A BITTER END

Hoffman presents an ironic twist to the shocking Astros firings of A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow

Photo by Jason Behnken / Getty Images

This article originally appeared on CultureMap.

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.

Continue on CultureMap to read about the distinction between theatrics and cheating.

Composite photo by Brandon Strange

After the Astros' offseason of shame and blame and firings and hirings, finally some actual baseball games! Okay, games with meaningless outcomes, but one way to move past almost Astros related conversation revolving around their cheating ways. Things could have been wild this weekend had the Washington Nationals not stormed Minute Maid Park to win the World Series four months ago. The Astros and Nats open the spring training game schedule Saturday and Sunday with a pair at the complex the two share in West Palm Beach.

Counting a couple of days with split squad games, the Astros play 31 practice games in Florida. With the more relaxed atmosphere of fun in the sun and the games not counting, you'd think opposing team fan heckling of the Astros shouldn't be too bad. The Astros' Grapefruit League schedule does not include the Yankees or Dodgers. The Yankees are on the other side of Florida, the Dodgers are in Arizona.

On the field the Astros have fewer concerns than most teams. Behind Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke the starting rotation is all question marks, but the candidate pool is deep enough to yield at least halfway decent answers. At least given all the run support that is likely.

The everyday lineup is essentially set, and still loaded. The only notable spring storyline is whether long heralded prospect Kyle Tucker wins the primary right field job. Tucker turned 23 years old last month. An overwhelmingly high percentage of great hitters in Major League history are established in the bigs no older than 23. Tucker isn't handed the job, because the Astros could not dump the final year and 13 million dollars of Josh Reddick's contract. They would literally have given him away had there been a taker. No taker. Reddick turned 33 on Wednesday. He was a bad player last season, so unless he has a salary drive bounce back of a season, Tucker is a huge disappointment if the primary right field job doesn't wind up his.

Don't be an Astropologist. The Astros blatantly, brazenly, and arrogantly cheated. It impacted games. How often and how substantially, open to debate. But it impacted games. If it had no impact on games, then the Astros and those complicit were the biggest band of morons in baseball history for going on with the scheme as long as they did. Besides, ineffectual cheating is still cheating.

All those whining about NY and LA and national media piling on. Stop. That just makes the whiners, and Houston, look provincially small. As if had the Yankees and/or Dodgers been nailed for cheating at the Astros' expense the same people now saying "Leave the Astros alone!" or "A bunch of other teams were doing it too!" wouldn't be screaming holy hell that "The Astros were robbed!" "Hang the Yankees in the town square!"

If you don't want the time, don't do the crime. The Astros did the crime. It's still their time to deal with the fallout. They and Astros fans, don't enforceably get to say, make it stop! If you're thinking, ok, ok, you're right but enough already! Understood. The furor will subside. But if your kid screws up he or she doesn't get to decide when he or she is no longer grounded.

It's still a fresh story. There have been no games to talk about yet, no player performances to criticize, no manager's decisions to second guess. That time is coming. As will be a bunch of wins for the 2020 Astros.

Huge game for the Rockets Saturday night at Utah. The Rockets running fifth in the Western Conference, behind the fourth place Jazz by two in the loss column. The season series rides on Saturday's outcome. It would be a massive win for the Rockets. With a loss, it's not a stretch to say they'd be unlikely to have home court advantage for even the first round of the playoffs.

Rockets add DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Green

Again this season the Rockets shopped the buyout bargain bin to fill out their roster for the stretch run. Last season they added Iman Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, two guys who gave them next to nothing in the playoffs. This year's contestants are 33 year old DeMarre Carroll and 33 year old Jeff Green. Carroll had fallen out of the rotation of a bad Spurs team, the Jazz released Green before Christmas. The Lakers and Clippers are not quivering.

Buzzer Beaters: 1. Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of the USA "Miracle on Ice" win over the USSR at the Lake Placid Olympics. No sporting event can ever plausibly spark American patriotic fervor the way that game and subsequent winning of the gold medal did. 2. $80 plus taxes and "fees" to watch Fury-Wilder II Saturday night? No thanks. Could be a heckuva fight though. 3. Most memorable fights I watched live: Bronze-Tyson/Holyfield II, the ear bite fight. Silver-Alexis Arguello/Aaron Pryor 1982 Gold-Marvelous Marvin Hagler/Tommy Hearns 1985. If never seen, absolutely watch on YouTube. Eight plus minutes of Oh My Goodness!

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