It has been that way the past two years — a stark reminder to the Nats of the gap between winning it all and losing four times in the first round of the playoffs. Now the shock: On Wednesday, the day before pitchers and catchers report, the logos remained the same. Houston’s said “World Champions.” The “W” was unadorned.
Like so much in the sport right now, the situation seems backward — and insufficiently addressed. The Nats earned being called champions. They responded to years of disappointment by competing honestly. The Astros didn’t. What baseball should be confronting now is whether Houston should be stripped of its championship — right down to the words on that now arrogant-looking logo.
Last week, former Astros manager A.J. Hinch said that voiding the 2017 title was “a fair question. Everyone will have to make up their own mind.” If someone asks me whether I’ve robbed a dozen banks and I answer in the same words as Hinch, it’s time to start digging in my backyard for the cash and prepare my cell.
MLB needs to wait until its investigation of the Boston Red Sox in their 2018 title season is complete before deciding who can and who can’t keep claiming a title. But this is just timing. The verdict on Houston is already conclusive. The whole organization cheated for multiple years, and it continued into the 2017 postseason after a specific warning to all clubs on exactly this issue. If you don’t take a title away for that, when will you?
Once you see how Boston’s situation compares, then issue a decision.
So what is baseball doing instead? Trying to distract us with an ice cream cone.
You know MLB has messed itself up royally when, out of transparent desperation, it floats a proposal to let more teams into the playoffs. Sometimes this trick works, such as adding a wild-card team in 1995 to juice the game (rim shot) after the 1994 strike canceled the World Series.
This week, MLB and Commissioner Rob Manfred haven’t been so lucky. On Monday, the sport floated the stupidest, most destructive and disrespectful idea that I have seen a major sport inflict on itself, even as a trial balloon. This is XFL quality.
MLB ran several ideas up the flagpole, each dumber than the last. First, expand the playoffs from 10 to 14 teams. That’s bad because it devalues the regular season and eventually will let several near-or-below-.500 teams into October.
Next, give the team with the best overall record in both leagues a first-round bye. That’s flat moronic because teams with a bye would endure perhaps five straight days off during which their hitters can go cold — a disadvantage, not a reward.
Next, have a reality TV show on the last night of the regular season — like a March Madness bracket reveal — when the higher seeds would pick the team that they wanted to play in a three-game first-round series. (Wow, “strategy” and insults!)
What you would really have is unworthy teams with a chance to knock off quality clubs by winning just two games. It’s as if MLB said: “Our playoffs are all a coin flip, so we are going to maximize our flukiness so we can cash in now and distract the public from our cheating. Good for the game? No. But who cares?”
So far, thank heavens, almost no one has saluted these ideas. Unless you count Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer, who “saluted” with one finger in a tweet: “No idea who made this new . . . proposal, but Rob is responsible for releasing it, so I’ll direct this to you, Rob Manfred. Your proposal is absurd for too many reasons to type on twitter and proves you have absolutely no clue about baseball. You are a joke.”
On Wednesday, all the gates to the Astros’ practice fields were locked. On the Nats’ side, every fence was open — just walk on in. While just a few Astros were on their fields, 15 or more Nats were playing, some throwing bullpen sessions. No two teams in the history of the game have ever been so physically close yet so emotionally and ethically apart as a season started.
“Magical, right?” Nats pitching coach Paul Menhart said of last season. “When a team is as close as this one was last year, it’s hard to take its pulse. Were they as confident as they seemed? They always thought they were going to find some way to win. They never seemed to doubt, every series, no matter how it stood.”
At least one Nationals player, reliever Sean Doolittle, has blasted the Astros, saying, “We need an apology. . . . We need some real answers.” Any team can have a pitcher who loads up a spitball or a hitter who tests positive for PEDs. But Doolittle, who has been with the Nats since mid-2017, clearly thinks his team is clean. You would have to be nuts to throw rocks at such a time unless you thought your windows were shatterproof.
“I’m not going to express any of my thoughts about the Astros,” Menhart said. “But nothing like that is going to happen with this team. That comes from the top. [General Manager] Mike Rizzo wouldn’t stand for it.”
The honor of sports championships lies in their difficulty, including all the years of near-misses, and in the level playing fields on which they are fought.
Cheaters tilt the entire field. That’s why the Astros’ title is not just tainted but invalidated. If it’s left in MLB’s record books, it will carry its own shame. For how long? The 1919 Chicago White Sox are still the Black Sox, shamed in memory for 101 years. And many of those players had little education and played for paltry wages for a miserly owner when the sport was young, poor and full of ruffians and gamblers. To a degree, history pities the Black Sox.
In contrast, many of the Astros had plenty of education and played for princely wages in an elegant little mansion of a modern park before huge crowds in a thriving sport. They had it all, except for one thing — any excuse whatsoever to cheat. There is no pity for them, nor will there ever be much.
The Astros already have started to talk about “moving past this.” They think hiring good guy Dusty Baker as manager will help. But they forget one thing: The White Sox were eventually purged of players who threw the World Series because they all had been banned from the sport by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. The 2020 Astros roster will be full of stars from 2017 and 2018.
As I left, I noticed one other sign right beside that big curly “W.” It was smaller, bright red and tilted to one side as if it had endured a hard life. It said, “STOP.”
Faced with all the ills that flesh is heir to, it’s never easy to say “stop” to our worst impulses. But as two giant logos here symbolize so clearly — one a symbol of brazen shame, the other of pride — a sense of honor still has its rewards.