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Barber: Why Astros get to keep their World Series trophy

Don’t strip the Houston Astros of their 2017 World Series championship.

Mock them, revile them, call them the Asterisks. Wear a bootleg Houston jersey to the Oakland Coliseum this season and join the drum bangers in right field, a reminder of the Astros’ favorite method of relaying stolen signs. Treat their accomplishments with suspicion. Applaud the firings of former general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, both of whom turned a blind eye (at least) to the grift. Call for Astros players to be suspended, too, and demand that Jim Crane sell the team if you’d like.

But don’t argue for taking that World Series trophy. Don’t fall in line with, among others, former MLB player David Freese, Fox Sports Radio commentator Chris Broussard or professional shouter Stephen A. Smith, all of whom have suggested the Astros should vacate their title. Don’t write in support of the Los Angeles City Council’s resolution urging Major League Baseball to take recent championships from the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox (who imported the scam) and award them to the Dodgers.

NFL legend Kurt Warner joined this chorus Thursday when he tweeted, “In terms of sports, what’s worse than ppl who cheat & then apologize with no ramifications on what they accomplished while cheating??? I’m all for 2nd chances but to allow accomplishments to stand while cheating is being done just spits in the face of TRUE competition!”

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the sentiment. The Astros clearly cheated, constructing an elaborate, technology-driven ?system to let their hitters know whether the next pitch would be a fastball or breaking ball. That platform fundamentally tilted the playing field in Astros games. It helped them play in two World Series and win one of them. It tarnished the careers of opponents and reaped financial rewards for the Astros, collectively and individually.

So yes, I get what Warner is saying about “no ramifications on what they accomplished.”

Oh, and another thing: The Astros, true to form, are doing everything they can to make the worst of the situation. After hiding for the first 24 hours of spring training, they all faced reporters Thursday. For the most part, the contrition was tepid and/or tone deaf.

“Our opinion is that this didn’t impact the game,” Crane, the energy and shipping magnate, said of a scheme to impact literally every pitch thrown by opposing pitchers at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros deserve neither our sympathy nor our respect - or our trust. They should be scrutinized and questioned like the scoundrels they are. But if you’re going to draw the line of punishment somewhere short of Guantanamo Bay, you should draw it right before revoking that World Series trophy.

The most obvious reason is the absurdity of pretending something didn’t happen. Sports seems to have a fetish for this sort of thing.

Listen to the arbiters of sports championships, and you will be convinced that Reggie Bush did not win the 2005 Heisman Trophy (no one did!), that Marion Jones did not claim five medals at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, that the Louisville men’s basketball team didn’t win 123 games between 2011-15 - least of all the 2013 NCAA championship game - and that Lance Armstrong in no way won seven consecutive Tour de France cycling races beginning in 1999.

I mean, I watched some of those Tours de France. That sure looked like Armstrong pedaling happily down the Champs Elysees at the front of the peloton. Am I now to believe he didn’t win? Speculative fiction dressed up as sports reporting?

Again, this is not a defense of Lance Armstrong. He not only doped for years and not only lied about it every step of the way, he routinely threatened other riders and support staffers who dared to accuse him of exactly what he was doing. From all accounts, Armstrong behaved monstrously.

It’s not about him, or about the Houston Astros. It’s about our own sense of disbelief. No matter what the NCAA or the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency says, I have no great desire to play make-believe and, wink-wink, nod in agreement that something never occurred even when I know it did. It’s comical. It’s a child’s game.

But it’s more than that. To retroactively vacate a championship, in baseball or otherwise, lets the sport’s highest decision-makers off the hook. It gives them a do-over they don’t deserve.

Take this Astros scandal. We know now that their electronic sign-stealing was Major League Baseball’s open secret. Several teams, including the A’s, complained to the league office. The Washington Post ran a comprehensive story about this Tuesday.

“The whole industry knows they’ve been cheating their asses off for three or four years,” an unidentified executive from a team that had faced the Astros in the postseason told the Post. “Everybody knew it.”

Everybody knew it, but MLB did nothing beyond wagging a finger and telling folks to behave. It’s a tried-and-true approach. Look the other way when you see signs of rampant cheating. Stubbornly ignore the inevitable complaints. And when someone in the media finally lets the cat out of the bag, express shock and outrage, then start meting out punishment.

No one knows the route better than Major League Baseball. It cleared that trail thoroughly during the steroids era.

That’s one reason I’m 100% in favor of getting Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens into the Baseball Hall of Fame. MLB made vast profits from the Bonds-vs.-McGwire-vs.-Sosa home run battles. Stadiums were built from the revenue of those exploits. And the league knew all along that something was shady.

Fortunately, MLB didn’t try to come back after the fact and say oops, our bad, please disregard all the amazing numbers of that era.

Unfortunately, it has been left to sportswriters to weigh the merits of the guilty players and decide whether we should all pretend or not.

That’s too easy for Major League Baseball officials. They should have gotten it right the first time. They should have been investigating the Houston Astros at least three years ago.

Maybe then the Astros wouldn’t have won that World Series in 2017, wouldn’t have eliminated the New York Yankees in two American League championship series in three years, wouldn’t have relegated the second-place A’s to treacherous wild-card games. But that’s not what happened, and we all know it.

Let the Astros fly that World Series banner. It shouldn’t be confiscated. It should stand as a reminder of MLB’s weakness and complicity.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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