Of all the unknowns that still swirl around the cheating scandal that consumed the Houston Astros in late 2019 and early 2020, the most inexplicable has nothing to do with trash cans, stolen signs, suspensions or the lack thereof.
See, the 2020 Astros came into spring training having recently fired GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch over their roles in the scheme that tarnished the 2017 World Series. With players left untouched by MLB’s penalties but under a rare form of public attack from their usually subdued brethren, the first thing the intact Astros had to do was stage a public apology.
So in mid-February, the baseball media assembled for a crisis-control apology news conference at the Astros’ spring training facility in Florida. Team owner Jim Crane, new manager Dusty Baker and two Houston stars slogged through a painful, borderline embarrassing bid for … forgiveness, or something.
Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman each read carefully crafted statements, looking wildly uncomfortable (understandably), and then shuffled back to the clubhouse to really drive home the point that they had suffered no consequences besides the PR hit that, apparently, barely budged them beyond a monotone recital of platitudes.
And here’s where the mystery comes in. Days, weeks, years later, every moment I have watched the Astros I have wondered more: How in the world was Carlos Correa not on that dais?
Correa spearheads Astros' ALCS Game 1 win
The sign-stealing scandal is top of mind again this week because the Astros and their former bench coach, now-Red Sox manager Alex Cora, are at the top of the game again. Houston and Boston began their American League Championship Series clash Friday night technically untouched by the scandal’s tentacles, but still undeniably shrouded by its lingering haze of doubt.
But on the field, the game has a way of breaking through. Countering an offensive barrage from scorching hot Red Sox center fielder Kiké Hernández in Game 1, Altuve blasted a game-tying home run, and then Correa lifted the Astros into the lead with the truest type of no-doubt home run — the kind where no one watches the ball land.
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) October 16, 2021
Instead, all eyes were still fixed on Correa, who emphatically dropped his bat at the plate and tapped his wrist in a magnetic show of force.
“It’s my time,” he yelled to the team that he visibly leads.
Earlier this week, he verbally parried away unsubstantiated cheating suspicions from the Chicago White Sox, and then used his bat to further dispel reliever Ryan Tepera’s theory by piling on to the Astros’ run total in Chicago’s home park. Ultimately, they dropped 10 of them, on the road, without the supposed aid, to sink the White Sox.
And in the raucous reaction to the homer that turned Game 1, he added to a bigger body of evidence, one that would seem to indicate he and his teammates might just be a historic force that no magnification of the trash-can scheme can totally discredit. Correa is now the leader in postseason RBIs among active players, at age 27. He’s been especially unstoppable on the October stage since the sign-stealing scandal added an unspoken challenge behind each series, each pitch.
Entering Friday’s game, Correa had played 17 postseason games since the scandal burst into public view. He was batting .367 and slugging .717 with six homers and 21 RBIs even before the pivotal blast.
What’s more, he has seemed aware of the stakes, keen to point out the times when the black mark of 2017 doesn’t stick to him or his teammates now, no matter how much it sticks in people’s heads.
“I know a lot of people are mad,” he said while basking in an Astros playoff triumph in 2020. “I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here. But what are they gonna say now?”
How Correa came to speak for Astros
Days after that PR disaster of a PR event, Correa spoke to Ken Rosenthal for a TV interview and rattled off a series of soundbites that included far more genuine-seeming expressions of remorse, and also revelatory details from inside the heavily scrutinized clubhouse.
“We want to go out and show the fans that we're talented, we can play the game and we can win ballgames: that what happened in 2017 does not define us.” - @TeamCJCorrea to @Ken_Rosenthal
Full 🎥 - https://t.co/0JwtkFtE8B pic.twitter.com/EgEQE5NCik
— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) February 15, 2020
He defended Altuve, claiming the 2017 AL MVP didn’t even utilize the stolen signs. He matter-of-factly listed several other players who were not willing participants — his own not among them.
And he debuted the measured defiance that has come to resonate as an unofficial credo around an Astros team that has now run its string of ALCS appearances to five straight.
In those early days and with each new flare-up, Correa has largely addressed the Astros’ ethical failings with an appropriate mix of reflection and school-yard-style resistance. The scheme was brazen and way, way over the line in the world of professional competition, but its gravity pales in comparison to scores of misdeeds — including some by other former Astros — that far too many are willing to put out of mind in favor of wins, thrills and vicarious pride.
When the scandal recedes into the background
Here’s what Correa seemingly understands as well as anyone: He’s not the name on the back of his jersey, nor is he a representative of the name on the front. It’s always intertwined. Astros fans will love his bold us-against-the-world style as long as he’s got Houston on his chest, and many will find the same qualities unbearable if he dons a new uniform in free agency this offseason.
Sports fandom doesn’t separate the athlete from the laundry. It ceases to recognize one without the other. On my team? Superman. On your team? Some obnoxious guy named Clark Kent.
No level of groveling apology was going to turn down the heat on the Astros in the spring of 2020. It may also be that no level of hitting prowess under the microscope will convince jaundiced observers of Correa’s or Altuve’s independent greatness. They are both on track to force some extremely interesting Hall of Fame votes in addition to rewriting the postseason record books.
The casual confidence that has made Correa the face of the post-scandal Astros is probably also what kept him out of the apology parade. He’s never allowed himself to be subsumed by the idea of the baseball scarlet letter. He has instead seemed to take it in, like a notch on his belt, as one of the experiences that explains him — knowing that interpretations and allegiances will change as he hits go-ahead homers in the ALCS or perhaps changes teams.
In acknowledging the furor but refusing to be suppressed by it, Correa relates to the scandal only for what it really is at this point: Nothing that’s going to stop him from having his moment.