If the past year feels like complete chaos, imagine being a fan of the Houston Astros.
One year ago — Jan. 13, 2020 — the Astros officially became one of baseball’s biggest black eyes. It was that day that MLB issued its findings from the Astros cheating investigation, the day manager A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow were suspended by the league and then fired completely by Astros owner Jim Crane.
The details, the punishments, the reactions from fans, it closed a chapter on a baseball soap opera unlike any we’d seen before.
The year that followed ended up being unlike anything we’d ever seen too. The coronavirus hit, delaying the MLB season and turning it into a shortened, fan-less experience. The Astros, now managed by Dusty Baker, weren’t great in the regular season but snuck into the playoffs because MLB expanded the field. They lasted longer than anybody expected, even getting close to a return trip to the World Series.
The pandemic and the weird season saved the Astros from being the villains in every big-league city in 2020 — but the jokes and memes were inescapable on social media.
A year later, the Astros are still Public Enemy No. 1 in baseball, but a lot has changed. Hinch is back, in a different city. Alex Cora is back too. Some of the prominent characters in this drama have been relatively forgiven. Some people involved in the saga still live in infamy.
At the one-year mark, here are our forgiveness rankings, from the people who have almost shaken free of the sign-stealing scandal’s shadow to the people still dragged down by it:
1. George Springer, free agent outfielder
Have the trash can bangs tarnished Springer’s big payday? Far from it, it seems. Springer is one of the top free agents on the market — perhaps No. 1, depending on a team’s needs — and he’s expected to get top dollar. Springer wasn’t embarrassingly implicated in the scandal and his assumed departure makes it already seem like the Astros are in the rearview. It’ll be interesting to see if his next fan base even tries to make excuses for Springer, or if that is all just forgotten like yesterday’s garbage.
2. A.J. Hinch, former manager
Will history remember Hinch as complicit? A year in, it doesn’t seem that way. Hinch quickly was hired by the Detroit Tigers when his one-year suspension finished. Other teams seemed interested in him too. In the larger sense, Hinch was been more remorseful than most in the past year and people seem to be closer to giving him a pass than any other coach/executive tangled up in this.
3. Carlos Correa, Astros shortstop
The only person who showed any sort of defiance after the punishments was Correa, who used the Astros postseason run as a platform to smack back at all the haters. After sweeping the Minnesota Twins in the wild-card series, Correa said: “I know a lot of people are mad. I know a lot of people don't want to see us here. But what are they gonna say now?” This was one case of cockiness paying off. The Astros continued to play well, particularly Correa — who later smashed a dramatic walk-off homer in an ALCS game. In his case, at least, it got some of the stink off him.
4. Alex Cora, former bench coach/former and current Red Sox manager
Cora is No. 4 on this list, but No. 1 when it comes to most business cards. He was the Astros bench coach in 2017, jumped over to become Boston Red Sox manager, was fired after the Astros scandal consumed baseball and then rehired by the Red Sox when his suspension expired. Cora was much more complicit in the scheme than Hinch, based on everything we know, but distance seems to help him here. Boston has a whole host of problems — rebuilding, trading Mookie Betts, not spending money — so Cora’s connection to the Astros isn’t top of mind anymore.
5. Jim Crane, Astros owner
Credit to Crane, he managed to remain pretty impervious throughout this entire affair. He fired his execs at the right time, showed some leadership, despite some flubs, when the Astros had to own up to things at spring training. Was he without fault here? Probably not. At some point, you’d figure he’d have to answer for trusting Luhnow. But Crane maneuvered well enough to keep pretty much in the middle the whole time. That’s how the guys like him stay at the top of the food chain.
6. Rob Manfred, MLB commissioner
No, we didn’t forget about Manfred. To many non-Astros fans, he was a villain for letting all the Astros players off without a suspension. There’s certainly something to debate there. Had MLB not suddenly had to deal with the coronavirus, a shortened season and a host of other issues for which Manfred was criticized, he might have had to wear this longer. Make no mistake, Manfred has gotten plenty of heat the last year — it just wasn’t all for the Astros.
7. Alex Bregman, Astros third baseman
Bregman, along with José Altuve, became the face of the apologizing Astros when they had to stand up at spring training, face the media and take the brunt of things. This will stick with him for his entire career for that reason. He mostly avoided consequence after that. He didn’t have a stellar season, but it wasn’t terrible.
8. José Altuve, Astros second baseman
Altuve, on the other hand, became the punchline for any baseball fan who wanted to make a joke about the Astros not being good without cheating. The former batting champ and AL MVP (an award he won in the tainted 2017 season) hit just .219 in 2020, down from .298 in 2019 and .346 in 2017. His OPS was .629, compared to .957 in 2017. He did rebound to hit five homers and drive in 10 runs in the postseason. But that won’t put an end to the punchlines.
9. Carlos Beltran, ex-Astros DH/ex-Mets manager
Beltran was the clubhouse elder during the 2017 season, his final as a player. MLB’s investigation pointed toward him having a big role in the scheme, along with Cora. By last January, Beltran was the newly hired manager of the New York Mets. He lost that job without ever managing a game and hasn’t been heard from much since. Unlike Hinch and Cora, there weren’t teams lining up to give him another chance.
10. Jeff Luhnow, ex-Astros GM
Every story needs a villain. In this story, one person has stayed the chief villain and it’s Luhnow. Part of that was Luhnow following his suspension and firing by insisting, “I am not a cheater.” He remained defiant that he wasn’t the bad guy in all this and even went on to sue the Astros for $22 million. He also contended that he was the target of MLB’s investigation and that some of the real cheaters still work for the Astros. He’s basically taken no responsibility for anything, which is always going to look bad in something like this. Like Beltran, nobody came knocking with a job offer for Luhnow when his MLB suspension ended. Don’t count on it anytime soon either.
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