Whether the coronavirus had affected play or not, this season was already on tap to be one to be remembered in Major League Baseball. There are plenty of storylines that would have been enticing to follow, here in New York particularly, but none more so than how this season would have played out for the Houston Astros.
Now three years removed from their 2017 World Series title, we of course learned over this past offseason that what brought the Astros that championship was an elaborate cheating system that brought them into the national sports spotlight. It was baseball’s biggest scandal since the 1919 Black Sox, and that is no exaggeration. It cost people all across baseball their reputations, their jobs and, above all, their livelihood.
Through most of the offseason, we all watched as the saga unfolded with many different elements coming into play. We learned that the way the team cheated was by using distinct hitting of buckets to let a batter know what pitch was coming. We learned that the mastermind behind the operation was veteran player Carlos Beltrán, who because of all this lost his chance to be the next manager of the Mets. And those are just some of the confirmed facts. Rumors are still going around regarding what José Altuve was wearing under his jersey in the 2019 American League Championship Series when he hit a walk-off home run to defeat the Yankees and did not want his teammates ripping his jersey off.
Admittedly, this was the most exciting offseason baseball has maybe ever had.
With all of this being public knowledge and the organization having apologized (rather tongue-in-cheek) while still maintaining their title officially, one could only imagine how they would be received by the rest of baseball, playing a full schedule and visiting a dozen and a half other ballparks. It would not be any regular weekend on the calendar for any team, especially the Yankees, who Houston, by all means, cheated out of a trip to the World Series — twice.
You may have even been following the “2020 Astros Shame Tour” Twitter account, which was already sharing footage of Astros players being hit by pitches and being cussed at and chastised by opposing fans in Spring Training. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know anybody could get that worked up during a Spring Training game.
2020 was a baseball season that was bound to be ugly. But of course, all of that is on hold for the moment.
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has caused every major sports entity and organization here and across the globe to shut down and promote social distancing until the virus is able to be controlled, and baseball was actually one of the last leagues to decide what they were going to do. Opening Day was about a week and a half away when all of this happened. Here we are, almost a week after what would have been Opening Day, and the timetable for when anything will be back up and running is unclear, let alone baseball. There could be no season at all.
While the spread of the virus is yet to be controlled here in the United States, one thing this shutdown has perhaps cooled is the anger and animosity towards the Astros. Houston, whether it deserved it or not, was in for a long, treacherous, painful season before all of this happened, as they were already asking for help from MLB to protect their players from harm.
It would not be a long shot to argue that fate gave the Astros a break, and while the pill may be difficult for a lot of people to swallow, perhaps that is what is best for the good of baseball.
Many people in the baseball universe were excited about the tension this unusual circumstance of the Astros was going to bring to the sport in 2020. Maybe you are a purist fan who not only wants to see wrongdoers get punished but also misses the days of intense rivalries that baseball has been missing. Maybe you are a realist who worries about the longevity of baseball in the public eye and hoped the chance of ferocity would bring baseball ratings it hasn’t seen since the ’90s. Or maybe you are a Yankees fan who was ready for some sweet, sweet revenge. These are all valid reasons, but maybe they are not the answer.
For one thing, the tension caused in these games was not going to bring MLB the television numbers that some hope for. What causes baseball to struggle in television ratings, and what has kept the sport from maintaining its spot as the nation’s favorite sport, is how long the game takes and how there really is no solution to the problem. MLB has tried a pitch clock, limited mound visits and restrictions on pitching changes in order to make nine innings happen in less than three hours, but none of those solutions have solved the issue.
A season of tension between the Astros and their opponents, especially in games that had playoff implications, would have meant a whole year of constant brawls, player disputes, managerial feuds, staredowns at the plate, cleats coming out during double play slides and, for all we know, the kind of plays that give Buster Posey bad flashbacks. None of those things are going to speed up an already incredibly slowed-down game. MLB wants to get the TV numbers that the NFL and NBA have, but allowing a game to go for four hours is only going to let things go in the opposite direction.
Television ratings aside, letting the Astros be brutally punished for 162 games or trying to avenge fallen potential Yankees championships are not the right answers either. Perhaps in times such as these, we should practice forgiveness and acceptance, even in sports.
The Astros will not go through a full season of punishment, or perhaps any season at all. It may be something you might not want to hear, but that could be what is best.