Hoornstra: Why it’s still OK to boo the Astros

The absolution of sins is a delicate privilege that can only be earned. In sports, the proof of concept is often delightfully petty. Take, for example, the Houston Astros.

The Astros are a good baseball team again. In the court of public opinion, they are still paying for their cardinal sin of 2017: winning a World Series while cheating. According to one survey based on geotagged tweets after the latest World Series matchup was set, a majority of fans in 47 of 50 states were pulling for Atlanta to win. Even among the baseball industry folks I exchange texts with every year prior to Game 1, there was a common tug-of-war between the heart and the mind when picking a winner. Few people’s hearts are with the Astros. Still.

In Houston, they are grasping at absolution where they can. In a national audio interview Monday, a retired pitcher argued the Astros’ sins should be forgiven. “It’s over and done with,” the pitcher said. “And any suggestion that what happened that year has something to do with what the Astros are doing this year, I just think is ridiculous.”

Absolution cannot come from just anyone. This was Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine, who is so closely identified with the Atlanta franchise (he spent 17 of his 22 seasons there), a Houston radio station identified him as “Braves legend Tom Glavine.” Only a specific regional deity will suffice.

Unfortunately, Glavine’s argument for absolution invited more questions than answers. Here’s more from his interview with Zach Gelb: “Everybody in baseball is trying to cheat, don’t kid yourself. Everybody’s trying to find an advantage, find an edge. Now, what the Astros did at the time crossed the line, and there’s no question about that. But I feel like there’s a lot of people casting stones who maybe shouldn’t be casting stones. … They crossed the line, they suffered the consequences for it. And look, to their credit, here they are again. … A lot of those guys paid a pretty heavy price.”

The question I’m interested in today, as the Astros slog forward through a mire of moral ambiguity: How heavy must one’s guilt feel to find relief in the thought that all of Major League Baseball is one big game of rogues?

The idea that no one has to apologize when everyone is cheating is dangerous. It allows the individual beneficiaries of the Astros’ “Operation Codebreaker” to surreptitiously maintain their swagger as champions – puffed up, not deflated by, the boos and the jeers from hostile crowds.

In social psychology, the refusal of individuals to accept blame for their part in group behavior has a name: diffusion of responsibility. In North American professional sports, fans reject diffusion. We root for the name on the back of the jersey as much as the name on the front. Even industry folks were quick to distinguish their rooting interests this week; some who chose the Astros told me their pick was based on their fondness for Manager Dusty Baker.

What, then, to make of the persistence of Houston shortstop Carlos Correa?

It was Correa who dubiously criticized Cody Bellinger’s reading comprehension skill in an interview last year. The Dodgers’ first baseman/outfielder correctly asserted that the Astros had cheated for three years. Correa refuted this, claiming the Astros only cheated during their championship season of 2017.

Perhaps Correa missed the reporting, originally by the Wall Street Journal, that a Houston front-office intern first devised “Operation Codebreaker” in 2016, and that this operation was abandoned in 2018. (The operation persisted over a span of three calendar years, for those of you counting at home.) Only the trash can “banging scheme,” as dubbed by MLB, ended after the 2017 championship. The operation ended not because of moral objections within team ranks, but because it was not especially effective at helping the Astros hit baseballs. Any player who is willing to downplay this to the point of victim-blaming does not deserve absolution.

MLB faces a lot of moral battlegrounds: the incursion of gambling, the “Tomahawk Chop,” the location of the 2021 All-Star Game, its handling of the Trevor Bauer situation. Now, four years removed from the Dodgers’ lost championship, booing the Astros is the least touchy of them all. The stakes are relatively low.

Despite Glavine’s assertion that “a lot of those guys paid a pretty heavy price,” the court of public opinion remains the harshest jury a player will face in this matter. None of the 2017 Astros were disciplined directly by MLB.

Don’t let the diffusion of responsibility fool you. If baseball is indeed one big game of rogues, that should invite more reprehension, not less. The responsibility of bending the moral arc toward justice has been placed squarely on our vocal cords.