Ask around, and you will invariably hear that AJ Hinch is a nice guy. Alex Cora? Nice guy. Now Hinch has been fired, essentially for letting Cora cheat on his behalf with the Houston Astros. Cora still has a job as of this typing, but only because I type fast. The Red Sox should fire him as their manager, soon and in the way he deserves: Tell him to sit in the Fenway Park dugout, and if he hears two bangs on a trash can, he’s gone.
Another World Series-winning manager, Leo Durocher, famously said that nice guys finish last. Hinch and Cora are proof that sometimes nice guys cheat and finish first. There is a lesson here about black hats and white hats and a game that has had an if-you-ain’t-cheatin’-you-ain’t-tryin’ culture for more than a century.
AJ Hinch knew the Astros were absolutely wrong to use video to steal signals in their 2017 World Series championship season. Cora had to know it, too. According to Major League Baseball’s official report, Hinch even physically damaged the screens that the Astros were using to cheat, a measure that sounds extreme but was actually laughably insufficient. Hinch apparently felt more comfortable breaking a video monitor than saying “Guys, don’t cheat.” What kind of business is this when a manager won’t tell his employees to follow the rules?
Well, go back to 1986. Yes, we know time travel is exhausting, but you don’t have to leave Houston. Most of the National League believes Astros ace Mike Scott is doctoring baseballs. He would admit, years later, that he threw scuffed balls. Guess how many of his teammates tried to stop him.
Cheating culture is not unique to baseball, but for a long time, baseball took unique pride in it. Gaylord Perry wrote a book called “Me and the Spitter,” pitched for another nine years and made the Baseball Hall of Fame. Who stopped players from taking amphetamines? Who told nice guys like Jason Giambi that no, it wasn’t OK to take steroids?
Anything goes, until it doesn’t. When commissioner Rob Manfred warned teams in 2017 that he was “putting all Clubs on notice that future violations would be taken extremely seriously by my office,” Hinch and Cora clearly did not take him extremely seriously. Baseball history told them, and everybody else, to do what had to be done.
Remember: This was not the case of an autocratic manager ordering underlings to break the rules. Cora was the bench coach. He implemented the plan. The Astros’ players—some really nice guys among them—all presumably knew about it. Hinch apparently didn’t like it. And yet it went on.
It is quite possible that the Astros—innovative, brilliant and ruthless—were the worst offenders in the game. But then Cora went to the Red Sox and allegedly started cheating immediately. Was he turned in? Were people appalled? Maybe some were. But the Red Sox had already been caught stealing signs and transmitting them with an Apple Watch the year before he got there. There is not much indication that any player tried to hit Cora over the head with a conscience.
They are nice guys and they deserve to be punished, and let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge another nice guy, 2013 Roberto Clemente Award winner Carlos Beltrán, who was also wrist-deep in the sign-stealing affair but has not been officially punished because he was just a player. Beltrán manages the Mets now. Maybe that is punishment enough.
The Astros are easily caricatured villains. They have earned that. So few people in baseball feel bad for general manager Jeff Luhnow that he is probably calling his service provider to see if his phone works. But being the worst villains does not make them the only ones, and everybody in baseball would be wise to think not about Luhnow, but about Hinch and Cora.
There they were, two nice guys, right in the middle of an enormous cheating scandal. They either didn’t think it was enormous, or they didn’t think anybody else would. AJ Hinch was trying to win baseball games. Alex Cora was trying to help him. That was their reason, but it is no excuse, and maybe now all the nice guys in baseball will understand that.