You like irony? In 2015, the Positive Coaching Alliance asked if I’d interview and write a column about the guest speaker at its annual fundraiser. The Positive Coaching Alliance promotes good sportsmanship in youth sports. Its mission statement is, “Play by the rules, honor the sport.”
The guest speaker? A.J. Hinch, the Houston Astros manager first suspended for a year by Major League Baseball, then fired forever by team owner Jim Crane for his role in the Astros’ sign-stealing cheating scandal.
I am sad to see Hinch go. He seemed like a good guy and the perfect manager for the lovable Astros. Obviously, he was involved enough in the skullduggery to warrant a suspension and Crane is right to clear house, including dismissing Hinch. The Astros need to be a clean machine.
General manager Jeff Luhnow, I never cared for. He always struck me as a skunk and bit of a nut job. I once corrected his spelling on Twitter and he didn’t see the humor in that.
Then I saw him wearing flip-flops at Fuddruckers and I saw nothing funny about that. I've got a thing about feet and food.
There's cheating...and then there's cheating
But cheating is a weird thing. There’s cheating...and then there’s cheating. As a Little League manager, I was a member of the Positive Coaching Alliance. One time, the local PCA rep asked if I thought “framing” a pitch was cheating.
Framing a pitch is when the catcher moves his glove slightly after catching a pitch so the umpire is more likely to call the pitch a strike. I said it wasn’t cheating, every big league catcher does it on TV. It’s part of the game. The PCA rep said it absolutely was cheating and I should tell my catcher not to do it. I told him, I’m lucky if my pitcher can reach home plate, and if he does it’s unlikely my catcher will catch the ball. Next subject.
I didn’t grow up in Houston, so my life will go on without Hinch and Luhnow fired. I remember comedian Robert Klein telling how he worshipped the New York Yankees when he was a kid growing up in The Bronx. He lived and died with the Yankees. He celebrated each win, mourned each loss. Then he became a celebrity and was invited into the Yankee clubhouse. During his visit, he saw Yogi Berra emerging from the shower. From that day on, he was OK with the Yankees losing a game.
My kid and his friends did grow up here. They’re devastated by the news that Hinch has been fired as Astros manager. They all played baseball through Little League and high school and some beyond. One of them told me, “We stole signs on every level.” In Little League, managers in the third base coach’s box often could see the opponent’s catcher stick down one finger for a fast ball, two fingers for a curve. If the coach saw one finger, he’d yell to the batter, “C’mon, Johnny.” If the coach saw two fingers, he’d holler, “C’mon number 5!” Not exactly Navajo code talkers, but the batter was 12 years old.
If a tournament had a strict 90-minute time limit, coaches would tell their batters to stall, tie their shoelaces, call time out, adjust their batting gloves. Catchers were told to visit the mound and recite the Gettysburg Address. There’s a company that will take a metal bat and practically turn it into a rocket launcher by hardening the metal or shaving the inside to make it lighter. I’ve seen parents let their hotshot kid pitch six innings for one team in the morning, then another six innings for a different team that afternoon. That’s sick and more than a little dangerous and possibly rising to child abuse.
Theatrics, or cheating?
Is it cheating when a basketball player acts out the death scene from Romeo and Juliet when he’s barely touched? What about soccer players who flop like flounder on Modern Fishing with Jared Jeffries on the Outdoor Channel? A French tennis player was just banned for four years for fixing a match. Now that’s cheating.
There’s an expression, usually assigned to Chicago Cubs first baseman Mark Grace, other times Pete Rose, that goes, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying hard enough.” It’s almost cute. Alex Rodriguez was caught cheating, suspended for a year for using steroids and lying about it. Now he and Jennifer Lopez are America’s sweethearts and A-Rod is a billionaire on Shark Tank.
We live in a forgiving culture. I suspect that A.J. Hinch will be back managing in the Majors after a suitable apology tour. Luhnow is gone. He will go where he can lie and cheat all he wants: politics.