“Karma” is a Hindu or Buddhist expression meaning “the sum or a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence viewed as deciding their fate in future existences,” or more informally, “destiny or fate, following as effect from cause.” So says Oxford Languages, the exclusive provider of Google’s English dictionary, which has never lied to me before.
Who else, beside me, saw karma at work when the Houston Astros defeated the New York Yankees and former Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole, 5-0, in game three of the American League Championship Series en route to a 4-0 sweep and a trip to the World Series? Let’s take a look back at 2019 . . . and then 2002 and 2007.
The Man Who Hates To Lose
Rightly or wrongly, Cole sitting in the bullpen, doing nothing, in game 7 of the 2019 World Series will forever be the lasting image burned in the minds of every Astros fan after their team went on to lose the game, 6-2. In that series, in which the home team lost every game, Cole lost 5-4 at home in game one and followed that with an overpowering performance to win game five, 7-1. Cole was arguably the best pitcher in baseball that year. His record was 20-5. He led the American League with a 2.50 ERA and a 2.64 FIP, and all of baseball with 326 strikeouts. Surely he would be available in relief if needed in game seven, right?
Not so fast. Cole was also in the last year of his contract, looking to sign a big free agent deal. He would do so with the Yankees at $36 million per year for nine years. There was some thought he didn’t want to risk an injury to his pitching arm by coming on in relief on just two days’ rest, for fear of jeopardizing his big payday. Mind you, none of this could have been derived from any public statements by Cole himself. He’s a fierce competitor who, while a Pittsburgh Pirate, my daughter dubbed The Man Who Hates To Lose.
Where was Cole?
However, it seemed a little odd that prior to game seven, Cole had met with Astros manager A.J. Hinch, together mapping out the circumstances under which Cole would pitch. It was something I couldn’t imagine Leo Durocher or Danny Murtaugh doing.
On that night, the Astros got good pitching from starter Zack Greinke, who entered the seventh inning ahead 2-0. After one out, he gave up a home run to Anthony Rendon, another pending free agent who would sign his own rich deal in the winter, followed by a walk to Juan Soto. Time for Cole? Hinch instead turned to Will Harris, who promptly gave up a homer to Howie Kendrick off the right-field foul screen. Hinch was widely second-guessed for the choice of Harris. This was simply Monday-morning quarterbacking in its highest form. Harris had been a reliable bullpen arm all of 2019, with a 1.50 ERA and .933 WHIP over 60 innings.
But as Washington kept adding runs against four more relievers, it became fair to ask, where was Cole? As the game got out of hand, he was seen sitting helplessly in the bullpen. He wasn’t going to pitch. Hinch later revealed Cole was going to pitch only if he could come into the game to start an inning with the Astros leading.
“I’m not an employee of the team”
After the game, Cole at first declined to do any interviews, bizarrely explaining, “I’m not an employee of the team.” He then relented and addressed the media while wearing a cap with the logo of his agent’s corporation and spoke of his time in Houston in the past tense. It was not a good look for Cole, who later admitted as much, saying he was just upset about losing.
Cole did get a nice ovation from Astros fans upon his first visit in a Yankees uniform in 2021. Any sensible Astros fan wouldn’t hold Cole responsible for losing the 2019 World Series. His sitting in the bullpen is more a symbol of a lost opportunity. Regardless, there had to more than a few Astros fans who saw karma in their team’s defeat of Cole in the 2022 postseason.
Bad karma for Baker
Current Astros manager Dusty Baker was a victim of bad karma himself as the San Francisco Giants manager in the 2002 World Series. His Giants held a 3-2 lead in games over the Anaheim Angels. In game six in Anaheim, the Giants led 5-0 in the bottom of the seventh. After starter Russ Ortiz surrendered two hits after one out, Baker came out to remove him. As Ortiz exited the mound, Baker handed him the ball to keep as a souvenir. It was seen as disrespectful to the Angels, although Baker later explained he was simply wanted Ortiz to remember having pitched well in a big game. In any event, the baseball gods frowned. The Angels rallied for six runs in the seventh and eighth innings, winning the championship the next night.
I think karma will smile on Baker and his Astros as they face the Philadelphia Phillies in this World Series. The Phillies remind me of the 2007 Colorado Rockies — not the best team in the National League, but the team playing the best at the end — and I can imagine the long layoff until the World Series killing their momentum. The 2007 Rockies, you will recall, won 15 of the last 16 regular season games and swept playoff series over the Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks. However, with nine days off until the World Series, the momentum was gone. The Rockies were swept by the Boston Red Sox. Sorry, Phillies fans. I’m rooting for you, but I see a similar fate for your team.