HOUSTON — Carlos Correa leaned on the dugout railing and watched his legacy harden.
Another World Series win would not have changed the jeers the Astros have heard in every road city since the world learned that they cheated during their 2017 title season. It would not have changed the reluctance most of them feel to wear their rings. It would not have changed the way history remembers that ’17 Astros team. But it might have changed the way history remembers the other Astros teams.
The Astros could have been the New England Patriots, who got caught cheating but became a dynasty anyway. Instead they will be the Russian Olympic team, which ... just got caught cheating.
Houston has played in five consecutive American League Championship Series and three of the past five World Series. The team has won at least 95 games in the last four full seasons. But since 2017, when players illegally stole signs and relayed them to batters by banging on a trash can, it has not won a championship again.
Perhaps no one feels the disappointment more acutely than Correa, who became a free agent for the first time with the final out. On Tuesday, with Atlanta leading 7–0 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6 of the World Series, he leaned on that railing and gazed into the infield as Yuli Gurriel grounded to shortstop Dansby Swanson. Correa’s cleats were clattering down the dugout stairs before first baseman Freddie Freeman gloved the ball.
Afterward, Correa struggled to hide his emotions. “Honestly, what was going through my head was it’s crazy how you spent seven years dedicating your life, your body, your mind, everything to help this organization get better every single year, to help this organization go in the right direction, and then all of a sudden, a couple seconds later, you don't belong to the organization anymore,” he said. “I’m not an Astro anymore.”
When he talks about next year, he sometimes catches himself and tosses in an if. But he knows he will not be back. A few weeks before fellow shortstops Fernando Tatis Jr. and Francisco Lindor signed for $340 million and $341 million, respectively, Houston reportedly offered Correa a six-year, $120 million extension in spring training; Correa saw it more as an insult than as a legitimate negotiation.
So he and his teammates approached this season as his last as one of the faces of the franchise that has earned and endured so much opprobrium. Most of the players from that 2017 team are already gone. DH Carlos Beltrán retired after that season. Catcher Brian McCann hung it up two seasons later. Center fielder George Springer signed a six-year, $150 million deal with the Blue Jays in January. Right fielder Josh Reddick caught on with the Diamondbacks in April. Only five members of the ’17 World Series roster were on the ’21 World Series roster.
But four of those five players are four of the most important in the history of the franchise: first baseman Gurriel, second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Alex Bregman and Correa. They have played 73 postseason games together; the previous record by a quartet was 68, by the Yankees’ Derek Jeter, Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams. Altuve and Bregman both signed contract extensions that will keep them in Houston through 2024. The team holds an $8 million option on Gurriel that it seems likely to pick up. But it will not be the same team without Correa.
When commissioner Rob Manfred declined to sanction any of the players involved in the scandal, he said history would be their punishment. Opponents and fans scoffed that that wasn’t enough, and maybe they are right. But history will indeed punish them. If they truly stopped cheating early in 2018, as Manfred’s report states, then the clean Astros were the second-winningest team in the majors, behind only the Dodgers. That has always been part of the tragedy of the scandal: The Astros were already the class of the sport. No one will ever think of them that way.
The Astros have insisted publicly that they wanted to win because they wanted to win. But privately they admitted to one another that they wanted to show the world they could do it the right way. They fell short in 2019, when they lost to the Nationals in seven games. And they fell short Tuesday.
“Second place is not good enough for us,” Correa said. “I know it’s not good enough for you guys. But it speaks volumes of how good our organization, our talent in the clubhouse is. Five ALCSes in a row, three World Series in five years—I mean, I don’t know what else you want to ask from a great ball club.”
He does know, of course. Fans wanted this group to prove that they could win a World Series without cheating. They didn’t. And now they never will.
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