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.

I just won the World Series!

Springer trophy crowdHundreds of thousands of people turned out for a parade in downtown Houston today in honor of the Houston Astros, the big-league baseball team that accomplished something this year that it had never done in its first 55 years of existence: it won the World Series and the championship of Major League Baseball.  I do have one nit to pick with my fellow Houstonians on this score, though: not to say that the players weren’t a very important part of the calculus here, but “it takes a village” and I think they’re overlooking a critical component of the reason for the big win.  I think the Astros went all the way this year because I all but stopped going to their games.

CHRONColtStadium5The franchise was created as the Colt 45s in the National League in 1962, and played the first three years in Colt Stadium (which aspired to “ramshackle”), assembled on one edge of a construction site on the south side of town out beyond the Medical Center, while the Harris County Domed Stadium rose in the empty lot beyond.  When the Astrodome opened in 1965, it became home to the re-christened Astros.

We moved to Houston in the summer of 1966 and I saw my first Astros game within weeks of our arrival.  I’d been to lots of Minnesota Twins games at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, and watched the Game of the Week on NBC every week (yes, kids, for most of America there was one game a week on TV) so I felt myself pretty worldly on the topic of major league ballparks and the novelty of an indoor baseball field wasn’t lost on this nine year old.  I’d started playing in organized leagues a few years before that and really loved the game; although the Astros in that era didn’t win a lot, the combination of the whiz-bang stadium and the chance to go to the game with my dad and to eat hot dogs and peanuts and stay up late was irresistible.

I left Houston to go to college in a town that didn’t have a major league team, and when I came back to visit there were plenty of other entertainment options I found more attractive than watching a bad baseball team, so my connection to my team weakened in those years.  I watched the 1980 League Championship Series against the Phillies on TV (my dad and youngest brother were in the stands) and I felt the pain of that close loss.  After college I came back to Houston for work and I started to go to games again, usually on my own at the last minute after work, and it was fun.

allstargame1986houstonastros85225The All Star Game in 1986 was scheduled for the Astrodome and my friends and I wanted to go.  Someone had a bright idea for how we could get tickets: rather than stand in line, we could buy a mini-season ticket package to the Astros 1986 season.  By shelling out for 16 or 20 games in the cheap seats in advance, we would be able to get All Star Game tickets (at face value) through the mail—and we’d get to go to 16 or 20 games in the same seats throughout the year.  There were five of us in that first group.

(At that time I was working at the local radio station that carried Astros games, and at the last minute there were tickets available to employees; I was able to get seats for my new wife and my parents, together in another location, while I sat with my group.)

The Astros were good that year: that was the year Mike Scott threw a no-hitter against the Giants to clinch the National League West and the team went to the championship series against the New York Mets.  As (mini-) season ticket holders, we had the option to buy playoff tickets, too, and ended up in the mezzanine in left field just inside the foul pole.  The teams split the first two games in Houston and the Mets tookHarcher homer two of the next three (Scott was the winning pitcher in both Houston wins), so Game 6 in the Dome was an elimination game (with Scott ready to pitch Game 7).  It was the most gut-wrenching game I ever watched: when Billy Hatcher hit that home run off the foul pole in the 14th inning, it was coming right to me!…and when Kevin Bass struck out with the winning run on base to end the game, it took me five minutes to sit down and another half hour to start shuffling to the exit.

But we were hooked—we were in for mini-season tickets year after year.  The group roster changed a few times—my dad joined the group and even took the job of dealing with the ticket office after he retired, and after he died one of my brothers picked up his seat; at one point the group expanded to twelve seats spread out over three rows; today the group includes the grown son of one of the original members—and as we got older and could afford it we got better and better seats, moving from the nosebleeds behind home plate down to the mezzanine about 20 rows behind the third base dugout, and finally up a level to the loge seats inside of first base.  When the team got good again, in the mid- and late-1990s, we were there for the playoffs every year—I had World Series tickets in my hands every year, tickets I could never use.

We were there in 1997 for what turned out to be the only home game of the first round of the playoffs, when the Braves swept the Astros behind Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.  (How did that team ever lose a series?)  We were there in 1998, when after watching Randy Johnson roll over the league after the trade we were gobsmacked to see the Padres’ Kevin Brown (Kevin freaking Brown?) strike out 16 Astros in eight innings.  And we were there in 1999, the last year in the Astrodome, to see the team lose the series by dropping two games to the Braves.

In 2000 the Astros movedEnron Field to a new ballpark in downtown Houston, built on the site of the abandoned rail yard, and we couldn’t wait to see the seating chart and pick out our new seats.  That first year we were upstairs behind first base; we learned pretty fast that that meant we were also looking into the setting sun, and in 2001 we moved to the third base side, and later to a couple of other spots down the left field line.  About five years ago we were able to get seats in the upper deck directly behind home plate—living the life.

We were there for that first Enron Field season when they lost 90 games, and then for the playoffs in 2001—when they were swept by the Braves.  They got back to the playoffs as a wild card team in 2004…against the Braves (freakin’ Braves), and we were there to see the split—before they beat the Braves in Atlanta to win their first playoff series ever!  That led to the LCS against the Cardinals, who won the first two games in St. Louis; we were there in our seats in Minute Maid Park as our team took three in a row—Carlos Beltran became our hero, Jim Edmonds became hated—before they went back to St. Louis needing one win, and got none.

And we were there in 2005.  We were there when the home town team took two from the Braves (freakin’ Braves), including the clincher on a walk-off home run by Chris BurkeAlbert Pujols in the bottom of the 18th inning.  We were there for the League Championship Series against St. Louis and saw the Astros win two of three, the loss being the game in which Albert Pujols hit a three run homer in the top of the ninth off of Brad Lidge that would still be going if it hadn’t the back wall of the building.  And we were there for the first World Series in Houston history, in which our guys got swept by the White Sox but were outscored by a total of only six runs in the four games.

And we were there for what came next.  You know how the Bible tells us the children of Israel were condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years?  We envied them as we sat there watching our team turn to crap.  At first just mediocre and then pretty bad, they then got worse and then became the worst team in major league baseball…and, they had to change leagues!  Nothing was going our way, but we were there for all of it, every stinking season.

In 2015 the Astros surprised everyone, themselves included I believe, by getting to the wild card playoff, winning that game, and getting into a series against the Royals.  We were there for that one, too: we saw the win that put the team just one game away from the League Championship Series, and then the loss in which they gave away seven runs in the last two innings, and with it the heart of most every Astros fan.

That’s 30 years as a (mini-) season ticket holder and no championships to show for it.  I’m not an all-or-nothing guy when it comes to baseball—it’s worth going to the games for the experience, and the ambience, and the ballpark food and drink, even if you don’t win the World Series—but it was disappointing.  Somewhere in the middle of the 2016 season it just came to me that there was another way: drop out of the group and spend the money on better seats to fewer games.  When it came time to renew for 2017, I told the guys I’d chosen to let them press ahead without me.  I faded away from the group without any discussion…maybe they too felt, as teams frequently say when changing managers, that it was time for a change.

It turns out that I went to just one game in 2017: in the middle of the season on a weekend, which we never did in the group, and with my wife, which we rarely did in the group.  We sat in better seats, right behind home plate, and had a great afternoon at the ballpark.  I watched the games on TV and read the game reports in the paper every day.  The Astros were winning and winning, but when people would ask me if I thought they were for real this year I often said I expected them to come back to Earth, while thinking there was a good chance they would crash into the Earth and explode in a giant fireball.  Because they were still the Astros, and I’d seen plenty of Astros.

I watched every game of every round of the playoffs this season, and I could never get rid of the feeling of impending doom.  I just couldn’t go all in.  By the top of the 8th inning of the Game 7 in Los Angeles I had a feeling:

…but I wasn’t sure if it was still that doom thing weighing on me, or if my subconscious had finally decided to believe.  In the end, that didn’t matter: the Houston Astros won the Series in historic fashion, and I think that was clearly in no small part due to my absenting myself from their presence throughout the year.  So I felt a certain kind of personal pride this afternoon as I watched the Astros players lead the citizens through the streets of downtown…

https://twitter.com/12upSport/status/925935383271092225

You never forget your first time

These days a mini-season ticket package for the Houston Astros gets you a seat to 28 games out of the 81-game home schedule, at least one game in every series the team plays at Minute Maid Park over the long baseball season.  My ticket for last Friday night’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers has been sitting on the shelf in my office since March, drawing no more attention than any of the 27 others on the pre-perforated sheets that I keep in the original mailing envelope.  When a colleague at work asked on Friday morning who that night’s starters would be, I had no idea and had to look it up.

The big news about this interleague series between one-time National League rivals was that Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ two best pitchers—two of the best in baseball—were to face the Astros on Saturday and Sunday.  The Dodgers’ Friday starter Brett Anderson was OK but not up to the level of his teammates, and the Astros’ Mike Fiers…well, he’s new here, and hasn’t really shown much so far.  The match-up didn’t generate much enthusiasm.

When I got to my seat the thing that had my full attention was something I’d forgotten.  At the game on Tuesday my friend Paul was wearing an AstrospMLB2-16625621dt blue batting practice jersey with the name and number of a player not on the team any more. He explained that he and other friends had wandered into a store that sells jerseys that were worn by players in real games, and as a joke they decided to treat themselves to the shirts of some players who might be said to have laid the groundwork for the first-place Astros of today.  That is, bad players who aren’t here anymore, or so-so players who’d been traded for better players: Paul was wearing Jarred Cosart’s Number 48, David had Brett Wallace’s Number 29.  He suggested I join the fun.

Sure, why not.  But that night the one store carrying those jerseys closed before I could get there, and Friday night I forgot all about it until I got to our seats and saw Paul.  So, with a giant beer in one hand and a giant soft pretzel in the other, and only fifteen minutes before first pitch, I set off: down from our upper level seats behind home plate to the concourse, around the concourse to a stairwell, down three flights of stairs to the main level, and the rest of the way around to the shop behind center field.  To improve my overall mobility, I stuffed the pretzel in my mouth and swallowed the last of it as I arrived at the Island of Misfit’s Jerseys, and put the can of beer on the ground so I could dig through the racks.  I must have spent four whole minutes grubbing through the hangers until I found a jersey that fit: not only from a player who fit the requirements for inclusion in our little stunt, but a shirt that fit me.  I walked away with the Number 22 of former backup catcher Carlos Corporan, in a size 50.  Jersey sizes run pretty big.

I was feeling it: not content to carry my trophy IMG_0220back upstairs folded up in a plastic bag, I threw it on over the shirt I was wearing, picked up my big beer and retraced my steps back around the concourse to the stairwell, up three flights to the View Deck (no, really, that’s what the upper level is called at Minute Maid Park), back around behind home and back to my section as the national anthem began.  I waited on the stairs, and after “…home of the brave” I bounced up on the front of our section, yelled for Paul’s attention and spun around to show off my prize.  He laughed as I dragged myself up the last six rows and plopped down before the first pitch.

Fiers had a slow start and was throwing a lot of pitches; I was sweating in the air conditioned building, a combination of catching my breath from my impromptu shopping trip and, as mentioned, I was wearing two shirts; before the Dodgers went down in the first I’d unbuttoned the Corporan.  By the end of the second I needed another beer, so that’s another trip down from Row 6, over to the concession stand that sells the cold beer (gotta know these things to be an Astros fan), and then back upstairs; I’d cooled off enough by then that I could button the jersey back up and look presentable.  The Astros’ pitcher had throw to the plate 60 times by the end of the third inning and didn’t look sharp, probably not long for this game.

By that time Paul had adjourned to meet other friends and I was fiddling with my phone, trying to get Twitter to work either with or without the stadium’s wi-fi and not having any luck.  I remember looking up at the scoreboard each inning and seeing that the Dodgers still had no hits, and thinking there was no way Fiers could stay in the game until the end.  But he kept coming back…and back…and back again.  He struck out the side in the 8th.

The Astros did nothing in the 8th, and every eye around me turned to the home team dugout:

Yep, by then I was getting some connection on Twitter and I decided to see if my fat typing thumbs on a tiny virtual keyboard could keep up with the action:

Now wait a minute…

…this could really happen…

(It was Chase Utley’s first game with the Dodgers after the trade, and it took me until the middle of the game to realize: he was back together with Jimmy Rollins, his teammate from the Phillies who’d signed with Los Angeles in the off season.  So much for being aware of what’s going on!)

And that brought up Justin Turner, a Dodger I really had never heard of before…

I think this is going to happen…

Yes, I really think this is about to happen…here comes pitch number 134 of the night:

20150821_astrosdodgers_btc_12IMG_0219First no hitter in Mike Fiers’ career, which now totals just 59 starts, only three of them for Houston since he came over in a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers just under the waiver deadline last month.  It’s the first no hitter ever thrown at Minute Maid Park, now in its sixteenth season, and the first one I’ve seen in person in a baseball-watching career that’s significantly longer than sixteen years.  I’m proud to say that I had enough awareness in the moment to turn on the camera on my phone and point it at the players celebrating on the field, and also at the people around me who were a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ and jumpin’ ever’ which way at this most unexpected turn of events on a Friday night.  I’m less proud of my skill at operating the smartphone and Twitter:

Yes, there was grumbling from the Dodgers on Friday about the umpiring, and a story today about accusations of a foreign substance seen in Fiers’ glove, but it really did happen: I got a new shirt just in time to see a little baseball history made in this unlikeliest of Houston Astros’ seasons.

Heralding the Classic with a clash of the brass

Are you like me, are you looking forward to what ought to be a pretty good World Series between Boston and St. Louis starting tonight?  Of course you are.  And this may just be me not paying attention, but I’m pleased not to have had to hear about the usual stupid bets between mayors and governors when a series like this comes around; on the other hand, I was very pleased to learn, from NPR, about this unusual throwdown between the orchestras of the two towns!

I’ll take the Cardinals in 6…