Move over, Grapefruit League. Step aside, Cactus League. There’s a new division in Major League Baseball making its debut this spring: Welcome to the Bush League.
It's a pretty crowded field, with plenty of competition in the race for the bottom. You have the travelling circus otherwise known as the Houston Astros, from the players right on down to their inept PR staff. Their owner, Jim Crane, is his own separate entity. Also in the mix is Rob Manfred, the spineless MLB commissioner.
Try and pick a favourite for the Hall of Shame. I know, it's difficult, but combined, these fools have given a sport that was already sinking in popularity a huge black eye, making a troubling situation even worse and proving once again that the cover-up is almost always worse than the crime.
With training camps officially underway, what should be a most wonderful time of the year for baseball fans is instead being overshadowed by scandal. Those at the heart of it, with a chance to try and put out the fire they started, instead poured gasoline all over it this week, then lit a few more matches for good measure.
In case you've been living under a sporting rock, the Astros were recently exposed as frauds for a sophisticated sign-stealing operation that gave them a huge competitive edge over their unwitting opponents. A former pitcher, Mike Fiers, was the whistle-blower. This is especially heinous since Houston won the 2017 World Series, when they were at the height of their illegal hijinks.
GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were both fired and banned for one year by MLB. The club was fined $5 million and stripped of draft picks in 2020 and 2021. Alex Cora, then a bench coach with the Astros who left to manage Boston to a World Series title in 2018, was axed by the Red Sox. And Carlos Beltran, then a player with the Astros, was sent packing by the New York Mets after getting hired to guide the club only months earlier.
And that's it. The Astros get to keep their title they most definitely didn't earn, which is the greatest injustice of all. The players who were behind the scam still get to call themselves champions and don't have to forfeit their individual $439,000 playoff cheques they cashed, not to mention bloated contracts some inevitably received as a result of their artificially inflated numbers in a sport that's all about statistics.
Utility man Marwin Gonzalez, for example, saw his OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage, a key metric in baseball) jump to a career-high .907 in 2017. His previous best was just .759 in 2015. He also hit 23 home runs that year, seven more than he's hit in any other season. The 30-year-old parlayed that into a two-year, $21 million free agent contract with the Minnesota Twins last year.
Who says cheaters never prosper?
At least Gonzalez isn't denying he directly benefitted and said this week, "I feel regret and am remorseful" while admitting the Astros might not have otherwise won the World Series. Unfortunately, that seems lost on those who still play in Houston given the sorry excuse for a new conference that went down Thursday.
There was Crane, who might have set a world record in contradicting himself when he said, "Our opinion is that this didn't impact the game," only to offer up this gem just 55 seconds later when a reported grilled him about that, saying, "I didn't say it didn't impact the game."
Meanwhile, two of the biggest stars, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, spoke for a total of 85 combined seconds on the matter when trotted out at the podium.
"Don't forget we're humans and life is about making mistakes," said Altuve.
To be clear, this player-driven initiative wasn't a mistake. You don't develop a computer program, nicknamed "Codebreaker" which uses covert videotaping to decipher signals, and trash can banging (and possibly hidden buzzers) to relay what pitch is coming to batters at the plate, by "mistake."
And that's where the finger of blame points squarely at Manfred. The Astros aren't acting like they're sorry because they really aren't. Why would they be? Imagine arresting a thief, bringing him to court only for the judge to say he can keep all his stolen property.
By allowing this to fester, Manfred now has an even bigger mess on his hands. That would be the anger that's clearly out there from every other team, with many players lashing out this week.
"Everyone knows they stole the ring from us," star slugger Cody Bellinger fumed on Friday. His Los Angeles Dodgers were beaten by the Astros in the 2017 World Series. Bellinger added that Altuve also stole the league MVP award that season from New York Yankees star Aaron Judge.
"They didn't own up to anything, they all just sort of said the same thing. They want to move on but they haven't even said what they've done," Oakland hurler Sean Manaea said of the current Astros.
Get ready, folks. I suspect we may see Houston players fed a steady diet of high and tight pitches this season, with the occasional beanball sprinkled in for good measure, as players attempt to bring down some frontier justice.
"You would be hard pressed to say no. I mean, they messed with a lot of guys lives," Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood said when asked if Astros batters might be deliberately thrown at.
Even the courts are being dragged into this.
Former relief pitcher Mike Bolsinger has filed a lawsuit against the Astros, claiming they're partially responsible for ruining his career. His final MLB game came in 2017 against Houston, when he was roughed up for four earned runs in one-third of an inning. The Toronto Blue Jays released him the next day, a "life-changing" development, he said.
"The Astros seemed to know every pitch that was coming. My pitches were getting smashed, and I ended up walking a few batters because the Astros appeared to know when to lay off," Bolsinger wrote in an op-ed published Friday in the Washington Post.
Bolsinger isn't seeking any personal gain. Rather, he wants the team's combined $31 million in playoff bonuses stripped and donated to charity, which seems entirely fair and reasonable.
MLB attendance dropped for a seventh straight season last year, with 68.5 million fans taking in games. That's a significant drop from the 79.5 million who filled ballparks in 2008. But now, in addition to increasingly empty seats and dwindling ratings, baseball is losing all kinds of integrity with the botched manner this scandal has been handled.
The only way to start making amends is to strip Houston of their World Series, make the players give back their rings and bonus cheques and force the clueless Crane to step aside for at least a year. Until and unless all of those things occur, you can slap an asterisk on the entire damn sport as it toils in the bush leagues.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.