CLOSER THAN YOU THINK

In spite of everything, the Astros are still close to the World Series

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Allsport/Getty Images

Major League Baseball is set to announce its post-season schedule and stadiums … and Houston is in the mix!

Unfortunately, MLB is talking about Houston, the city, as in Minute Maid Park. After the first-round of wild card series, the National League playoffs will resume at Minute Maid Park and Globe Life Field in Arlington.

Meanwhile, American League playoff games will pick up at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and Petco Park in San Diego. The idea is to play post-season games at neutral sites. The World Series will be played at Globe Life Field. MLB plans to create bubbles in Houston, Arlington, Los Angeles and San Diego, similar to what the NBA is doing in Orlando.

Arlington was selected to host the World Series for several reasons, not the least being Arlington is in the Central time zone, which would provide optimum TV ratings.

Will Houston, as in the Astros, be part of post-season play? Two weeks ago, the Astros were battling the Oakland A's for first place in the American League West. The only question was, will the Astros finish first or second in the division. Their chances of qualifying for the playoffs all but assured. The Astros were shooting for their fourth consecutive division crown.

Two weeks later, the Astros are swirling down the drain with a gloomy, sub-.500 record, and losers of nine of their last eleven games. The Astros' California dreamin' has turned into a nightmare.

Houston's lead over the red-hot, surging Seattle Mariners has dwindled to a measly one and a half games. As the American League's two wildcard teams most likely will come from the East or Central divisions, the Astros are scratching and clawing for their playoff lives.

With the Astros' season on the brink, fans were surprised and disappointed that the team failed to add a first-rate pitcher or power hitter before the trade deadline.

Still there are embers of hope for the Astros as ailing stars slowly return to active duty. The biggest reason to stay the course is courtesy of Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Justin Verlander, who threw a bullpen session during the Oakland series. Manager Dusty Baker said it's possible that Verlander could take the mound for real this season.

All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman and reliable reliever Brad Peacock already are back from the injured list. Jose Altuve should return in coming weeks. Jose Urquidy had a quality start against the A's.

The Astros have been bedeviled with injuries, with Verlander, Peacock, Blake Taylor, Roberto Osuna, Josh James, Chris Devenski, George Springer and Lance McCullers all missing games. Last year's Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez played only two games before waving bye-bye for the season.

Despite the trials and travails, the injuries and bad breaks, let's remember that the Astros are up on the Mariners for a playoff spot. It's still better to be the Astros than the Mariners. And if the Astros continue to struggle and aren't competing for another title this year, they will be close to the World Series. This time, however, it would only be due to proximity.

Of course, things could also change in a hurry. Just five days ago the Astros had the best AL Title odds according to Baseball Reference. If the Astros string some wins together, things could shift dramatically.

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Composite photo by Jack Brame

Former Astros manager Andrew Jay Hinch is on a short list of candidates to become manager of the Detroit Tigers in 2021.

The question is, after being suspended and later fired for his role in the Astros sign-stealing scandal, does A.J. Hinch deserve to manage again in baseball?

It's weird to think because so much has happened in 2020, but Hinch was suspended and fired only nine months ago. His banishment, however, ends in a matter of weeks with the final out of the upcoming World Series. At that point, he will be available to manage the Tigers or any other team. There's a possibility that the Mets are interested. Some were hoping it'd be the Astros, but the Astros are committed to manager Dusty Baker for next year. After that … never say never.

Shortly after getting the Astros ax, Hinch went on MLB TV and apologized for his role in the Astros cheating scandal. Although baseball's investigation said the garbage can banging scheme was "with the exception of (Astros coach Alex) Cora, player-driven and player-executed," Hinch took responsibility as manager and didn't challenge his punishment. No players were punished.

"I still feel responsible and will always feel responsible as the man out front," Hinch said. "As the leader, I was in charge of the team. I put out a statement to apologize. But there is something different to doing it on camera and putting a face to an apology, and saying I'm sorry to the league, to baseball, to fans, to players, to the coaches.

"It happened on my watch. I'm not proud of that. I'll never be proud of it. I didn't like it. But I have to own it. And the commissioner's office made very, very clear that the GM and the manager were in position to make sure that nothing like this happened. And we fell short."

In effect, while Hinch didn't authorize or participate in the sign-stealing scandal, he didn't do enough (really anything) to stop it. He is the rare case of being a guilty bystander.

To be clear, Hinch has not been offered the Detroit manager job. However, he has more experience and more wins under his belt than most of the other candidates being considered.

Hinch's reputation is blemished, but his credentials can't be disputed. During his five years as Astros manager, the team never had a losing season, won 100 or more games three times, including a team record 107 wins last year, made the playoffs three times and won a World Series.

Has baseball forgiven Hinch, and does he deserve another chance to manage in the big leagues? This is America, the land of forgiveness and second chances.

As Mahatma Gandhi said, "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."

Hinch knew his team was cheating and didn't do enough to stop it. There's no defense for that. But I think he's paid enough of a price to get back in baseball.

Mike Tyson raped a woman, went to jail, and now he's practically America's sweetheart. Hillary forgave Bill. We not only forgave Confederate leaders, we built schools and statues to honor them. Martha Stewart went to jail for insider trading, now she's back on TV baking crumpets. Ozzy Osbourne was arrested for pee'ing on a monument outside the Alamo, there is no more sacred place in Texas, and now he sells out concerts at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.

Pee-wee Herman, well, let's not say what he was caught doing, but he's planning to tour the U.S. celebrating the 35th anniversary of Pee-wee's Big Adventure movie.

Remember, Hinch was suspended for a year. It could have been worse. Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has the power to ban people for life. Since becoming the commish, Manfred has permanently banished two people: former St. Louis Cardinals scouting director Chris Correa for hacking into the Astros computer database, and former Atlanta Braves general manager, John Coppolella for signing international players illegally.

Manfred also has temporarily banned Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman for shouting inappropriate comments at female reporters last year. Taubman is eligible to apply for reinstatement after this year's World Series. However, if he commits one more violation of baseball rules, he will be banned for life.

Lifetime bans aren't as unusual as you might think. Since baseball's beginnings in the 1800s, dozens of players, managers and team owners have been banned, mostly, like Pete Rose and the Chicago Black Sox, for gambling-related offenses.

A.J. Hinch copped to his crime, suffered the consequences, now it's time for him to manage a baseball team again. It's not like he'd be landing a plum job with Detroit. The Tigers are out of this year's playoff picture. They lost 114 games last season. And were 64-98 the two years prior. Managing the Tigers will be punishment enough.

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