In some ways, AJ Hinch is a sympathetic figure. He did not approve of his team's high-tech cheating. He could not realistically blow the whistle on the nefarious tactics in real-time. And he ultimately paid the biggest price of anyone, including all those who did the actual crimes.
No one is going to spend too much time feeling sorry for him, of course. No matter how many television interviews he does. Hinch's first public comments on the messiness came to Tom Verducci in an interview that airs tonight at 6 p.m. ET on MLB Network.
Hinch was asked about the legitimacy of the Houston Astros' 2017 World Series championship and came reasonably close to getting it.
"It's a fair question," Hinch said. "I think everyone is going to have to draw their own conclusions [as to whether the championship is tainted]. I hope over time and the demonstration of the talent of this team and the players and the careers that are being had -- we have some of the best players in the entire sport all together on the same team -- I hope over time it's proven that it wasn't [tainted]. But I understand the question ... Unfortunately we opened that door as a group, and that question may never be answered. We may never know.
"We're going to have to live and move forward and be better in this sport, but unfortunately no one can really answer that question. I can't really pinpoint what advantages or what happened or what exactly would have happened otherwise, but we did it to ourselves."
Points to Hinch for admitting the obvious instead of doubling down in defense of the cheating. It's easy to imagine a Baseball Man bristling at the question and not admitting that, yeah, some mistakes were made. But Hinch is too optimistic about the Astros' legacy.
The question over the legitimacy can be answered by pretty much any reasonable person. We don't have to wait.
That title is tainted. If it weren't, there wouldn't be this whole hullabaloo. Houston was damn good on their own merits, but that part of the equation doesn't matter at all. Cheating poisons both good and bad. It casts a long shadow and erases a lot of hard, honest work.
Here's a handy field guide for someone trying to figure out if they achieved something through ill-gotten means:
Was there a massive scandal? Did it cost you your job and make future employment a tenuous prospect? Were the penalties historically severe? Did negative coverage of the sport explode in a shocking way and eclipse interest in the freaking NFL playoffs?
If the answers to all of these is "yes," well, that's a safe sign the legitimacy has been called into question. Again, it's human for Hinch to hold out hope he'll come out of this in better standing than he is now. But the Astros are damn lucky Major League Baseball isn't brave enough to pull the trigger on stripping them of the World Series crown.
They'd certainly be within their rights to do so.
That's the great tradeoff here. The 2017 Houston Astros get to keep their crown. In exchange, they must wear the shame of a near universal consensus that they stole it.
There will be no great awakening, no shift of public opinion. What they did was wrong and will likely always be wrong. Hinch and his players should get comfortable with this reality and try to move forward.
They don't get to steal the cake, eat it too, then convince everyone it was rightfully theirs all along.