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This ALCS Stands for a Lack of Closure, Suckers

In 2019, the Astros and the Red Sox were the faces of a sign-stealing scandal that rocked MLB. In 2021, they’ll square off for the right to go to the World Series. How much has the baseball world really moved on?

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

On Friday, the Red Sox and Astros will come together for Game 1 of the ALCS. Apart from the two teams’ partisan supporters, no one is particularly happy about it. Once Boston advanced past the Rays on Tuesday, the baseball world grew so desperate for a good guy that it talked itself into rooting for a team managed by Tony La Russa.

It didn’t work. The Astros now are in their fifth straight ALCS, a remarkable achievement that also carries an unfortunate tendency toward boredom. If variety is the spice of life, the 2021 Astros are about as well-seasoned as your grandmother’s cauliflower puree. Which is not to say the Red Sox are much more novel; they’ve faced the Astros in the playoffs twice over the past five years, and in our generally over-Afflecked culture, the last thing most people want is more Boston sports success.

While this matchup brings numerous positive story lines—from Dusty Baker chasing an elusive World Series ring as manager to “Dancing on My Own” emerging as a sports anthem to Rafael Devers becoming a postseason legend—they pale in comparison to the resentment that most fans feel toward these two clubs. That’s because this ALCS is, and can only be, about one thing.

There’s an old joke about a man sitting at a bar, complaining to anyone who will listen about the lifetime of disrespect he’s suffered. The man is a stonemason—and a good one at that—but people know him only for what he’s done outside of work.

“All my life I’ve built walls,” he says. “I built the walls of the town hall, the wall around the churchyard, the wall in front of this very bar. But nobody calls me ‘Tom the Wallbuilder.’ I’ve built walls for half the people I pass on the street, but nobody says, ‘Hey, there goes Tom the Wallbuilder.’” The man takes a sip of his beer and continues his lament. “People like my work, they rely on my work, but that’s not what they know me for. You can spend 20 years building walls and people still might not call you ‘Tom the Wallbuilder.’

“But you fuck one goat … ”

Welcome to the Series of the Sign-Stealing Scandal, a reunion of the two teams at the center of baseball’s biggest scandal of the past 10 years.

The scandal’s ghosts are all over the diamond, in the walls, in your TV. Even story lines that aren’t about the sign-stealing scandal are somehow about the sign-stealing scandal. Carlos Correa, a Houston franchise icon, is potentially entering his final few weeks with the team. How will he perform? But also, how did he become a franchise icon in the first place, and how did he handle himself when the scandal came to light?

Boston’s Alex Cora is establishing himself as an all-time great postseason manager; his 15-4 playoff record gives him a better winning percentage than any MLB manager since Gil Hodges. But how did he win three playoff series so easily in 2018, and wasn’t he given the Red Sox job behind the strength of his success as Astros bench coach—in which capacity he was the ringleader to the trash-can-banging enterprise?

For as much as these two teams and their disciples would like everyone to focus on the present, the question of Why are you bringing up old shit? must be answered with another question: How can you not?

As a refresher: Shortly after the 2019 season, Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic reported that the Astros had used illicit electronic means to steal opponents’ signs during their championship season in 2017. Deciphering signs from the bases or picking up on a pitcher’s tell is legal, but Houston players would watch the opposing catcher’s signs on a TV in the tunnel behind the dugout, which is verboten, and signal which pitch was coming by banging a trash can loudly enough to be heard from home plate. The scheme went from the clubhouse all the way to the front office, where general manager Jeff Luhnow was at least aware of it and condoned it.

The MLB report pegged Cora, the Astros bench coach at the time, as the ringleader in the enterprise. By the time the story broke he’d been hired to manage the Red Sox—who themselves were implicated in an electronic sign-stealing scandal in 2017—and led them to a championship in his first year on the job.

The Red Sox and Astros have remade their rosters since their respective sign-stealing campaigns reportedly ended. We’ll never know each player’s culpability with absolute certainty, but whoever the guiltiest parties are, they are now scattered across the league. George Springer, the MVP of the 2017 World Series, is now in Toronto. A.J. Hinch, the manager who was suspended and fired for not doing anything to stop the Astros’ banging scheme, landed in Detroit after his suspension ended. When White Sox reliever Ryan Tepera threw some fresh lighter fluid on the sign-stealing scandal’s smoldering embers earlier this week, he did so even though his current teammate, former Houston ace Dallas Keuchel, might get singed.

But physical and temporal distance have done little to temper the lingering public opprobrium. The punishments that were handed down—fines, loss of draft picks, suspensions—seem trivial compared to the spoils of the illicit enterprise. Particularly after the Red Sox made a big show of firing Cora, waited until his suspension was over, and immediately hired him back as soon as he’d served his time. It’s like nothing ever happened.

It was, to put it charitably, a glib response from the Red Sox. Though not half as glib as Houston’s. The Astros kicked off the 2020 season with an inglorious press conference that only served to amplify public criticism. It was the first snowball in an avalanche of public execration that hurtled toward Opening Day—which didn’t come until July because of the pandemic, and by then there weren’t any fans to boo in the stands.

MLB spun its relatively light punishment as a necessary evil: Without promising players immunity, the commissioner’s office reasoned, it would have been nearly impossible to learn the whole truth. At face value, the impulse to understand rather than punish is not only logical but laudable. Punishment tends to be more retributive than restorative.

But MLB, after repeatedly breaching public trust on everything from steroids to labor conditions to broadcast rights, hasn’t exactly earned the benefit of the doubt. It’d be more logical to read the investigation’s swift conclusion as an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to put the episode out of public consciousness, and/or a highly successful attempt to set up half a dozen individuals and two teams as fall guys for a crime that was rumored to have spread to as much as a quarter of the league.

A proper punishment might or might not have assuaged public anger. If a proper punishment exists at all—there’s no way for the Astros or Red Sox to make restitution. This scheme altered or ended careers and swung at least one title, but no punishment, no matter how fantastical, puritanical, or draconian, can change the past.

Therefore we’re left with the uncomfortable truth that at least two teams cheated, got caught, and two years later it’s as if nothing has changed. Some of the perpetrators have dealt with it better than others. Cora took the nearly unprecedented step of admitting what he did was wrong and acknowledging he might never outrun the shame he brought on himself. But others, like Correa, continue to bristle at the loss of public trust and adoration they feel that they so richly earned.

Of course, that loss of trust and adoration is far from universal. Both clubs have more than their fair share of fans who not only forgave the players for transgressing this ethical line, but are so wrapped up in the colors that they never really cared in the first place.

Nowadays, people are what they like—particularly the kind of people who are invested enough in a thing to buy merchandise, attend live events, and discuss their interests online with strangers. That has always been true to some extent. From Deadheads to Trekkies to Texas A&M fans, we are several generations deep in a culture that encourages people to define themselves by hobbies that come with customs and norms that outsiders would find inscrutable.

But there’s a difference between being a fan, even an avid fan, and fandom as the term is widely understood. Fan, we too often forget, is short for fanatic. When a fan goes from liking something to adopting it as part of their identity, the attachment can turn toxic.

“What is lost in fandom is ultimately detachment,” B.D. McClay wrote in an essay for Gawker in August. “Detachment can coexist with love, hatred, and indifference. But it’s never an especially attractive quality, and when people are encouraged to identify themselves with their interests and consumption habits, it’s also a very hard one to maintain.”

I don’t know if this was ever not true, or when it changed if it wasn’t. But when there’s no detachment, to use McClay’s word, between the fan and object of fandom, criticizing the object of fandom is an act of apostasy. It creates an irreconcilable contradiction that turns an otherwise salt-of-the-earth sports fan into, well, a fanatic. Because if I am what I like, and I like the Astros, and the Astros did something bad, doesn’t that mean that I’m bad by association?

With detachment, that chain of logic looks absurd. Without it, it becomes a foundation for self-deception and whataboutism. And the players aren’t helping. Athletes can be paranoid to begin with, and this season alone we’ve seen not one but two contending teams declare a bizarre war on math. How many ghosts did Michael Jordan invent so that he could have something to fight against? How many imagined slights went into the New England Patriots’ six Super Bowl titles? A fanatic will pick up on those cues and determine that everyone outside the bubble is, in fact, against us.

Blind devotion to things—sports teams, musicians, TV shows, political parties, whatever—is an invitation for intellectual rot, and dangerous on a cultural scale for more reasons than I can count. But specific to this issue, it robs interested parties of the tools they need to process and come to terms with an upsetting or controversial event. It imposes an absolutist, morally binary framework onto circumstances and people that are anything but.

The sign-stealing scandal itself was straightforward from an ethical standpoint: Cheating is bad, I think we can all agree. But how to punish malfeasance, or even what the goals of said punishment ought to be, are extremely complicated and nuanced questions. These questions consume realms of scholarship in political and moral philosophy that tend to be a lot less hysterical than baseball, a sport where one weird hop off the wall can instantly spark a national crisis.

But detachment isn’t satisfying in this case. The Astros and Red Sox all but got away with cheating, and nobody in a position to do anything about it is susceptible to public pressure. There will be no redress of grievances for, to give an example, Dodgers partisans who think their team was robbed of at least one title. Nor for Astros partisans who think their team was singled out as, well, a scapegoat. There will be no satisfactory end coming no matter your point of view, merely the sport’s dirty laundry on full display.

The ALCS is here. If you want closure, you’ve come to the wrong place.