Houston Astros: Dusty Baker wants Astrogate retaliation blocked

WEST PALM BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 13: Manager Dusty Baker of the Houston Astros looks on during a team workout at FITTEAM Ballpark of The Palm Beaches on February 13, 2020 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
WEST PALM BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 13: Manager Dusty Baker of the Houston Astros looks on during a team workout at FITTEAM Ballpark of The Palm Beaches on February 13, 2020 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

You can’t blame Houston Astros skipper Dusty Baker for protecting his new charges from Astrogate retaliation and wanting the chin music censored.

You’d have thought Dusty Baker walked into enough of a Houston maelstrom when he agreed to become the Houston Astros new manager, and you’d have been right. He wasn’t even part of the organization when the Astro Intelligence Agency was in business, and yet he’s sounded as contrite as you hoped the Astros themselves would be about Astrogate.

But Baker has his worries about the fallout, too. Specifically, he’s actually asked baseball government to suffer no retaliation toward Astro hitters gladly. He gets that everyone else in baseball is furious over learning the 2017 Astros spied and canned their way to and maybe through that run to back-to-back pennants and the franchise’s first World Series title. But he wants their assault weapons checked at the door.

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“I’m depending on the league to try to put a stop to this seemingly premeditated retaliation that I’m hearing about,” he told reporters at the Astros’ spring complex Saturday morning. “And in most instances in life, you get kind of reprimanded when you have premeditated anything. I’m just hoping that the league puts a stop to this before somebody gets hurt.”

The retaliation factor may or may not have started when Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Ross Stripling admitted near the end of last week that thoughts of revenge weren’t exactly off his mind. Somebody asked, and Stripling answered. “I would lean toward yes,” the right-hander said. “In the right time and in the right place. Maybe I give up two runs the inning before and I got some anger going. Who knows? But yeah, it would certainly be on my mind.”

Stripling’s fellow Dodger pitcher Alex Wood sounded like a man who takes for granted that assorted batters in Houston Astros fatigues are going to face the chin music, when he said any such messaging was liable to bring the messengers—even those getting mere three-day sit-downs and a little lightening in the bank book—more punishment than any of the Astrogate players faced.

“Somebody will take it into their own hands,” Wood told the Orange County Registers Bill Plunkett. “And they’ll get suspended more games than any of those guys got for the biggest cheating scandal in 100 years. It’ll be pretty ironic when that happens because I’m sure that’s how it will end up playing out.”

Try to imagine former pitcher Chris Young, baseball’s new vice president running the deportment department, dealing with, say, Los Angeles Angels pitcher Andrew Heaney, an outspoken Astrogate critic, greeting Astros outfielder George Springer his first time up with something up toward if not through Springer’s attic to send him onto his rump roast.

Heaney would have an impossible time pleading the ball got away from him. On the outside chance that it doesn’t provoke a bench-clearing brawl, Young might still have to fine and suspend Heaney for premeditated headhunting that looks more obvious than the Astros’ bang-the-can-slowly stolen intelligence relay looked to a lot of people in 2017.

The Houston Astros Thursday presser of apologetic non-apologies or non-apologetic apologies (it depends on your viewpoint) was only slightly less embarrassing than it could look, if commissioner Rob Manfred gave Astro players immunity to spill the Astrogate beans but an opposing pitcher gets punished for doing to even one Astro what maybe more than half the pitchers in the game would love to do to send the high-tech cheaters a message.

What about Astro players who weren’t part of the AIA or even on the team when the AIA operated full capacity? Those not even on the team shouldn’t have to dance the brushback boogaloo. And maybe you want to think twice before you scatter the toys in Jose Altuve‘s attic. Because shortstop Carlos Correa—one Astro who’s started getting beyond Thursday’s presser and owning up in earnest—has Altuve’s back, and Correa may not be wrong.

After Dodgers star (and defending National League MVP) Cody Bellinger fumed over the Thursday presser, Correa swung back. No, Correa told The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, he doesn’t have a problem with people talking about the 2017 Astros the way they are. But, no, Correa added, it isn’t quite right for Bellinger to accuse his double-play partner second baseman Jose Altuve of stealing that year’s American League MVP from New York Yankees star Aaron Judge, because Altuve didn’t even want to be banged on the can that year.

According to the Tony Adams analysis of the AIA in 2017, Altuve faced 866 pitches that season and 24 of them got banged with stolen signs. That’s 2.8 percent of the pitches he faced getting percussed. But it doesn’t mean Altuve wanted the percussion, either, Correa says. “Nobody wants to talk about this,” he said, and so far it seems to include Altuve himself outside the Thursday presser, “but I’m going to talk about this. José Altuve was the one guy that didn’t use the trash can.”

Actually, neither did now-Oakland Athletic Tony Kemp, who saw 23 pitches in two April 2017 games and as a September 2017 call-up but got no banging—at Kemp’s own request.

“The few times that the trash can was banged [for Altuve] was without his consent, and he would go inside the clubhouse and inside the dugout to whoever was banging the trash can and he would get pissed,” Correa said emphatically. “He would get mad. He would say, ‘I don’t want this. I can’t hit like this. Don’t you do that to me..’ He played the game clean.”

Maybe it is still hard for anyone to take any Astro at his word now. But maybe there is something substantial there, too, if Correa—even while copping to baseball’s arguable worst cheating scandal—has Altuve’s back that fully. A cynic might think Correa’s just trying to avoid having himself and the arguable most popular Astro duck top floor fastballs. A realist might think that Correa just might have a point. Especially if Altuve himself decides in due course to talk up.

Once upon a time, legendary Hell’s Angels president Sonny Barger lamented their less-than-hagiographic press coverage by telling Hunter S. Thompson, “All that bullshit, hell, ain’t the truth bad enough for ’em?” You could forgive Correa for thinking likewise. The truths about Astrogate aren’t bad enough to check the stretchers, the deeper innuendos, and the conspiracy theories at the door.

Baker isn’t talking beyond his competence when he pleads for baseball government to check the brushbacks and knockdowns at the door as best it can, either, tricky though it might prove to be. The flip side is that there isn’t a jury on earth who would say Astro opponents don’t have the right to be that furious over having been jobbed in all ’17 and part of ’18.

So assume the Houston Astros can’t even think about trying any fresh chicanery, high tech or otherwise. Assume they have to play every single plate appearance straight, no chaser, under such heavy scrutiny, and that the merest tap on a soda can be heard in the dugout or clubhouse will blast the alarms off. Now, just go out and beat their ornery hides.

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Somebodys done it. They lost 177 times from ’17-’19. Those baby sharks from Washington battered them while out-thinking them in four World Series games in Minute Maid Park last October, outscoring them 30-11 while they were at it. One 2020 season with the Houston Astros finishing just out of the postseason running would be worth a thousand chin music recitals.