One piece is still missing

Two days.  It’s been two days since Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred issued his report finding my Houston Astros guilty of cheating in 2017 and 2018 for using technology to steal signs from their opponents.  Guilty of violating an official, written rule that applies to all teams, and having continued to do so after all the teams had been directly warned not to do this very thing.  Guilty of action that potentially effected the outcome of games, a threat to the integrity of the sport not so far removed from the one posed by players gambling on baseball, the thing that led to the Black Sox Scandal and the creation of the office of the commissioner and any number of suspensions and “banned for life”s of players and managers and coaches over the years.

The team will pay a very large fine, lose its top two draft choices this year and next year, and proceed without the general manager and field manager who are credited with turning the worst team in baseball into the 2017 World Series Champions.  That’s a pretty stiff penalty.  The manager admits knowing what was going on and regrets not doing enough anything to stop it; the general manager claims not to have known what was going on, but the report’s conclusions indicate he did, at least to some extent.  They were both suspended by the league, and then fired by the team’s owner, because leaders are responsible for the actions of those they lead, and this time the leaders are taking the fall.

For the Houston Astros players.  Who, as best as I can tell, have so far said absolutely nothing about the report that labels some of them cheaters.

The report finds

The Astros’ methods in 2017 and 2018 to decode and communicate to the batter an opposing Club’s signs were not an initiative that was planned or directed by the Club’s top baseball operations officials. Rather, the 2017 scheme in which players banged on a trash can was, with the exception of [then bench coach Alex] Cora, player-driven and player-executed. (Emphasis added.)

(snip)

Most of the position players on the 2017 team either received sign information from the banging scheme or participated in the scheme by helping to decode signs or bang on the trash can. Many of the players who were interviewed admitted that they knew the scheme was wrong because it crossed the line from what the player believed was fair competition and/or violated MLB rules. (Emphases added again, with regret.)

Then why didn’t baseball punish the players?  This is Manfred’s answer:

I will not assess discipline against individual Astros players. I made the decision in September 2017 that I would hold a Club’s General Manager and Field Manager accountable for misconduct of this kind, and I will not depart from that decision. Assessing discipline of players for this type of conduct is both difficult and impractical. It is difficult because virtually all of the Astros’ players had some involvement or knowledge of the scheme, and I am not in a position based on the investigative record to determine with any degree of certainty every player who should be held accountable, or their relative degree of culpability. It is impractical given the large number of players involved, and the fact that many of those players now play for other Clubs.

We, each of us, may choose to argue the commissioner’s rationale (or perhaps, rationalization), but there it is.  Players will not be assessed fines or suspensions or the like.  But they will suffer, justifiably, in the court of public opinion.

Grown men, some very young and some a bit older, but all adults who should have known better; men who told the investigators they would have stopped cheating if only their manager had told them to stop.  He didn’t, and I still don’t understand why he didn’t, but the players who for years had nothing bad to say about their skipper (at least not in public) have cost him his job and maybe his career.  And not one of them has had anything to say.

No one has denied that they cheated.  No one has claimed they exercised bad judgment, or felt peer pressure to break the rules, or tried to explain that they didn’t think that what they did was really so bad after all.  Not a single one of them has said “I’m sorry,” at least not that I’ve been able to find.

Today’s professional athlete has plenty of ways to communicate with the fans, even in the off-season, and they don’t have to wait until a reporter from a local outlet runs them down to get a comment.  I checked around to see if any of the the big names of the 2017 Astros have “reached out,” as they like to say.  Altuve, Bregman, Correa, Springer, Gurriel, and Reddick; Verlander and Keuchel and McCullers and McHugh; Marisnick and Beltran and Marwin and Evan Gattis; even Max Stassi!  Not a one of them has peeped since Manfred lowered the boom Monday morning or since owner Jim Crane fired GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch Monday afternoon.  Crane has had his say; Luhnow and Hinch have released statements; but from the players, nothing.

Surely none of them thinks he is going to be able to dodge this forever, or even for long.  There will be no getting away with sitting on the dais at “the facility” and proclaiming “I’m not here to talk about that today, I’m here to talk about the new season.”  And if I get even a whiff of “the team did not make the players available for comment,” I will surely open a vein, or send a sternly-worded letter…somewhere.  Jeez.

Fellas, you owe it to the fans.  We may not forgive you and get over it right away even if you mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa over over the place, but I can promise you that a hell of a lot of us will never get over it if you don’t even try.

It can’t get any worse? The hell you say

Now, a brief interruption of this blog’s on-going obsession with the intolerable behavior of our #IMPOTUS, to offer evidence of the complete falsity of that old saying: it can’t get any worse.

Despite national championships from its professional basketball and baseball teams, and never even once from its NFL team, Houston is a football town in a football state.  Always been that way.  The Houston Oilers were the champions the first two years of the American Football League and never won it all again, but they were still the darlings of this town.  Even when they set a league record for blowing the biggest lead ever in a playoff game (a record that still stands!), the people generally got over it by the start of the next season.  (Didn’t forget, mind you, but bravely pressed on.)  Their owner was hated, but the team was loved, and in 1997 when the hated owner made good on his threat and packed the team off to Tennessee, general melancholy set in among the folks left behind to mourn.

For many, a reason to live again came with the NFL expansion Houston Texans, who started league play in 2002 in a shiny new stadium that made the Astrodome look…well, just sad.  Like most expansion teams (except the Oilers), the Texans were terrible; and yet, they have never not played before a sellout crowd in their home stadium.  Because Houston is a football town, and the Texans are our team no matter what.  In the past few years they have pretty regularly won the division in which they play, but have a losing record in the playoffs and have never gotten to the conference championship game and had a chance at the league championship game (which dare not speak its name).  This year they had a come-from-behind victory in the first round of the playoffs which got them to a second round game against a team they had beaten during this regular season, and they started that game this past Sunday with a 24 point lead in the first quarter and so it looked like everything was going to go right this time.  Right up until it didn’t.  They gave up the whole 24 point lead, and more…much more; they were an utter embarrassment, far worse than most people predicted: I mean, c’mon, what kind of team allows the opponent to score touchdowns on SEVEN CONSECUTIVE POSSESSIONS?!?!

Today, there was general malaise, a lot of moping around, at least among those who weren’t still screaming at the execrable performance from Sunday or receiving treatment for their high blood pressure resulting therefrom.  Disbelieving stares were exchanged in offices between co-workers who just couldn’t believe what they had seen on Sunday.  The weather today also stunk, in the 50s and low 60s, drizzly and rainy all day long, nothing to help lighten the mood, even just a little.  So when the bad news came today about the Houston Astros—and it was bad—it reminded me of the line from “Body Heat” when Ned Racine said “Sometimes the shit comes down so heavy I feel like I should wear a hat.”

Major League Baseball has apparently had its eye on the Astros for some time now, due to allegations that the team was breaking the written rules of baseball by using technology to steal the other team’s signs.  Late last year, pitcher Mike Fiers was quoted saying that when he was an Astro in 2017—the year they won their one and only World Series championship—there was an elaborate plan to signal the batters so they would know what pitch was coming.  That sparked a new investigation…today, Commissioner Rob Manfred released the report:  in summary, it said that, yes, the Astros cheated; they cheated even after all the teams had been specifically warned not to do this very thing (after an investigation into allegations against the Boston Red Sox); that although the front office wasn’t behind the scheme the folks up there should have known and done something about it; and that the field manager, who knew what was going on but disapproved, didn’t stop it, either.  (I’m still chewing on that: how does a manager who disapproves of his players conspiring to steal signs and sending signals to their teammates by beating on a trash can not put a stop to it?)

As punishment: the Astros lose first and second round draft choices in 2020 and 2021, pay a five million dollar fine, and the general manager and the field manager are each suspended without pay for all of the 2020 season!

Wow.  Let me start right there — wow: big fine, four top draft picks gone, and the loss for a season of the general manager who transformed a train wreck into a winner and the manager who made it work and was widely regarded as one of the best in the business these days.  Thinking that this was about as low as we could go, right…nope:

The owner fired the GM and the manager!  Baseball suspended them but Jim Crane fired them both: “I felt that, with what came out of the report, they both had responsibility.  Jeff [Luhnow] running the baseball operation and overseeing AJ [Hinch]  and all of those people associated with that. And AJ, on the bench and was aware, if you read the report, it’s pretty clear. AJ didn’t endorse this, and neither did Jeff. Neither one of them started this, but neither one of them did anything about it. And that’s how we came to the conclusion.”

We’ll see if Crane is right, if his extreme punishment is enough to convince the fans in this town that his team is serious about playing by the rules, and they keep on creating traffic jams on the concourses at Minute Maid Park.  We’ll see who the team hires to take over for Luhnow to run the baseball operation and who replaces Hinch in the dugout, with only a month to go before pitchers and catchers report to training camp.

One thing is for sure. though: I will not assume that the worst is over.

We can’t all start thinking for ourselves, of course…but Wowie!

My my my: how rare and brave are the new owners of the Houston Astros, standing right up to all-powerful Major League Baseball and everything!

After all, it’s so obviously clear that having Houston’s baseball players wear these shirts for two whole games this year would spark a wave of colts45-3912gun violence unprecedented in scope and depravity that there should be no question but that forbidding them from doing so was the only responsible option for the right-thinking people who direct what all other people should and shouldn’t do and think.  Even if, as is likely, the team will only be seen by upwards of hundreds of fans on those days—including kids, I tell ya; think of the KIDS!—they-who-pass-judgment chose not to tempt fate and were super-duper-diligent in expressing their directions to the rest of us.

But the Houston Astros did not meekly accepted the dictats of our overcautious society; oh no.  After exercising the temerity to consider the merits of a situation (but only after having received permission to do so, of course), team management expressed a considered and independent opinion:

“We made this decision for a number of reasons,” Astros owner Jim Crane said in a statement. “We listened to our fans, who were almost unanimously in favor of wearing the original jersey. We wanted to honor all of our past uniforms during this special 50th anniversary season, and we felt it was important to be true to the tradition of the franchise.”

Oh.  My.  God.  They did what their fans wanted?!  The team did what it felt was right?!!  A bold move, unquestionably…but where will we all be if that sort of behavior were to catch on?

A peek behind the curtain at The Juice Box

“OK, folks, let’s get today’s marketing department meeting started—Ben, what’s the view from the street?”

“Guys, this is highly unusual in Houston, but the baseball team is running a poor fourth vis a vis buzz on the streets right now: the football team has everyone’s attention and sympathy after winning the division and just barely losing the game that would have gotten them into the conference championship; the Rockets have gotten back over .500 and actually have a six-game winning streak that’s starting to attract attention; even the soccer team is getting the love, prepping for the opening of their new stadium and working out without two of their star players for the first time ever. Right now, we have fallen off the radar screen, Mr. Postolos.”

“Well, at least the complaints have died down about us agreeing to go to the American League starting next year; I think the people believe that Mr. Crane really had no choice on that if he wanted the other owners to approve selling the team to our group. OK, so we need something to drive attention our 45sway this week. I think it’s probably time to announce the ‘Fan Friendly Initiatives’ we’ve been working up out of the meet-and-greets with season ticket holders. Cyndi?”

“I’d suggest we start with, you know, the bring-your-own-food initiative: the people we talked to were, like, surprisingly insistent that Houston baseball fans should be allowed to bring their own food to the game instead of, you know, having to buy from our concessionaire. I mean, even though we expanded the menu to include some super-scrumptious new entrees…”

“Cyndi, if I might interrupt; I agree with you on implementing that initiative now, but I’d like to have a little reality check, too. God knows we’ve marketed the hell out of it for years now, but the truth is that the people in the stadium know that the product Aramark’s been peddling is just awful…it always has been. If they’d only been able to serve the hot food hot it would have helped, but nothing was going to make a lot of stuff palatable.”

“OK, OK, Billy, but let’s not get sidetracked with that old topic. I agree that we should go ahead and announce the new food rules—fact is, it’ll probably come as a first bluesurprise to a lot of the people that you can bring your own food or drinks to every other major league stadium but Houston’s, so let’s go ahead and get in front of this while we still have a chance. Other ideas…Moose?”

“Well, shoot, sir, if we’re gonna go that way then I reckon we oughta go along with the big guns, too—five-dollar beer! That’s what the good ol’ boys in the cheap seats want, so let’s git ’er done.”

“Agreed, and we’ll announce all the ticket price reductions, too. Is that going to be enough bang for our bucks this time out?”

“It’s solid, sir; yes, very solid. But I remain concerned in that I fear the bloom will fall from this rose far too soon; we need something to keep the interest at peak, to spark an on-going dialogue. We need to send a signal that bigger and more cherished aspects of the entire Houston baseball orangeexperience are in play, or at the very least that they may be ripe for change. Nothing gets people roiled up like the prospect of unexpected change.”

“Oiled up? Yer gonna try to git ’em all oiled up? What’s that about, Bentley?”

“No, no, Moose, I said roiled—made turbid by stirring up the sediment or dregs. We can get people focused on the Astros by making them think there are big changes in the wind, changes they had not heretofore contemplated; yes?”

“Uh, I guess…OK.”

“Bentley, it sounds as though you have something in mind here—let’s have it.”

“I do indeed, Mr. Postolos; thank you. In fact I have a two-part plan, and the first element targets the team logo and uniform. In conjunction with the opening of this new stadium in 2000, our predecessors implemented a thorough upgrade of the visual branding elements of the team logo and uniforms. Although this scheme was accepted, our research shows it has never been fully embraced, and I propose we now begin planning to implement a similar refresh of the team totems and other symbology to coincide with our debut in the American League next year. Marketing is over the moon at the prospect, by the by. And FYI, should we choose to advance along this path our deadlineOpenStar copy to submit planned changes to Major League Baseball is Opening Day of this season, this April 6.”

“Mr. Crane and I have discussed that prospect and it’s very much in play; as you noted, a change in uniform that dovetails with our opening up in the AL next year makes intellectual sense and we think it will keep interest in the change brewing throughout this season, then spark a landslide of buying the new merchandise during the off-season next year. I’d say to you that this change is a virtual certainty. Now, what’s the second part of your plan.”

“Excellent, sir. Then following along this path of New Beginnings in 2013, and in conjunction with a new look for the uniforms and the logo, I propose we look at raising the wager. In its fifty years as a major league baseball organization, the Houston National League Base Ball Club has had, shall we say, a rather spotty record of achievement; no need to dredge up the details. Today, under new leadership, with promising young players, we stand on the cusp of a successful new future, one so bright that one ought to wear dark glasses. So let’s not hold back in this presentation, in this re-creation, of the team. I propose that when we unveil the new uniforms and logo, that they herald a fully new brand—we will change the name of the team!”

“Bentley…that’s pretty out there, my friend. You really want to drop the name ‘Astros’ after all these years—don’t you imagine that that will, if you’ll excuse me, piss people off?”

“Some, undoubtedly, sir; no doubt at all. But this doesn’t come from any ill will felt toward the fans or the space program, rather from that place that sees a potentially enormous marketing payday that should not be permitted to go to waste. And if I may, I propose we truly raise our gaze above the horizon: let’s be open to changing the ‘Houston’ part of the team name as well. Names indicating representation of a broader area, such ascurrent the Minnesota Twins or the Colorado Rockies, are by no means unheard of, although it would indeed be rather awkward for our organization to go by ‘Texas’ since that name is already employed by the team in North Texas. But as an organization, I suggest we give open and honest consideration to all of our available options.”

“I don’t know, it just seems so drastic to sell off so much of our history just to make a buck—oh crap, did I just say that out loud?”

“Not at all, sir, not at all.”

“I git what Bentley here’s saying, but I don’t think too much of going through with it; folks around here might feel like they’re being exploited, and you know how they can hold a grudge.”

“Excuse me, sir, but I just had an idea: we don’t have to actually make any change, but what if we, you know, just let it be known that a name change is being considered? That’ll get people paying attention to the Astros, and, like, thinking about what they love about the team, and talking about it all, and, then we’ll be all, you know, like announcing that the whole name change idea has been dropped, and they’ll thank us for supporting team history and, you know, not feel so bad about buying fresh new hats and shirts. What about that idea, sir?”

“Cyndi, lunch is on me. Good meeting, everybody. Go Astros!”

UPDATE Jan. 30: Late this evening owner Jim Crane announced a decision that the team name will not be changed. (No word on the size of Cyndi’s raise.)

I’ve got some great news, and I’ve got some less than great news

The great news is that the sale of the Houston Astros was approved by the Major League Baseball owners at their quarterly meeting today.  The Dreaded Drayton McLane Era in Houston Astros history is expected to finally be smothered with a pillow by the middle of next week; this will do nothing to immediately get us any better players, but it will make a lot of people feel better.

This past May when the sale agreement with an investment group led by Houston businessman Jim Crane was announced, I unburdened myself on the subject of McLane’s star-crossed stewardship of my hometown team.  In retrospect, the only thing I’d change would be to include better examples of how splurging on big name free agents made McLane feel like he was building a champion but really only reinforced his legacy of misguided priorities:

Kaz Matsui.  Woody Williams.  Vinny Castilla.  Sid Fernandez.  Dwight Gooden.  Mike Hampton.  Jason Jennings.  Pat Listach.  Brett Myers.  Russ Ortiz.

I’ve been a baseball fan since I was a kid and been lucky enough to always live in cities with big league teams, except for a few years as a small boy and then in college, so going to games regularly and seeing all the best players in person has been a big part of my life.  I’ve seen a few really good Houston teams, and I’ve seen quite a few really terrible ones since I first walked into the Astrodome in 1966, but since then the Astros have been my team.  Baseball fans are, among many things, loyal to their team.

But, I got so tired of sitting through season after season of McLane and his minions oh-so-earnestly soldiering on, unable to stop meddling in the baseball stuff they didn’t know about, from scouting to farm system to broadcasting and more, while conniving to get taxpayers to pick up most of the tab for a (beautiful) new playpen and then raising prices on everything we buy when we’re there.  And now to top it all off, the team on the field has turned from a prince into a frog.

So, I’ve got nothing but positive feelings about the old ownership hitting the bricks (not the ones they’re selling for $100).  The new guys could be worse, but I’m willing to take the chance that they’re not.  I’m not so positive about the upcoming opponents.

The less than great news is that this sale turned out, as suspected, to be contingent on moving the Astros out of the National League and into the American League’s West Division.  Probably starting in 2013—the season after next—after more than 50 years with a National League team and before that minor league teams that were associated with National League clubs dating back to the 1920s—Houston will become an American League city.  This bites.

Since the expansions and realignments leading up to the 1998 season, there have been three divisions in each league with five teams in most of those divisions, but the NL Central has had six teams and the AL West only four (I can’t remember why).  In the past few years it seems to have become important to even that out.  The rules won’t let any team owner be forced to change leagues, but the commissioner’s office took advantage of this opportunity and made the league change a requirement for approval of this sale.  The Astros’ new owner had to agree, or walk away from the whole deal.

Now the Astros will be in the same division with the Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and play a larger percentage of their games against them instead of against their current NL Central rivals.  Three of the AL West teams are in the Pacific time zone, which means the Astros will play a larger number of road games that won’t start until 9 p.m. Houston time and won’t end until midnight or more.  That will cut into the size of the TV and radio audiences in Houston, hurt ratings and hurt the team and the broadcasters financially.

It will mean a big change in which teams we see come to Houston.  Instead of three visits a year from the Cardinals and Cubs and other NL Central teams, and once a year from the Giants and Phillies and other National League teams, we may see all of them once a year at most. Instead, we’ll get a therapeutic dose of our new AL West buddies and annual drop-ins from not only the Yankees and Red Sox but the Twins and Orioles and Royals, too.  Oh boy.

And as for the idea that the Astros will have a wonderful rivalry with the Rangers…well, that may come to be, but it’s far from certain.  Notwithstanding all the balloon juice emanating from Major League Baseball about the “natural rivalry” between the two teams from Texas, let me presume to speak on behalf of Houston fans when I say, we don’t care about the Rangers.  Don’t hate ’em, just don’t care about ’em.  Never have.  I think Rangers fans feel the same way about the Astros, but I’ll stand to be corrected on that.

And yes, I believe watching a team that plays all of its games with the designated hitter will be annoying.  It won’t be the end of the world, but it won’t add to my enjoyment and excitement, either.  I’m just not a DH kind of guy.  Now it turns out that that will be part of the price I have to pay to get the Old Grocer out of my life and out from that seat behind home plate in the centerfield shot on my TV screen.

Well, things have been worse…did I mention Kaz Matsui?