The Alex Rodriguez of baseball teams ended a season, and possibly an era, Saturday night.
Houston could not come all the way back from a three-games-to-none deficit. Thus, the best team — emphasis on team — in the AL advanced to the World Series: the sum-of-their-parts Rays. So now we have to do the math more fully to calculate the sum-of-dark-arts Astros.
Attempts were made to cleanse the Astros of their sins for eliminating the always-lose-in-the-postseason Twins and A’s and nearly rallying against the Rays before losing, 4-2, in Game 7 and four-to-three in the ALCS. Winning, after all, remains America’s finest deodorant.
But this is more complicated. In these polarized times we want extremes — triumph or trash. Black or white.
These Astros, if nothing else, reminded us there can be shades of gray with their postseason run. To appraise them will take holding two thoughts simultaneously — that they were both excellent at baseball and cheaters. Thus, the A-Rod of teams.
For I have no doubt that if Rodriguez had played his career clean he would have been a great player. He was big, strong, talented and dedicated to his craft. He was one of the best schoolboy players ever. A one-one — first pick, first round in 1993. Five hundred homers and the Hall of Fame were within his skill set if he never touched an illegal performance-enhancer.
But he did. He arguably cheated like no one else — served a year’s suspension ultimately for the transgression. So his playing legacy is like beauty: in the eye of the beholder. Hall of Fame or Shame. The sadness — a sadness that he should have as well — is that we will never know just how special he would have been clean. Thus, there will always be the dichotomy. What he was and what he could have been. Each person who cares will have to come to their own peace what it means.
These are the Astros. They were good enough to win plenty on their own and should be saddened never to know if that would have included a 2017 title without cheating. For it wasn’t all trash-can banging that brought success. Like A-Rod, Carlos Correa was a one-one. Alex Bregman and Justin Verlander were second overall picks in drafts. Springer 11th. Yuli Gurriel one of the most heralded players in the history of Cuba.
As A-Rod might have hit 500 homers without illegal chemical help, those Astros might have won a title without the most audacious sign-stealing apparatus in major league history. Like A-Rod, there was punishment with, among other items, GM Jeff Luhnow, manager A.J. Hinch and Red Sox manager Alex Cora (the 2017 Astros bench coach) being suspended for a year (and all eventually being fired from their positions, as was Carlos Beltran before he managed a game for the Mets). And like A-Rod, they will always have to explain what could have been or what they think we should believe.
It is A-Rod and not Mark McGwire or even Barry Bonds. Because there was vanity here, a tin ear, an arrogance that the rules were for others. There was enormity to the accomplishments and betrayals. And like A-Rod there was a second chapter of success and, to some at least, cleansing. Getting to Game 7 of this ALCS for the Astros is like emerging in the Sunday night ESPN booth. Losing the ALCS is perhaps falling just short of buying the Mets.
The Astros smartly hired Dusty Baker to succeed Hinch. The only better choices might have been Dolly Parton or Tom Hanks, such is the universally beloved aura of Baker. Imagine Santa Claus being put in charge of the mafia. Houston also received unexpected benefits from, of all things, a pandemic. There were no crowds all season to boo them like no team ever. There was no travel outside of their general region to have their asterisk kicked in places like Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. There were expanded playoffs that allowed a 29-31 club entry.
They seized that largesse to remind folks just how talented players such as Correa, Springer and Lance McCullers Jr. are. But that should not cleanse. This had been a rogue organization in many ways, stained not just by the sign-stealing malfeasance but dubious behavior in the draft, the acquisition of Roberto Osuna during a domestic violence suspension plus a Me Too transgression and initial downplay of it last postseason — the tin ear of handling that reminiscent of the Astros’ initial tone-deaf media encounters to address the sign stealing. This is an organization that left such a bad impression that there was belief that Jose Altuve was wearing a buzzer under his uniform last year — two seasons after the trash cans — to alert him to what pitches were coming. Both the Rays and Yankees wondered last season if they were ousted fairly from the playoffs — at least Tampa Bay got retribution.
And if time is making you minimize the sign-stealing transgression, listen to the first episode of Ben Reiter’s new podcast, “The Edge.” You will hear a journeyman pitcher named Mike Bolsinger describe his major league career ending on a 2017 night when the Astros cheated like never before despite already winning an August game big and leading their division by 15 games and facing a guy with a tepid fastball, yet using an illicit system to know when the fastball was coming. The defense could be everyone was doing some form of this, which sounds like A-Rod trying to explain his steroid use under the umbrella that it was a “loosey-goosey era.”
For the Astros now, this era is closing if not closed. Luhnow, Hinch and Gerrit Cole were already gone. Verlander made one start this year and he will miss next season after needing Tommy John surgery. Springer — in many ways the face and heart and soul of this club — is probable to leave in free agency, along with Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick. Osuna will almost certainly not be retained. Correa, McCullers Jr. and Zack Greinke reach free agency after the 2021 campaign.
Clannish and clandestine, the Luhnow Astros also were excellent at what they did and — among other items — built a strong Latin program which has done a lot to upgrade the pitching staff on the fly. But the organization has and will continue to bleed the talent that carried them to heights and depths. So we will find ourselves trying to determine just who they were. I think they were gray. Great and awful.
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