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Hochman: Astros hitters cheated the game and that's hard to forget

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ALCS Astros Yankees Baseball

Houston second baseman Jose Altuve holds the American League championship trophy in the early hours of Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, in New York after the Astros defeated the Yankees.

Hate ’em or hate ’em, the Astros are in the World Series.

Until Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Yuli Gurriel are off the Astros, my red-seamed heart doesn’t have the capacity to love that team. Seems many folks feel the same way. Those three players, of course, are the remaining hitters from the 2017 Astros, who banged their way to a title — and then it was exposed that they banged a trash can for an unfair advantage.

Some might say to let bygones be bygones, or that they’ve paid their penance, or that time heals all wounds, but I say you can throw all those clichés in said trash can.

These men cheated. They participated in a scheme that alerted them to what pitch was coming. That’s an advantage like going up to the plate with a metal bat. And whether it happened five years ago or 105 years ago, that sticks with you — it’s forever blatant cheating.

The “A” on their Astros jerseys should be scarlet.

And, yes, those three quite likely play by the rules now. And they’re obviously elite talents. But I cannot appreciate any current achievements knowing how they accomplished previous achievements.

That makes all of this rather difficult because I want to like the Astros. Maybe you do, too? There are some beautiful storylines and likable personalities on that club.

It starts with Johnnie B. Baker Jr., the beloved manager. Now, Dusty used to irk Cardinals fans from opposing dugouts. Maybe still does. But unlike the transgressions of these Houston players, Dusty’s dust-ups with Tony La Russa fade in importance over time.

With his latest stop, you probably know the story by now. Baker was a World Series-winning player — and an All-Star and Gold Glove winner — and proceeded to win 2,000-plus games as a manager. But, yes, he never has won a World Series as a skipper. Lost in 2002. He was hired by Houston for 2020 to bring accountability and likability to the marred franchise. Made the Fall Classic in 2021 and lost. And he has made it there again.

This time, the Astros went a perfect 7-0 to get there. That seldom happens. And most of the games were close, too. Baker had to “chess master” his way through each game — and never once lost.

“I stay hungry,” Baker, 73, told reporters after a sweep of the New York Yankees. “People, some people, most people are rooting for us, some people are rooting against us. It doesn’t matter. That motivates you either way. There’s a lot of positive thoughts coming our way. There’s a ton of positive thoughts and spiritual togetherness in the city of Houston. It’s galvanized our team.

“I’ve never seen a city so close to the players and always behind their players. Like, I’ve never heard a cross word or anybody boo in our town for the team, and it means a lot. It means an awful lot. It means ... love and respect and togetherness.”

At shortstop, the 2022 Astros lost Carlos Correa, a brilliant ballplayer who, too, was on the cheating champs. Correa is a free agent again and, understandably so, should get a look from the Cardinals. If St. Louis does sign him, it will mean mixed emotions for many. He’ll forever have that Astros asterisk by his name. But if the Cards could bring back admitted steroid user Mark McGwire as their hitting coach, they surely could bring in the All-Star infielder in his prime.

When Correa left the Astros after 2021 for one season in Minnesota, Houston promoted shortstop Jeremy Pena. His dad is Geronimo Pena, the Cardinals’ second baseman from 1990-95, who seemed to spend as much time on the injured list as in the lineup. While Geronimo had unfulfilled potential, Jeremy is reaching his own. He hit 22 homers in his rookie season of ’22 — and then has hit three in seven postseason games. The effervescent and likable ballplayer was named MVP of the American League Championship Series.

“He has a lot of support from his mom and dad and from his teammates here,” Baker said. “He’s a very confident but humble young man. He’s in a position where, people say it’s hard to win with a young shortstop, catcher, and center fielder and young pitching staff, but he’s grasped the situation, the responsibility of that. He’s hitting second in the order and playing shortstop. That’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of work. He hasn’t shied away from it. He’s actually embraced it. …

“He comes from a great baseball family. His mom actually got mad at me a little bit because he didn’t play in Boston and there were a bunch of people from Providence, Rhode Island, his town. Actually, I had to explain — have you ever had to explain something to somebody’s mama? I was like, ‘Mama, he’s hurt. That’s why he’s not playing.’”

There are other cool stories on the Astros’ roster, from the rise of superstar Yordan Alvarez to the boys playing for injured teammate Michael Brantley. Doesn’t matter. It’s all superseded by the existence of Bregman, Altuve and Gurriel in Astros uniforms — and what that symbolizes.

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