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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Cheating helps make Astros the new Evil Empire

Astros manager AJ Hinch talks with GM Jeff

Astros manager AJ Hinch talks with GM Jeff Luhnow prior to Game 2 of the ALDS against the Rays at Minute Maid Park on Oct. 5 in Houston. Credit: Getty Images/Bob Levey

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- During the 2017 ALCS, the Yankees lost all four games to the Astros at Minute Maid Park to be denied a trip to the World Series.

Everyone came away thinking it was due, in large part, to the Astros’ home-field advantage. Loud ballpark, friendly fans, familiar surroundings. The supernatural powers drawn from that adrenaline surge. 

Man, was that naive.

We know now that the Astros are even better at cheating than they are at baseball, thanks to a story posted Tuesday by The Athletic, which detailed the methods they used to illegally steal signs at Minute Maid Park during the 2017 season with the aid of a centerfield TV camera and banging on a trash can, of all things.

As rock-solid as these allegations seem to be, thanks to on-the-record accounts by former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers and then White Sox reliever Danny Farquhar, it was unclear if Houston’s practices continued into the postseason. But with the Astros’ already villainous reputation, and one that seemingly gets worse by the day, why would anyone believe they suddenly went straight for October?

If the Astros were cheating, and kept getting away with it, what would ever motivate them to stop, especially after returning home down 3-2 in the ALCS to the Yankees? Desperate times call for desperate actions, right?

Even two years later, we figured Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman had reason to be a little chapped over Tuesday’s bombshell news, considering the implication that the ALCS was swiped from his team. But Cashman kept his cool after I repeatedly asked if he was upset, if only at the suggestion the Yankees were cheated out of their first World Series appearance in eight years (the drought is now up to a decade).

“Trust me, I appreciate your question and I am not going to comment at this time,” Cashman said. “And I don’t know if I’ll comment at all because ultimately I’m here to operate about 2020 and take another shot at the championship run. I’ll leave that in the hands of the people that are paid to handle that responsibility. Meaning the integrity of the game or the games, present or the past.”

Cashman operates under a very bright, occasionally uncomfortable spotlight, so he was probably content to let Astros GM Jeff Luhnow sizzle in his own hot seat for a while. No need to secede the moral high ground, at least for the time being. And it’s not like sign-stealing, using borderline methods, is unique to the Astros.

Every team looks for an edge, creeping ever closer to the rule’s boundaries, and the Yankees certainly have the resources, along with the tech, to try such measures. Other clubs have accused them as well. With stadiums being wired up like never before for the TV networks, and likely having a dozen proprietary devices only the home team knows about, it’s easier to cheat now than ever before.

But the Astros seem particularly prone to this behavior, and the more these shameful episodes pop up, the more their success comes off as fraudulent, the product of an organization run by bad characters. For years, Luhnow had been praised for building the Astros into a contender from scratch, on solid draft picks and a data-driven business model.

But the past month has cast doubt on those accomplishments, particularly the people responsible for them. The Astros fired their assistant GM Brandon Taubman during the World Series for verbally harassing three women reporters, but only after first attempting to smear the Sports Illustrated reporter, Stephanie Apstein, who revealed the chilling account. Now, according to The Athletic, Taubman could turn out to be a key witness for MLB in their own investigation of the Astros’ sign-stealing crimes, which has the potential to be even more damaging to the franchise.

Luhnow handled the Taubman incident very poorly, and he stumbled badly again Tuesday in trying to field questions about these new allegations. When Luhnow said he was going to investigate the matter, it sounded ridiculous. Are we supposed to believe that Luhnow didn’t know what his own team was doing in his own ballpark?

“Anything that happens involving baseball operations, it's a reflection on me,” Luhnow said. “But you know, I feel good about the organization. I feel good about how I conduct myself and and the way I operate. And that's all I can really stand by at this point. I mean, we're going we're to look into it and find out what there is to find out.”

Incredibly, losing the World Series is only the third-worst thing to happen to the Astros in the past three weeks. And did they even beat the Yankees fairly in the ALCS? There were reports of the Astros whistling as part of a sign-stealing practice during that series, which Houston manager AJ Hinch scoffed at back then. But as the saying goes, once a cheater, always a cheater. 

“I don’t think it’s as simple as technology,” Cashman said. “That’s one component of many. But it comes down to following the rules or not.”

And with that, Cashman let his feelings be known on the Astros without even raising his voice.

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