HOUSTON — It was another Astro, in another time, flummoxing another New York baseball nine, that caused a similar amount of disquiet.
His name was Mike Scott. He beat the Mets twice in the 1986 NLCS, Game 1 and Game 4, and he was looming in Game 7 if the Mets hadn’t found a way to escape the 16-inning torture chamber of Game 6.
He was the best pitcher in baseball that year, and he credited his former pitching coach, Roger Craig, with teaching him the split-finger fastball, which tended to duck under bat after bat all season long, and time after time in the NLCS. The Mets credited something else: sandpaper. Or a thumbtack. Or whatever contraband Scott was surely concealing in his uniform.
They collected balls that they swore were covered in scuff marks. They shook their heads at each other in derision, but no matter how much they shook, they couldn’t shake Scott from the innards of their brains. They also received zero satisfaction from the umpires.
Scott took all of that in with a laugh in 1986.
“The only time anyone gripes,” he said then, “is when you’re getting them out.”
Thirty-three years later, a similar paranoia envelops the Astros, who like to cultivate the reputation that they are much smarter than everyone else. Everyone else, meanwhile, believes one of the reasons they look so darned smart is because they know how to play the game-within-the-game.
That isn’t cheating, per se.
But it drives opponents just as nuts.
Saturday night, Game 1, it was Buck Showalter — a baseball combination of Columbo, Magnum and Jim Rockford when it comes to figuring stuff out that people would rather nobody figure out — who noticed the Yankees were regularly switching signs — and the example he showed was during Jose Altuve’s fourth-inning at-bat, when there were two outs and nobody on base.
In other words: When nobody on the Astros — within the rules, anyway — would have any chance of picking up the Yankees’ signs.
Still, clear as day, there was Gary Sanchez pointing to his sleeve, and Showalter on YES Network almost gleefully pointing out that he was telling Masahiro Tanaka he was changing the signs. And there was Tanaka, taking his cap off, acknowledging receipt of the switch. By now, Showalter was 30 kids at once on Christmas morning.
Then they showed Tanaka striking out Altuve. If Showalter does come back to manage someone in the next few weeks, remember that moment on television.
Because it looked like he wanted to suit up and report to a dugout that very moment.
“It’s called either paranoid or alert,” Showalter said. “Which one is it?”
“Everyone is using multiple signs in that ballpark,” he said.
Later, even Showalter seemed to concede that we take this stuff way too seriously sometimes, since every time a pitcher gets cuffed around it’s assumed — especially here — that something nefarious is going on.
“Sometimes, it’s just that a guy hung a breaking ball, or he threw a fastball when he shouldn’t have,” Showalter said, “and you got guys fighting at the bat rack trying to get up there against him.”
The Astros, of course, have earned this reputation for a reason. Part of the reason the Yankees were undoubtedly on high alert was because of how successful Astros hitters were in jumping on Tampa Bay’s Tyler Glasnow in deciding Game 5 of the teams’ ALDS series. As was most efficiently pointed out on Twitter by the great @Jomboy_, Glasnow placed his glove either above his letters or below depending on whether he was throwing a fastball or a curve.
The Astros did a great job picking this up and an awful job hiding their giddiness. And there have been others who have been less gracious about it, like ex-Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer, who last year took to Twitter and said first: “If only there was just a really quick way to increase spin rate. Like, what if you could trade for a player knowing that you could bump his spin rate a couple hundred rpm overnight.”
And then added the money shot: “Pine tar is more of a competitive advantage on a given game than steroids are.”
Paranoid or alert?
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