The flag flies over our driveway. I own a dozen shirts. A half dozen hats. All of our cars have some branded paraphernalia. We’re Astros fans. All of us. Thanks to my history with the team.
And I’m pissed. The Houston Astros stripped me of the best sports moment of my life—the 2017 World Series. And I’m not seeing enough today from players to make me feel any better about it.
I became a fan in 1980 when we moved to Houston. Remained a huge fan until I moved to NYC in 89, and, thanks to proximity, my focus turned to a pretty bad Yankees team. So I had NY as my AL team and Houston as my NL team—but when the Astros joined the AL in 2013, I had to choose. It was a pretty easy choice.
Of course we suffered through some pretty bad Astros teams until 2015 when they beat the Yankees in a wildcard game, and then took the eventual World Series Champs (KC) to a full five games in the ALDS. The following year the Astros went 84-78, but missed the playoffs. Still, you could feel them getting better thanks to all these talented kids. Finally, in 2017, long-suffering fans were rewarded with the franchise’s first-ever World Series Championship.
For a year it was glorious wearing my Astros hat knowing that Cubs, Yankees, and Dodgers hats took a backseat to mine. I was proud.
Bench Coach Alex Cora left Houston for Boston in 2018, and then lead that team to one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. The Astros won a franchise record 103 games in 2018. Boston won 108, and then beat the snot out of the Astros in the ALCS, 4 games to 1.
In 2019, the Astros motto was “Take it Back” – a reference to their goal of winning another World Series. They won 107 games in 2019. I was feeling it again. We all were. The Astros were not just good, but great. So much talent. So much athleticism. A smart coach and a strong commitment from the front office to do whatever it takes to win.
It was during the 2019 season that I started reading stories about baseball executives from other teams who didn’t like the Astros front office. The word used most in these articles was “arrogant.” Upon reading these things, I thought—they’re just jealous.
The Astros made it to the 2019 World Series and lost in 7 games to the Washington Nationals. It was a wonderful World Series if you were a Nationals fan. The fact that no home team won a single game was frustrating for a fan of the team that went a ridiculous 60-21 at home during the season, and had home field advantage for the Series. Still, hats off to the Nationals.
Baseball is the only major sport that takes place within a single calendar year. Six months of play. Spring Training. The playoffs. Eight months in total. It’s a true commitment to be a baseball fan. For us, baseball is like an annual friend who shows up when the days get longer and the snow melts, and stays with you until the chill rains of autumn arrive.
Following the 2019 World Series, I took a long, much-needed break. Being a fan of sports is emotional. When you are a fan for 8 months, it takes a while to gather yourself when the season ends. Especially when it ends in 7 games and your team lost.
Sometime in the middle of November, word about a story in The Athletic surfaced that was catching fire in the mainstream news cycles. In the article, former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers came forward about a cheating scandal by the Houston Astros. Something about video surveillance at home, feeding pitches to hitters with audio signals, and garbage cans. I didn’t pay much attention at first.
But then I did. And it was some serious shit. The Astros were keeping quiet. Pretty much everyone but Fiers was keeping quiet. For him to come out against his former team was important. It was important in that the fraternity of baseball players is tight. They maintain something like a “code of silence.” You never call out your fellow players. Ever.
Only, Fiers did. And so MLB had no choice but to launch an in-depth investigation into the allegations. Fraternity be damned, the media had an audacious claim by an actual player that affected the integrity of a team that won the 2017 World Series. And indeed, the integrity of the sport.
In January the hammer came down. The MLB investigation concluded that the Houston Astros used video surveillance during the 2017 season that helped Astros hitters know what pitches were coming. They were fined the maximum amount (5 million), stripped of their top two draft picks for 2020 and 2021, and their GM Jeff Luhnow and Head Coach AJ Hinch (the architects of the current Astros dynasty) were suspended for one year. Astros owner Jim Crane went a step further and fired them both.
The MLB investigation revealed that the Astros bench coach in 2017, Alex Cora, was the force behind the electronic sign-stealing scheme, and that retired outfielder Carlos Beltran was also instrumental in the planning and execution. In fact, recent events reveal that Beltran, as the veteran presence on the 2017 team, insisted that they implement the technology. After joining the team, and upon seeing what the Astros were doing with sign stealing, he is quoted as saying that they were, “behind the times.”
Cora and the Red Sox agreed to part ways a couple days after Hinch and Luhnow were fired. Beltran, who only weeks before was hired at the new Mets head coach, also stepped down.
And in a small, insignificant part of the world, this fan’s heart broke.
But all I could think about for a few days after the news was the kids. Kids who, like me at their age, lived and died by their team and looked up to the players like gods. What of them? How will they ever wear their Altuve or Bregman shirts again without fear of ridicule? I thought a lot about the kids. And I’m most pissed at the Astros because they let down kids.
But it’s like this—cheating is a part of sports. Especially baseball. From throwing spit balls, to using nail files to doctor balls, to steroids, PEDs, and yes, electronic sign stealing, cheating is part of the game. Always has been. Even though it’s not allowed. But cheating yields an edge. And when the goal is victory, every little edge matters. I’m sure it’s this concept that helped justify the Astros use of the sign-stealing scheme. But electronic sign stealing was not exclusive to Houston.
After a deeper look into the idea of electronic sign-stealing, I discovered that this wasn’t a one-off thing with the Astros. Before the 2017 season, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred issued a warning to all clubs that was essentially—“We know you’re doing it. Stop. Or there will be consequences.” It turns out that the Red Sox and Yankees were pretty good at it too.
Only, the Astros didn’t heed the warning and continued to use it. Perfecting it, really. Protected by the impenetrable fraternity of baseball players and the “code of silence.”
They got arrogant.
Suddenly, I understood why other front office people didn’t like the Astros. And it wasn’t jealousy. It was that they thought they were above the law.
The Houston Astros deserve the punishments handed down. They deserve the ill feelings they will endure throughout the 2020 season—and quite possibly for the rest of all these player’s careers.
The MLB report concluded that the Astros stopped using electronic surveillance sometime during 2018, because they didn’t find it to be effective enough (to justify continuing to break the rules, I guess). Which means that those 107 wins from 2019 are less about cheating, and more about talent.
Before you call me out on this—you don’t get to cherry pick the report for things you find most attractive. Either you accept it as a whole, or not at all. They cheated in 2017. As a result, the championship will forever be tainted.
This is 2020. And this is an Astros team that has the talent to win without cheating. If they can somehow play through this scandal. And that’s a big if. They have no idea what’s about to happen when they hit the road this season. Or when they stand in the batter’s box.
As a fan, the only way I will ever have pride to wear my gear and call myself a fan is if they surrender the 2017 Championship. Give the trophy to the Commissioner. Show true remorse in the most significant way. I frankly don’t give a damn whether cheating actually helped in certain points of games, even in October, the cheating happened. And they were caught. Surrender the trophy. And then go out and win 110 games in 2020.
The flag still waves over our driveway—for now. And I will continue to wear my Astros gear. Just way less often—until they do the right thing.
The Astros were my team long before 2017, and will be my team long after all this. But this team needs to do the right thing. Surrender the 2017 Championship and have players use the comms platforms they use all year long to offer sincere apologies for being stupid. Don’t mince words. Don’t wait for a script from the flight tower on talking points. Just be sincere and speak from the heart. Your fans, especially the kids, deserve this. Then, and only then, will the healing begin.
Over the past few weeks I’ve given a lot of thought to how I will respond when people inevitably rib me for wearing my Astros stuff this year (and perhaps forever). I’m a writer, surely I can conjure a clever comeback for when someone calls them cheaters or makes a trash can joke.
Only, I haven’t thought of anything yet.
Because the fact is, they got caught. And I’m the kind of person who takes accountability.
My only hope is that the millionaire ballplayers on my favorite team will be accountable too. And then take all their frustrations out on the field on their way to another, more legitimate World Series Championship.
Each offseason, teams around baseball create a tagline/slogan for the upcoming year. Something inspirational that carries them through the season (and that they sell a buttload of gear around). Last year the Astros slogan was “Take it back.” Along with thinking about how I might respond to someone who calls me out for wearing the gear of cheaters, I also gave some thought to what the Astros 2020 slogan might be. “Do it right” or “Play the right way” or anything like that doesn’t work because it’s a frank admission of guilt and constant reminder of wrongdoing.
Then yesterday something occurred to me. Something perfect. A line so centered on the moment that it doesn’t go backward, or forward. The line is “Play for today.” Three words. Four syllables. Good rhythm. Rhyme. And a daily reminder to the players that the past is the past. And the future will take care of itself—so long as you’re actually in each moment. Each day. For eight months.
Go Astros. Do the right thing.
Play for Today.