BACK IN THE SPOTLIGHT

How this new documentary could tilt some Houston fans' perspectives

Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images.

Just when you thought time and a worldwide pandemic would help everybody forget thinking of the Houston Astros as evil, conniving cheaters … along comes a furloughed LeBron James to produce a documentary, Last Dance-style, about the Astros 2017 sign-stealing scandal. The multi-part series will be called Sign Language, due for the streaming service Quibi. No date yet when the expose will be ready, but fans in New York and Los Angeles already are calling Pizza Hut and getting comfortable on their couches.

What's left about the Astros descent into infamy that we don't already know? According to a press release in Sports Illustrated, Sign Language will "transcend the baseball diamond to explore larger themes of greed, cheating, corruption, sportsmanship and social media activism." And you thought it was just wayward ballplayers whacking a garbage can? Nope, it was a mirror of society, a study of the human condition.

Or when a breaking pitch was coming. Remind me again, what baseball team does LeBron James root for? Punch up a photo of LeBron wearing his Yankees cap.

Sign Language may be a blunt awakening for Astros fans in Houston. I read the local paper and listen to talk radio. Here many fans believe the real villain in the scandal is Mike Fiers, who ratted out the Astros two years after he accepted his World Series ring and prize money and moved to another team. Here's what the other 29/30ths of the baseball world thinks. The Astros cheated and got caught. They admitted that they cheated and promised never to do it again. Why are you mad at Mike Fiers? You should be mad at the Astros.

Everywhere else, fans can't believe that the Astros got off so lightly, with only their manager and general manager suspended for a season, loss of draft picks and a $5 million fine. That's pocket change for Astros owner Jim Crane. Everywhere else, fans can't believe that no Astros player was suspended for a game, 50 games, a season or forever. You'll probably hear Yankees and Dodgers fans (and some players) say that the Astros disgraced the sport. A hundred years ago, eight Chicago White Sox players were banned for life for cheating in the World Series. The only difference between the Black Sox and the Astros … the Black Sox cheated to lose the World Series, the Astros cheated to win the World Series. If cheating is cheating, what's the difference?

The best part of Sign Language, will come after the documentary airs, when LeBron James and the Lakers come to Houston to play the Rockets. Shhh, if you listen real close, you can already hear the booing.


A Giant surprise

I have no problem with fakes and phonies, in fact I see it as an art form. But even I'm appalled by the Masked Singer on Fox. Here's a typical last five minutes of the show. The panelists offer their guesses who's inside the cockroach costume. Jenny McCarthy will say, "It's Bruce Springsteen!" Nicole Scherzinger will say, "It's got to be Drake!" Ken Jeong will guess "Mick Jagger!" The audience will chant "Take it off," and the mystery celebrity will be revealed … it's Jake from State Farm. Meanwhile, the panelists lose their minds, they can't believe that the Masked Singer landed such a superstar. And it's not even the new, cool-looking Jake from State Farm. They got the old pudgy one.

Last week, it was time for the Rhino to be unmasked. Among the panel's guesses: Sam Hunt, Trace Adkins, David Hasselhoff, Tim Tebow and country superstar Jason Aldean. One panelist, and I'm not kidding, thought it was Blake Shelton.

Yeah, it's Blake Shelton, one of the most popular and highest-paid entertainers in the world, the star of NBC's The Voice, is sweating in a Halloween costume on a silly game show on a rival network.

The Rhino slowly twisted and turned his mask. It was Barry Zito, the former San Francisco Giants lefty pitcher, who retired five years ago. The panelists jumped from their seats with orgasmic glee. For real? I'm not accusing Fox sneaking the identity of the mystery singers to the panelists, or instructing them to pretend they recognize – or ever heard of – Barry Zito. I have trouble believing that former Pussycat Dolls singer Scherzinger could take one look at a sweaty Barry Zito with his hair plastered down and know who that person is. She gave him the "I love you" sign. She must have been a big fan of his 65-mph slow curveball.

I have been a Giants fan my whole life. I couldn't pick Barry Zito out of a police lineup. Jenny McCarthy knew that Zito wore No. 75 and won the Cy Young Award? I doubt if Giants catcher Buster Posey could tell you what number Zito wore.


Last respects

Off the sports beat, three very, very funny actors died recently: Fred Willard, who played insane dog show announcer Buck Laughlin in Best in Show; Jerry Stiller, who played Frank Costanza in Seinfeld; and Ken Osmond, who played smart aleck Eddie Haskell in Leave it to Beaver. Here are my favorite lines from each:

Buck Laughlin - I don't think I could ever get used to being poked and prodded. I told my proctologist one time, "Why don't you ever take me out to dinner and a movie sometime?"

Frank Costanza - The tradition of Festivus begins with the airing of grievances. I've got a lot of problems with you people, and now you're gonna hear about it.

Eddie Haskell – Wally, if your dumb brother tags along, I'm gonna … oh, good afternoon Mrs. Cleaver. I was just telling Wallace how pleasant it would be for Theodore to accompany us to the movies.

I went through the drive-through at Chick-fil-A one morning this week. They've got new home kits for chicken parm sandwiches! One question, Chick-fil-A, have you been reading my diary?

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Good news for Jose Altuve. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.

One never knows how things will play out but of the known General Manager candidates, Jim Crane nailed it in hiring Dana Brown out of the Atlanta Braves' organization where he was Vice President of Scouting. The 55-year-old Brown's scouting and development pedigree is stellar. The Braves have been a talent-producing machine in recent years. Obviously all the credit isn't Brown's but his four years with the Braves preceded by a productive pipeline he was part of in Toronto speak highly of him. Not that it was or should have been the guiding principle to Crane's decision-making, but the Astros now have the only African-American General Manager in Major League Baseball (Ken Williams is Executive Vice President of the Chicago White Sox).

Brad Ausmus is a super-smart guy, but if had he gotten the GM gig it would have been in large part because he was teammate besties with Jeff Bagwell. While “It's not what you know it's who you know” plays a role in many, many hires, it would have been a poor rationale for tabbing Ausmus. Maybe Ausmus would have done a great job. Maybe Brown does a lousy job. Brown was the much more strongly credentialed candidate. While Bagwell has moved way up Crane's confidante list, Brown played college baseball with Craig Biggio at Seton Hall.

Speaking of Halls…

If I could tell you as absolute fact that exactly two members of the 2023 Houston Astros will someday make the Baseball Hall of Fame, who are you picking? Jose Altuve isn’t a lock just yet but he is obvious pick number one. So for the second spot are you going with Alex Bregman or Yordan Alvarez? We’ll get back to this a couple of paragraphs down.

As was basically a given, former Astro (and Phillie, Met, Red Sox, and Brave) Billy Wagner was not elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this week, but as I suggested last week the voting returns were very favorable toward Wagner making the Hall next year, or if not next year in his final year of eligibility on the Baseball Writers Association ballot for the Class of 2025. “Wags” in the Class of ’24 is looking good. Wagner jumped from 51 percent to 68 percent “put him in” votes. The only guy this year to get the necessary 75 percent for election is worthy third baseman Scott Rolen. Two years ago Rolen got 53 percent of the votes needed, last year 63 percent, before getting the call to Cooperstown with 76.5 percent this year. Wagner going from 51 to 68 to 75-plus looks likely. Of course it’s not as if Wagner can pad his case with a good 2023 season, but this is how the process works. The other ballot returnee well positioned to make it next year is former Colorado first baseman Todd Helton. Unlike this year there’s a sure-fire first time ballot guy going in next year. Third baseman Adrian Beltre will undoubtedly wear a Texas Rangers cap on his plaque.

As expected Carlos Beltran didn’t come close to election in his first year of eligibility, but drawing 46 percent of the votes sets him up well to eventually get the Cooperstown call. Beltran was a fabulous player and his Hall credentials are solid. However, no one reasonable would argue that Carlos Beltran was as good or better than Barry Bonds. In his first year of eligibility back in 2013 Bonds garnered 36 percent of the vote. There has been some turnover in the voter pool over the last decade, but it's clear that Beltran’s central role in the Astros’ sign stealing scheme was not held against him to the extent that PED use (actual and/or suspected) was held against Bonds and Roger Clemens. And Alex Rodriguez. And Sammy Sosa. And Manny Ramirez. And others. Foremost right now that’s encouraging for Beltran, but it’s also encouraging down the line for fellow Astros of 2017-18.

What does this mean for Jose Altuve?

If Jose Altuve retired today (perish the thought!) he’d have a good case for the Hall. He had superstar seasons in 2016, 2017, and 2022, and has five other seasons that while not in the realm of his three best certainly rate as excellent. If you judge a player by his five best seasons, there aren’t 10 second basemen in the history of the sport who’d rank ahead of Altuve. Among those who clearly would: Joe Morgan, Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, and Nap Lajoie. Among those four only Morgan played more recently than 1937. Then there’s a group of arguable guys like Jackie Robinson, Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, and yes Craig Biggio. Altuve has had the prime of a Hall of Famer. What sort of final numbers will he accrue? In late May or early June he should reach the 2000 hit plateau. How many more prime years does Altuve have left before inevitable decline? His career batting average is .307. Four years ago it was .316. Will Altuve retire a .300 hitter?

Bregman or Alvarez? Bregman gets extra points for being an everyday third baseman as opposed to a left fielder-designated hitter, but by age alone Yordan is the better play. Bregman turns 29 on opening day this year. Yordan doesn’t turn 26 until late June. When Bregman was 25 (2019 season) he put up a season more valuable than Alvarez’s tremendous 2022. In the three years since Bregman hasn’t approached that level, though his big second half last season could be a springboard back to that stratosphere. Yordan is in that stratosphere and figures to stay there for a while if his health holds up.

Can't get enough Astros coverage?

Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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