What if Howie Kendrick’s hit landed just foul? What if the Nationals still trailed in the eighth and ninth innings of Game 7 of the World Series and sat and watched the Astros mob each other in the center of the diamond as the sellout crowd in Houston roared?
How would everyone around here have felt about Monday’s announcement by Commissioner Rob Manfred that general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch had been suspended for the 2020 season (and then later fired by owner Jim Crane) and the organization fined the maximum allowable $5 million for illegally stealing signs during the 2017 and 2018 seasons?
To be clear, Major League Baseball’s investigation into the Astros did not include the 2019 season, and there has been no formal allegation of wrongdoing by them during the last year. So as far as we know, there would have been no punishment of anyone for anything that happened during this most recent World Series.
But make no mistake, the Nationals, their fans and, really, anyone around the world who cares about baseball wouldn’t have been able to accept another Houston championship as 100 percent valid. How could they?
Nationals players, coaches and members of the baseball operations department already were on higher-than-normal alert entering the World Series. They knew the Astros’ reputation, and they went into the Fall Classic taking steps to try to thwart any possible shenanigans at Minute Maid Park, according to one team employee prior to Game 1.
We don’t know if Houston actually attempted any funny business during the series, but we do know the Nationals adjusted their pitch-calling signs and we do know they believed Stephen Strasburg was tipping his pitches during the first inning of Game 6 (when he gave up two runs on a double, a homer and two drives to the warning track) and then didn’t give up another run over his next 7 1/3 innings after it was brought to his attention.
So it seems safe to say now, some six weeks later: Thank God the Nationals won the World Series. Because they saved themselves and the rest of the sport even more anguish and embarrassment over a scandal that will forever be remembered as one of the most significant black marks in baseball history.
Is that overstating the situation? Not really, no. While baseball history is littered with mistakes, scandals and the mistreatment of people for a variety of reasons, some of the worst events the sport has ever seen share a common theme: they all called into question the integrity of the game.
The Black Sox. Pete Rose. Steroids. The Astros. They’re all different in many ways, but they all produced the same emotional reaction. They made you question the legitimacy of what took place on the field. They left you wondering if the games you watched were actually played on the up and up.
When you boil it down, that’s really the most important thing any sporting event has going for it: We expect the competition to be legitimate. We expect all of the participants to be playing under the same rules, with the same goal. We might get frustrated. We might believe a bad call cost our team the game. But in the end, we believe the competition was fair.
We know the White Sox threw the 1919 World Series, giving the title to the Reds. We know Rose placed bets on games he managed. We know many (but not all) players were putting illegal substances into their bodies to boost their performances for multiple decades, helping some of them break some of the game’s most hallowed records.
And now we know the Astros cheated en route to winning the franchise’s one and only World Series title in 2017. We know they went 8-1 at home (where their elaborate and illegal sign-stealing system was in place) during that postseason but 3-6 on the road (where they had no such advantage).
(We also know the 2018 champion Red Sox are now under investigation for for their own alleged sign-stealing, with first-year manager Alex Cora - the Astros’ bench coach in 2017 - squarely in Manfred’s crosshairs.)
We don’t know if the Astros were still doing anything illegal in 2019, but because the Nationals became the first team in major professional sports history to go 4-0 on the road in a single championship series we know it doesn’t matter. The Nats won, so nobody’s going to bother investigating the Astros any further.
The Commissioner’s Trophy resides on South Capitol Street. A championship banner will be raised above the scoreboard in April. Rings will be handed out to everyone who made it possible.
Those will be two more wonderful events to cap off a remarkable few months in Washington, but it won’t only be fans in this town celebrating.
As the dust settles and the magnitude of MLB’s latest scandal becomes clear, the entire baseball world should have the same thought right now: Thank God the Nationals won the World Series.