When certain Houston Astros players dig into home plate at Fenway Park during the American League Championship Series, they no doubt will continue to hear the verdict issued by baseball fans. In 2019, they were charged and convicted with cheating. Major League Baseball issued a $5 million fine to the organization and suspensions to the manager and general manager but not the players, leaving franchise stewards José Altuve, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa to serve their life sentences in away ballparks.
So when the ALCS shifts away from the protection of Houston, the three representatives of the scandal will walk onto Fenway’s grass, bats in hand, as the cries of “Cheater!” cascade from 38,000 or so judges in the stands. This being Boston, they probably also will sprinkle in a few spicy words for good measure.
Justice will be swift, loud, relentless. And effortless.
Through the escapism of sports, it’s comforting to think in terms of winners and losers, cheaters and rule-followers, the good guys vs. the black hats. Fans will forgive – or at least sooner forget – sins committed away from the field of play but won’t accept Bregman’s wooden apology about “the choices that were made” during the team’s escapades of stealing signs.
How easy, therapeutic even, it is to cup our hands over our lips and, from the deepest reaches of our souls, unleash the lustiest boos upon the athletes who play dirty or demand a trade or disgrace our favorite teams’ logos, all crimes committed on the field.
“You can tell the amount of hostility and the amount of hatred in the stands,” Astros Manager Dusty Baker said after an early season loss to the Los Angeles Angels. “How many in the stands have never done anything wrong in their life? We paid the price for it. How many people have not cheated on a test or whatever at some point in time?”
Baker’s just sticking up for his guys, and if there was some way to root for Baker getting his first World Series ring as a manager and the Astros imploding in the ALCS, baseball fans would take it. But with all due respect to Baker, the black hat perfectly fits his Astros. Deeming them the new evil empire saves fans from considering more complex issues of morality.
It’s way more fun to heckle Altuve, who provided a sketchy excuse as cover when he was accused of wearing a signal-transmitting buzzer during the 2019 ALCS against the New York Yankees, than it would be to look too deeply into Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena’s arrest in Mexico last November after an alleged dispute with his child’s mother. The woman declined to file charges, and Arozarena was released.
Hating the Astros is a much easier game to play than holding the Los Angeles Dodgers accountable for employing Trevor Bauer, who at the very least had a problematic and public history of harassing women online before he signed as the team’s prized free agent, with the biggest annual salary in MLB history. The organization would very much like to distance itself from the pitcher-in-exile while the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office weighs sexual assault charges against Bauer. Even though he’s starved for attention and tweeting vapid baseball takes throughout the playoffs, Bauer’s shadow doesn’t hang over the Dodgers when they play on the road.
Sure, the Astros have a messy past in dealing with violence against women – after their 2019 ALCS clincher, the former assistant general manager taunted a group of female reporters about a pitcher who had been accused of assaulting the mother of his child – but that’s not why baseball’s fans root against them.
Everyone outside of Houston hates the Astros because in sports, fans like to keep things simple. They like their villains to twirl the end of their cartoonish mustaches while doing something deemed devious – between the lines. The ambiguity that surrounds accusations of sexual assault or the absence of charges filed after an arrest is complicated, layered and abstruse, and sports fans don’t do complicated, layered and abstruse.
They don’t have to reconcile why a judge denied a restraining order request from Bauer’s accuser even though a nurse testified her injuries from a sexual encounter with him were “alarming.” They don’t have to weigh in on what is consent and what is criminal behavior in the bedroom. With the Astros, sports fans don’t have to think. Just boo.
Real life is complicated enough. Humans are still divided by tribal and political lines. We fight over masks and vaccines while there’s no end in sight to a global pandemic that is approaching its second full year. Sports can be a respite from the real world, although societal issues no longer will pause at the ticket booth.
Judging the Astros offers a moment of unity, a one-sided debate with an evident bad guy.
The cheating three never faced punishment from MLB. With their insincere apologies, lame excuses and oblivious defiance – if Correa wants to die on the hill that Altuve “earned” the 2017 American League MVP award, let him – they showed a morsel of remorse and were allowed to play on as if they hadn’t sullied a game that so many people still believe in.
They will remain the favorite villains for as long as they play the game because their offenses are hard to forget – and easy to digest.