Keep José Altuve off the Astrogate hook

Jose Altuve

It’s been said before Peter Gammons revived it Friday: José Altuve wanted no part of illegally-stolen signs when he was at the plate. Stop hammering him with the “chea-ter! chea-ter!” chants once and for all.

When the World Series shifted to Philadelphia, after the Phillies and the Astros split the first two games in Houston, the Citizens Bank Park crowd wasn’t shy about letting the Astros have it over You-know-what-gate. The good news was that they saved the chea-ter! chea-ter! chants for the only three position players left on the roster from the forever-tainted 2017-18 team.

The bad news was that one of the three actually spurned taking the illegally stolen signs in the batter’s box. That was second baseman and Astros franchise face José Altuve. It didn’t matter to the chanting Phillies fans. But it should have.

When SNY’s Andy Martino published Cheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colorful History of Sign Stealing in June 2021, the chapter called “The Scheme Begins” included a revelation that should have jolted anyone hammering the Astros rightfully enough over their Astro Intelligence Agency plot:

Altuve was the most reluctant of the Astros stars. When the option to have a teammate bang the trash can [to relay the signs stolen by way of an illegal off-field-based real-time camera to an illegal additional clubhouse monitor—JK] first arose, he declined.

When Altuve was batting, and there would be a bang, he would glare into the dugout.

“He doesn’t want it,” teammates would say frantically. On more than one occasion, Altuve returned to the dugout after his at-bat and yelled at the others to knock it off.

It jolted me, too. Especially since I’d actually missed the first such revelation, in February 2020, from then-Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, usually the face of the team when it came to defending the 2017 World Series title before he signed with the Twins last winter. (Correa is now a free agent again.) I missed it, and I shouldn’t have.

Commissioner Rob Manfred handed down his Astrogate verdict in January 2020—suspensions for 2017-18 general manager Jeff Luhnow, manager A.J. Hinch, and bench coach Alex Cora (subsequently a World Series-winning manager for the 2018 Red Sox . . . who had their own Rogue Sox replay room reconnaissance ring operating that season and possibly beyond); heavy fine for owner Jim Crane; key draft picks stripped.

The Astros faced the press when spring training opened the next month. Depending upon how you saw and hear, they seemed either unapologetically apologetic or apologetically unapologetic. “Yes, there’s no better way to show good old-fashioned genuine remorse than by refusing to speak the misdeed you committed,” wrote since-retired Thomas Boswell, the longtime Washington Post baseball eminence.

Crane and his team used their showcase to insist they keep their phony title and that Major League Baseball was correct not to fine or suspend any Astros players. Also, we should just trust that they stopped cheating in 2018. Why? No reason at all. Just felt like stopping, even though they, you know, won the previous World Series doing it.

. . .Maybe, with time, some Astros will be more forthcoming with authentic feelings, not practiced phrases, that will show their human dilemma—most of them not $100 million stars or future Hall of Famers, just normal ballplayers caught on a runaway train with, realistically, no emergency brake available for them to pull.

But even Boswell might have missed that Altuve didn’t want any part of the AIA. Before the original coronavirus pan-damn-ic compelled that spring training’s shutdown, Correa talked to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, one of the two reporters (with Evan Drellich) who first exposed the true depth of scheme. (Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers had finally agreed to go on the public record in November 2019, following long, futile efforts to get someone/anyone to investigate.)

They talked aboard MLB Network a couple of days after the presser that did the Astros more harm than good. Correa steamed over Dodger outfielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger’s fuming that Altuve cheated Yankee rookie star Aaron Judge out of the 2017 Most Valuable Player award he might have won if not for Altuve’s career year in Houston. “Cody,” Correa began, “you don’t know the facts.”

Nobody wants to talk about this, but I’m going to talk about this. José Altuve was the one guy that didn’t use the trash can.

The few times that the trash can was banged was without his consent, and he would go inside the clubhouse and inside the dugout to whoever was banging the trash can and he would get pissed. He would get mad. He would say, “I don’t want this. I can’t hit like this. Don’t you do that to me.” He played the game clean.

. . . When you look at Altuve’s numbers on the road, he hit .400 on the road (.381, actually, compared to .311 at home). He didn’t cheat nobody of the MVP. He earned that MVP. He’s a six-time All-Star, three-time batting champion, MVP, five-time Silver Slugger. He’s been doing this for a long time.

For [Bellinger] to go out there and defame José Altuve’s name like that, it doesn’t sit right with me. The man plays the game clean. That’s easy to find out. Mike Fiers broke the story. You can go out and ask Mike Fiers: “Did José Altuve use the trash can? Did José Altuve cheat to win the MVP?” Mike Fiers is going to tell you, straight up, he didn’t use it. He was the one player that didn’t use it. (Emphasis added.—JK.)

The foregoing arises again because another Athletic writer, Peter Gammons, the longtime Boston Globe scribe/analyst who’s a Spink Award Hall of Famer, wrote of the Astros’ post-Astrogate manager Dusty Baker and winning team cultures in a piece published Friday—and returned to that 2020 spring training opening. Including the impossible position into which Altuve was pushed.

There he was, sitting at the table, looking as though he’d rather undergo root canal work without an anesthetic. Now we should ask just what the hell Crane was thinking when, seemingly, he insisted Altuve sit at the head table for that 2020 spring presser. The owner with a reputation for rejecting direct accountability forced “the one player that didn’t use” the AIA’s espionage to take it like a man.

Gammons talked to assorted Astros near the end of the opening workout later in the day. “They were subdued, clearly remorseful,” Gammons wrote, “but when I told Altuve that players, coaches and a number of people in the organization had told me that he did not participate in the sign stealing, he politely declined to discuss it, and asked that I didn’t talk about it on television, or write about it. ‘It would be a betrayal of my teammates’.”

Two years later, he still did not want to be singled out. But while he and [third baseman Alex] Bregman were asked by management to speak to the scandal for all the players and he received the most obscene treatment from beered up louts in Boston and New York, he never pointed to 2017 home/road splits that showed a 200-point OPS difference in favor of the road, where there was nary a banging trash can to be heard.

“He is,” Baker said, “the ultimate teammate.” That from a man who played with Henry Aaron and Reggie Smith.

Altuve’s 2017 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) was 248 points higher on the road—where the AIA couldn’t operate—than it was at Minute Maid Park. He also hit six more home runs out of town than in Houston. With only four more plate appearances on the road than at home in ’17, his Real Batting Average (my metric: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) was .529 at home . . . but .679 on the road.

The Gammons story seems to have jolted for the Altuve “revelation.” In its email newsletter Morning Bark, offering links to stories based on its choice of a day’s top ten sports stories, Yardbarker linked to it with this teaser, which also headlined a brief news item about the piece: “Insider reveals interesting detail regarding José Altuve and Astros’ cheating scandal.”

It’s only a “revelation” if you missed either Rosenthal’s original or Martino’s book. I missed the former upon its original arrival, but I pounced on the latter when it was published. SNY, after all, stands for the Sports New York regional cable network. And the Yankees, whom Martino’s normal coverage includes, had their own skin in the sign-stealing world.

Theirs wasn’t quite as extensive as the 2017-18 Astros, of course. Neither was anything by any other teams who might have done as the Red Sox did, using their MLB-provided replay rooms for such sign-stealing reconnaissance. (MLB has since tightened up on guarding the replay rooms.) The 2017-18 Astros went far above and far beyond just boys-will-be-boys replay room roguery.

But Martino taking Astrogate book depth had no reason to want Altuve whitewashed. Especially considering Altuve—when Yankee manager Aaron Boone elected to let his faltering closer Aroldis Chapman pitch on to him, with two out in the bottom of the ninth, instead of putting him on at 2-1 with a spaghetti bat on deck—hit the monstrous two-run homer on an up-and-away slider that won the 2019 Astros the pennant.

In fact, Cheated‘s footnotes included the original Correa/Rosenthal revelation. Martino had me convinced before the footnotes section. Reading the Correa/Rosenthal revelation both recently and once again after the Gammons piece Friday, I’m convinced even more.

Saying Astrogate won’t disappear until the last member of the 2017-18 team no longer wears an Astro uniform is one thing. So is saying the 2017-18 cheaters stained baseball almost as deeply as the 1919 Black Sox. But it’s something else to keep including José Altuve among the tainted when he doesn’t deserve to be among them.

The further evidence should be even more clear by now. Altuve wanted no part of the original Astrogate scheming and bawled teammates out when they didn’t respect his wishes. He played the game straight, no chaser, then and now. He’s taken it across the chops unfairly since.