Jose Altuve will have to wear this forever

For close to 50 years, Ralph Branca had played the part of affable straight man. He had his suspicions, sure, because everyone in baseball had heard the rumors and the rumblings. For years — for decades — there had been whispers that the Giants’ famous comeback from 13 ½ games behind the Dodgers during the fabled summer of 1951 had been artificially aided.

As the century turned, so did the story. Old men started to talk. A scheme was uncovered: A powerful telescope had been set up in center field at the old Polo Grounds, lasered in on the opposing team’s catcher. Once the signals were figured out, the information was relayed — by buzzer, of all things — to the Giants’ bullpen.

And from the bullpen would come, via body language, what pitch was coming. The Giants won 16 games in a row. They caught the Dodgers in six weeks. They beat them in a three-game playoff.

As that story gained more and more traction in the summer of 2001, as the golden anniversary of the most famous home run in baseball history approached — Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” that finally won the pennant for the Giants on Oct. 3, 1951 — I called Branca and asked him how he felt about all of this.

“We suspected this for years, all of us,” Branca said. “But, you know, we never wanted to get into it publicly because it sounds like sour grapes. But yeah, I always wondered if Bobby knew what was coming. I mean, look at the video. He just about jumps out of his shoes to swing at the pitch.”

A few weeks later, inside Thomson’s home in Watchung, N.J., I told him what Branca had said, and he laughed, and offered this non-denial denial: “I’ve never heard Ralph complain about all the money he’s made off that home run.”

Not long after that, asked point-blank by Joshua Prager — who broke the sign-stealing stories for the Wall Street Journal and later wrote a superb book about the summer of ’51 called “The Echoing Green” — if he knew what was coming, Thomson still opted against a full-blown denial.

“I’d have to say ‘no’ more than ‘yes,’ ” he said. Pressed further, Thomson added, “I don’t like to think of something taking away from [it]. It would take a little away from me in my mind if I felt I got help on that pitch. My answer is ‘no.’ I was always proud of that swing.”

Branca, ever the gentleman, kept up his end of the bargain in that anniversary summer and beyond, and both men went to their graves having shared a forever moment that, somehow, has avoided further tarnish even as the Astros’ sordid scandal has brought the issue of over-the-line cheating back to the forefront of the national consciousness.

And nobody has ever suggested — not seriously, anyway — that the Giants should be forced to vacate their 1951 National League championship.

This all seems especially relevant as Jose Altuve absorbs day after day of questioning in what will surely be an endless season of interrogation. Altuve has become a walking episode of “CSI: Baseball,” because while it is clear that many Astros bent the rules these past few years, and if you accept such things as home-and-road splits it seems a lot of players benefitted more than Altuve, he is the one who has become the face of this scandal.

Jose Altuve Astros cheating scandal
This Jose Altuve moment has sparked a lot of controversy.EPA

That’s because he had a Bobby Thomson moment all his own last Oct. 19, 68 years and 16 days after Thomson caused delirium on Coogan’s Bluff. Altuve hit a 2-and-0 slider from Aroldis Chapman over the left-field wall at Minute Maid Park in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6 of the ALCS, and the Astros won the pennant.

When the commissioner’s office first issued its report, it seemed like the only evidence against Altuve would be circumstantial: somehow, although Chapman can reach 102 mph with his fastball, Altuve sure looked to be sitting on the off-speed pitch; Chapman’s bemused smile before he walked off the mound aided and abetted that theory.

But that was easily refuted by the fact that Chapman had used the slider often in that inning, had in fact inspired TV analyst John Smoltz to say, “That slider’s become a nasty pitch for Chapman. He doesn’t have to throw every pitch 101.”

Still, much like the video of Thomson jumping on his 1-and-0 fastball had stayed with Branca all those years, it would be video that seemed to indict Altuve: his odd reluctance to have his teammates paw at his jersey as he was greeted at home plate. No matter how often you watch, it seems … odd.

And the layers of excuses provided didn’t help. We were told he wanted to respect his wife and keep his shirt on. A few days ago, Carlos Correa said he was embarrassed by a bad tattoo. Do you believe that (even Monday, after Altuve revealed a tattoo with the name “Melanie” on his collarbone)? Does anyone?

Unlike Thomson’s ambiguity, Altuve insists he wasn’t cheating. But the Astros as a team have used up every benefit of every doubt. This is something Altuve will have to wear for the rest of his career, the rest of his life — like a bad tattoo. Ultimately, so did Bobby Thomson — although he died in 2010 so if it weighed on his conscience at all it was only for 10 years or so.

Altuve’s penance is certain to last longer than that. At least as long as a bad tattoo.

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