Daniel Stuckey of Woodinville had savored watching the Astros at Minute Maid Park in 2017 during business trips to Houston, and why not? They were an exquisitely talented team that would go on to win the World Series in seven games over the Dodgers.
Stuckey appreciates good baseball, no matter who’s playing. Scratch that — he hates the Yankees. And also the Dodgers, being originally from the Bay Area. The Astros, though — they seemed to be a team to grudgingly admire, even for a Mariners diehard.
But then we found out the dark, dirty secret of their sign-stealing espionage that tainted the championship, and the organization. Which is why Stuckey, adorned in a Kyle Seager jersey, was at T-Mobile Park on Friday, booing the Astros lustily for nine innings. It was a pastime shared by virtually all of the 8,967 in attendance.
“They were giving an astounding season back then, right? They were playing games they won, like, 14-4,” Stuckey said. “So it was extra egregious to find out it was all a lie. It’s just like Lance Armstrong.”
For baseball fans, this season is allowing a cathartic release of vitriol toward the Astros that was deferred for a full year when COVID-19 kept everyone home in 2020. Cardboard cutouts might have glared disapprovingly, but they couldn’t yell, “Cheaters!” as several leather-lunged patrons at T-Mobile did, in various colorful iterations and phraseology.
This being Seattle, it was a well-behaved scolding. Not like Oakland, where the Astros opened the season and faced a mean-spirited cacophony of non-stop scorn. Not like Anaheim, where the game had to be stopped when a fan threw an inflatable trash can onto the right-field warning track during a Jose Altuve at-bat, and again when a real trash can was thrown onto the field later in the inning.
That all caused Astros manager Dusty Baker — the highly respected lifelong baseball man who was hired to help restore credibility to the organization — to complain, “It’s a sad situation for America to me. It’s easy if you live in glass houses but I don’t think anybody lives in glass houses. I think sometimes we need to look at ourselves before we spew hate on somebody else.”
What I saw in Seattle was less hateful and more, well, earnest. Using the highly scientific “A-Rod scale” of fan venom in Seattle, I’d give it a 4.5 out of 10. Perhaps it might have been a different vibe if a capacity crowd had been allowed, and it was a year earlier.
The references to trash cans, of course, are a nod to the Astros’ infamous system of telegraphing pitches to their batters via a garbage can. I wandered the stands at T-Mobile for several innings Friday and didn’t see any trash cans, though I did hear some banging sounds of unknown origin. And I saw one sign that read, “Bang bang bang. Off-speed pitch.”
In fact, signs needling the Astros were everywhere. Stuckey and a friend each held one over their head for virtually the entire game, one that said, “You can’t steal this sign,” and the other reading, “My peaches are out in Georgia. My cheaters are out in Houston.”
Other signs I saw as I roamed the concourse, as well as via binoculars from the press box:
“MLB (hearts) cheaters”
“Altuve 4 Sign Stealing MVP”
As it turned out, Jose Altuve wasn’t anywhere to be seen. The 2017 American League MVP and prominent face of the Astros skipped the trip after being placed on the injured list. Also absent were star third baseman Alex Bregman, designated hitter Yordan Alvarez, catcher Martin Maldonado and utility infielder Robel Garcia. Houston general manager James Click said they were put on the IL “as a result of the health and safety protocols” regarding COVID-19.
That’s a significant chunk of the Astros’ might (and identity) missing — not to mention George Springer, the MVP of the 2017 World Series who signed with Toronto in the offseason.
Carlos Correa and Yuri Gurriel were left as the most prominent members of the 2017 Houston ballclub for Seattle fans to focus their ire. No worries. They vented on everyone who stepped onto the field, up to and including Alex De Goti, who was making his major-league debut. De Goti endured a chorus of fervent boos as he stepped to the plate for the first time in the third inning. Tough league, kid.
If you want to speak of karma, consider this: when the Mariners rallied for a 6-5 walkoff win Friday, it marked the sixth straight Houston defeat after a 6-1 start.
If there’s an ultimate comeuppance for the Astros, the Mariners would like to see it come via the standings. For all their transgressions, they are still the standard of the AL West division, having made the playoffs four straight years and advancing within a game of a third World Series appearance last year.
The Mariners would like to think they are on the verge of breaking out their own run of success, after modeling the Astros’ purge-and-prosper rebuilding method. Of course, the presumption is that they are doing it cleanly, which puts them a step ahead.
Meanwhile, the Astros are braced for a lonely season of gritting their teeth and enduring the cheating backlash. In the midst of all that booing Friday, I heard one voice in the crowd stand out above the din:
“You’re going to hear it all year!”