletic‘s Marc Carig last year, “crying foul on family is easy to call for in retrospect and hard to do in real time.” Remind yourself if you will how often you learned of egregious wrongdoing and lamented the lack of a whistleblower. Now ask how simple it really is to blow the whistle in the moment or even a comparatively short time later.

It took New York police legends Frank Serpico and David Durk several years’ futility trying to get that police department to attack graft before they finally went to the New York Times and launched the largest New York police scandal since Brooklyn-based bookie Harry Gross was found to have enough police on his payroll to staff half his borough’s precincts.

Cheating may be sports’ oldest profession, but affirmations don’t always happen concurrent to the instances, for the reason Carig enunciated. When Joshua Prager finally affirmed what was long just suspected—that the 1951 New York Giants cheated their way back into the pennant race to force the fabled playoff with an elaborate telescopic sign-stealing operation—it was half a century after the fact, with the surviving principals willing to talk long retired.

Prager eventually expanded his expose into The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca, and the Shot Heard Round the World. “A spitballer or corker can be caught by an umpire, who has the right to examine or confiscate equipment,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Thomas Boswell when Prager first hit The Wall Street Journal running.

Both teams play on the same damp base paths and inclined foul lines, even if they’ve been doctored a bit for home-field advantage.

But an elaborate system of sign stealing—with an old pro in the art of signs in a hidden space—is almost impossible to catch. Umps and foes are defenseless. The game becomes fundamentally unfair because knowing what’s coming is a big deal.

If revealing the Astros’ elaborate 2017-18 system at last made Fiers a criminal, maybe baseball needs more such criminals. If other teams needing fourth starters refused to even think about him because he blew a whistle instead of a ball game, after two years worth of trying futilely to get others to investigate without a blown whistle, something’s worse than a hanging slider driven out of sight.

Slusser doesn’t know for dead last certain. Neither does anyone else, possibly including Fiers. To those who still think blowing the whistle is worse than the crime, perhaps you’d like to ask what might have been, instead, if Alexander Butterfield hadn’t suffered a pang of conscience and an inability to lie under oath enough to expose Richard Nixon’s White House taping system.

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.