The Houston Astros are hunkering down for spring training in a Florida resort town known for hurricanes, and recent turbulence is tantamount to an asteroid falling on the fortunes of the American League champs. As the team preps for the 2020 season in West Palm Beach, a sign stealing system has leveled reputations and destroyed careers with three managers who were affiliated with the Astros losing their gigs and the club’s one and only World Series title in possible jeopardy.
There is irony in that a sloppy low-tech operation has rattled a city known for getting astronauts to the Moon and back.
It was in 2017 that Houston clipped the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games to become champions of the world, an elusive title for a franchise that has been in existence since 1962. The 55-year wait for a World Series winner spurred substantial cheating from a franchise that was poised to contend for honors for several more years.
Baseball’s staying power is remarkable. The sport survived a fixed World Series in 1919 that soiled the career of the great outfielder Joe Jackson. He and seven Chicago White Sox teammates were accused of accepting $5,000 each to throw the series. Jackson set a record with 12 base hits, batted .375, committed no errors and threw out a runner at the plate. A century later, historians argue whether Shoeless Joe was a victim or a perpetrator. He was banned from the game despite being found not guilty in court.
The best player on the talented Astros is Alex Bregman, the former LSU stalwart, who has posted 88 doubles and 72 homers in the last two seasons. Bregman is a legendary hard worker, so his power surge is attributed to commitment to excellence, but irate opposing fans question how a guy who hit 21 home runs in 786 collegiate at bats has emerged as one of the most feared power hitters.
Bregman and his teammates are accused of benefiting from a system in which his team used a video camera in center field to film opposing catcher signs to the pitcher. The alleged mastermind in 2017 was bench coach Alex Cora, who led Boston to World Series gold as the Red Sox manager in 2018. This is the same fellow who agonized on the field at Omaha when LSU’s Warren Morris slammed his historic shot to beat Miami of Florida in the deciding game of the 1996 CWS.
After the sign stealing strategy entered the public domain, Cora was fired by Boston, former Astros’ player Carlos Beltran was fired as manager of the Mets and Houston canned manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow. A story in The Athletic on Nov. 19 of last year is the catalyst for a scandal that rivals the steroid epidemic that plagued the National Pastime two decades ago.
Mike Fiers, a former pitcher for Houston, broke the code of silence in baseball and revealed that cameras were in operation at Minute Maid Park. Trash cans were then banged to signal certain pitches.
Video sourced from MLB.TV archives confirms how the Astros cheated their way to a championship.
The sentiment here is that Houston should be stripped of 2017 honors, and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred should not sanction players for their involvement in stealing the pennant. They were provided immunity in exchange for information. Bregman appeared destined to be LSU’s first Baseball Hall of Famer, but years from now voters may judge him harshly for actions of others in this sordid caper. The greatest players of the previous baseball generation, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, remain on the outside looking in at the shrine in Cooperstown despite 762 homers for Bonds and 354 victories for Clemens. Both were tried in court with
Clemens acquitted and a conviction overturned against Bonds for obstruction of justice.
Actions by MLB to punish those in management are in contrast to many NCAA investigations. Penalties against athletes are common as they are denied the right to play while coaches roll merrily along. Some coaches vacate schools where their misdeeds resulted in penalties and set up shop at other universities.
UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian won a NCAA basketball crown in Las Vegas after driving the Long Beach State program in the ground with sanctions related to his reign as head basketball coach.
The University of Southern California was stripped of the 2004 national championship and 2005 Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush forfeited college football’s highest honor when it was revealed that Bush was paid by an agent while a Trojan.
USC Coach Pete Carroll left the college game for Seattle a stride ahead of the NCAA posse and in 2014, Carroll offered this assessment. “I thought the (NCAA investigation) was dealt with poorly and very irrationally and done with way too much emotion instead of facts. I sat in the meetings. I listened to the people talk. I listened to the venom they had for our program,” Carroll recalled. “They made a terrible error.”
Carroll retained his 2003 national title shared with LSU’s Nick Saban and won a Super Bowl with Seattle in 2013. Yet the vaunted Trojan program never rebounded from the hammer of the NCAA. Carroll assistant Todd McNair filed suit, claiming the probe was one-sided and his future earnings were impaired. His case remains unresolved eight years later. McNair is currently the running backs coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was on Carroll’s staff in 2004 when the Trojans won the BCS title that has been vacated. One of his fellow staffers was Ed Orgeron. The LSU coach served as Carroll’s top assistant from 1998 to 2004 with titles of assistant head coach, defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator. Orgeron was not implicated in violations that engulfed Bush and sent Carroll back to the NFL. The USC demise enhances the case for compensating athletes at football and basketball factories. LSU netted more than $55 million from its football program on the way to its national championship last season. Coach O saw his annual salary doubled to $7 million.
The person most responsible for the history making season was quarterback Joe Burrow. Instead of taking cash from Odell Beckham when he departed the Superdome after LSU defeated Clemson, Burrow should have received a seven-figure bonus for and for winning a national title and Heisman Trophy.
The Astros have made the case that professional sports can be as nefarious as machinations at some college powerhouses. It comes as no shock that the Astros’ path to victory was paved with corrupt operatives.