A.J. Hinch accepts responsibility for Astros sign-stealing scandal, which is a start

A.J. Hinch is 45 years old and has lost the job he might have thought he was born for, that and raising his girls and standing beside his wife and generally caring about people who need to be cared about.

He is an honorable and flawed man who will find some reason in this, in the scandal born on his watch that tore apart an organization and tugged at the integrity of his forever game. It stripped him of his reputation. Where does one go with that?

I believe in comebacks. I believe in the mistakes, the errors in judgment, the what-was-I-thinking before the comebacks, because we humans are bred to do dumb things. And then, because this is usually what life looks and feels like, I believe in the recovery, in stacking good days upon good days, deeds upon deeds, honest apologies upon honest apologies until the mirror is friendly again. I believe that if we were all to be judged by our worst choices, our worst moments, our darkest regrets, there’d hardly be any reason to get out of bed again.

In the months since we learned how the Houston Astros won at-bats and therefore games in their most glorious season I have wondered if their consciences ached. If one of them, any of them, thought to themselves, “Is this worth it?”

“Is this how I want this? Is this how I want to win?”

“Am I proud of this? The ring, the parade, the banner? Is this how it should feel? How I should feel?”

“Is this really baseball anymore?”

FILE - In this Dec. 10, 2019, file photo, Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch speaks during the Major League Baseball winter meetings, in San Diego. Houston  manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for the entire season Monday, Jan. 13, 2020,  and the team was fined $5 million for sign-stealing by the team in 2017 and 2018 season. Commissioner Rob Manfred announced the discipline and strongly hinted that current Boston manager Alex Cora — the Astros bench coach in 2017 — will face punishment later. Manfred said Cora developed the sign-stealing system used by the Astros. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)
AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for the entire 2020 season, and the Astros was fined $5 million for sign-stealing by the team in 2017 and 2018 season. (AP)

A former big leaguer told me recently he believed Astros players had sold out not necessarily to the outcomes, but to the single euphoric spark of hitting a baseball solidly. It is so rare after 5 o’clock. He guessed the end results — long home runs, scorched doubles, bloated batting averages, individual trophies, even the World Series — were incidental. Welcome, but subordinate to the purity of perfect contact. It’s a high, he said, and he imagined how tough it would be to quit when rationalizations built upon rationalizations became expectations. Alone, in the shadowy corner of a single pitch in a single at-bat, maybe even having sworn off it hours before, they needed a hit.

Thump-thump, changeup.

That world became A.J. Hinch’s. He resisted for a while, then succumbed to the same wisps of insecurity and ill-gotten glory, then denied all accusations of his team’s unsportsmanlike methods, then, at the business end of a league investigation, succumbed to the truth.

So, in early February he found himself the interview subject on an MLB Network show. The airing came in the final days of baseball’s offseason. Spring training lay just across the weekend from him, from a world that could use a spring-training vibe. Fresh starts and all.

Among those named or accused or thrown into a group of scoundrels or suspended and fired, only Hinch seems suitably ashamed. Only Hinch has raised his hand and said, I screwed up. It’s on me. I let you down.

Maybe this is the early legwork on the next job, if there is to be one. But I think he’s an honorable man who happened to wear the uniform for a while dishonorably. I think these are the consequences. I think there is a way back.

“It happened on my watch,” Hinch told MLB Network. “And I’m not proud of that. I’ll never be proud of it. I didn’t like it. But I have to own it.”

Only he seems to understand that rigging baseball games is ultimately not only about those baseball games, but also about all the games that come after it. And not only about those players and coaches and their manager, but the teams and championships that come after them. They, all of them, damaged the sport. Maybe that was lost in all the tiny moments when they were getting their hard-contact fixes, but that’s where it stands today. The sport must recover, and it may not for a while, because of them.

None of that goes away. One day you’re managing Game 7 of the World Series. The next, perhaps, you’re sitting across from a guy who asks what you knew and when you knew it, why you allowed it, what kind of men would cheat a perfectly good baseball game.

“Right is right,” Hinch said. “And wrong is wrong. And we were wrong.”

He is suspended until the end of the next World Series. He is, of course, without a job. He may never work in the game again. He laid that on no one but himself, though the front office conspired, at least one coach conspired and his players ignored his requests to stop it. He hoisted a World Series trophy and once, last summer, called that act “probably the single moment I cherish most in my baseball career.” Only months later he granted that that moment could be construed otherwise, that “unfortunately we opened that door as a group.”

What remains is another day in baseball exile, then another and another. Put enough of those together, live them well, execute them well, answer to them all, and the mirror does get kinder.

He has the time.

“It’s going to be a long summer,” he said. “I don’t blame anyone but myself.”

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