Postseason baseball is back the way it was always meant to be.
A year after Major League Baseball was forced to move its postseason series to San Diego, Los Angeles, and a couple of stadiums in Texas, crisp October weather hangs over the playoffs again, with bundled up, sellout crowds there to take it all in.
The scenes from Boston and San Francisco have been a reminder of what this time of year typically looks and feels like. Rich people scoop up the best seats in the lower bowls, sure, but most of the ballpark remains packed with diehards braving the autumnal chill in hopes of seeing their team win the World Series. Everything is pointing back to the sensory experiences we’d grown so accustomed to when the calendar reaches its 10th month.
Now, for the ALCS, another familiar trope returns. The general public, whether they like it or not, watching two teams who unapologetically bullied their way to the top.
The Houston Astros’ list of baseball crimes is long and well-known at this point. The organization cheated its way to the 2017 World Series by devising a hilariously low-tech scheme to alert their hitters to what pitch was coming. The league stripping Houston of its first-round picks in 2020 and 2021 and fining them $5 million was ultimately nothing more than a face-saving slap on the wrist, as the Astros were able to keep their World Series title, while getting showered in some boos for a while, and continue their quest toward more rings while paying a fine worth roughly the salary of a fourth starter.
For many, the utter lack of remorse shown by many of the Astros was more irritating than the scandal itself. The general vibe from players like Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel, and Carlos Correa screamed “What are you gonna do about it?” as the Astros were granted immunity for honest testimonies and, in the end, really had nothing at all happen to them. White Sox reliever Ryan Tepera even intimated that the Astros are still up to their old tricks, something that Correa called “disrespectful words with no facts.” Whatever has been happening at Minute Maid Park since their misconduct came to light, the Astros’ brand of unrepentant arrogance will rightfully turn many people off until this roster is completely turned over.
“People respect what they’ve accomplished,” a rival general manager told The Athletic. “They don’t respect the culture they’ve created or some of the methods they choose to utilize to become what they’ve become.”
But the fact of the matter is this team will not stop winning any time soon, partially because the loss of two first-round picks is not nearly as damaging to an MLB team as, say, salary restrictions or an embargo on the team signing free agents would have been, but also because Rob Manfred decided public shaming was an adequate enough punishment.
“I understand when people say the players should’ve been punished,” Manfred said in the wake of the scandal. “I understand why they feel that way. . . If I was in a world where I could’ve found all the facts without granting immunity, I would’ve done that.”
The unfortunate fact of the current situation is that the team who was caught red-handed for creating, executing, and benefitting from one of the most blatant examples of in-game cheating the sport has ever seen is now playing in its fifth straight ALCS.
The Red Sox are no perfect little prudes either. They’re led by one of the ring leaders of the Astros’ 2017 cheating circus. Boston manager Alex Cora was the bench coach in Houston during that season, moved to Massachusetts and won a ring with the 2018 Red Sox, and then essentially had to take a yearlong sabbatical once his role in Houston’s cheating scheme was revealed.
Now, Cora is right back in the saddle, surely full of hard-earned lessons from his time away. With Cora — whose Red Sox were also found guilty of sign stealing in their World Series season, though he denied any knowledge of that — and A.J. Hinch proudly managing again, it is abundantly clear that the league does not care about any of this stuff. They did their requisite policing and made disciplinary actions at the lowest levels (the coaches and executives who served time are not nearly as important to winning as the players themselves), suspending a Red Sox replay operator for the same amount of time as a man who had his teams caught for cheating in back-to-back seasons.
All of this is to say: this sucks. Choosing to perceive baseball through a completely wholesome lens is wildly naive, as it is for any sport, but is it too much to ask to get a break from the bad guys every now and then? An Astros-Red Sox Championship Series is a great time for many neutral fans to ignore the American League and throw their support behind whatever National League outfit they think has the best chance of knocking the bully down.
Let’s just hope they’re playing fair too.