Are the Houston Astros winners or losers? They won their first two playoff matchups—but they lost more games than they won in the regular season. The team still has a World Series trophy—but they lost the hearts of baseball fans everywhere when their cheating scandal was revealed last November. Looking back on a messy year, the Astros have prompted more questions than answers, and they have more haters than fans.

With their worst winning percentage since 2014, the Astros squeaked into this year’s playoffs (expanded from ten teams to sixteen as a result of COVID-19). The most hated team in baseball finished with a 29–31 record, becoming one of two teams ever to make the playoffs with a losing record. The unlikely playoff berth, a sweep of the seemingly cursed Minnesota Twins, and an upset over the Oakland A’s put the Astros in the championship series for the fourth year in a row—a reality that rankles fans across the league who would rather see the team fail miserably as penance for all that cheating and sign-stealing. Those who’ve waited for the Astros to fail may soon get their wish, as the team fell to the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday, two games to zero.

A recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times embodies the ire against the Astros, with columnist Dylan Hernández writing, “There is no justice. There is no karma. And the trash-talking, finger-pointing, tone-deaf [Astros shortstop Carlos] Correa could soon be coming to prime-time.” Despite the article’s histrionics, it represents a pervasive frustration of fans around the MLB who feel the Astros’ lack of contrition about their wrongdoings is among their gravest offenses. 

Correa inflamed those tensions last week after the team’s wild-card win, saying, “I know a lot of people are mad. I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here. But what are they gonna say now?” Unsurprisingly, the public had a lot to say. Generally, the sentiment was that Correa should have read the room and refrained from bragging.

As an Astros fan, I’ve spent ample time wrestling with my fandom. I’ve had hours-long conversations about the team’s misdeeds. I’ve commiserated with like-minded fans about how we wish we knew the outcome of the 2017 World Series definitively, without cheating involved. I’ve hung my head and admitted the shameful realities to friends who root for other teams. But to suggest that a team needs to continue to genuflect ignores the fact that bravado and confidence are central to a sport as psychological as baseball. Moping into the playoffs is a pathway to an early exit.

Many saw Correa’s statement as a misguided assumption that others are just jealous of the team’s success rather than still angry about the cheating. However, much of the well-deserved criticism that has been lodged against the Astros this season does hinge on conflating the team’s success with their cheating. Undeniably, they cheated, and cheating is inexcusable. Standing on that ground leaves no room for response. But as detractors levy accusations that the players were only good because they cheated, they open themselves up to clap back from athletes. 

Like the team they love, Houston fans live in the shade of the Astros’s mistakes. I’ve been asked to explain my fandom of the team as much as they’ve been asked to explain their actions. The players aren’t reading the angry tweets that clog the comments of every post by the Astros’ official account. So, while fans may not be direct targets, they end up bearing the brunt of the ridicule online. Longtime fan Tony Adams, like many others, has begun to grow weary of the holistic hatred of the Astros. Adams has supported the team since 1978 and expects “to be a fan of the team long after these players are gone.” He created the site, where he dived into the sliminess and logged as much data as he could about the exact depth and effect of the Astros’ cheating. He has clearly denounced their behavior. Adams likes to say that too many people are hating on the front of the jersey (the Astros as a whole), when it’s the back of the jersey (the individuals) who deserve condemnation.

After all, 78 percent of the 2017 roster is no longer with the organization, and manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were fired. Carlos Beltrán, the purported mastermind of the scheme, is now retired. Many more 2017 Astros exist outside of the organization than in it at this point: Marwin Gonzalez (especially guilty of using the sign-stealing system) on the Twins, J.D. Davis and Jake Marisnick on the Mets, Max Stassi on the Angels, Dallas Keuchel on the White Sox, Charlie Morton on the Rays, and the list goes on.

Which brings us back to the most egregious line in Hernández’s column: “Outside their ever-affable rent-a-manager, Dusty Baker, there’s nothing likable about these Astros.” Explicitly stating that there is nothing to like about any part of the organization just seems inaccurate and dishonest. 

Most people outside the fan base fail to realize that out of fourteen pitchers on the active roster today, just one was with the team in 2017, and six are rookies. These young pitchers vastly exceeded all expectations. A delightful tweet from the Class A+ Fayetteville Woodpeckers features side-by-side photos of young pitchers Enoli Paredes and Cristian Javier, who played together for the minor league franchise just last year. On the left, in a casual snapshot, the pair lounge in the dugout wearing Woodpeckers caps. On the right, they stand tall against the backdrop of Dodger Stadium, the recognizable orange star logo emblazoned on their shirts. This is the stuff baseball dreams are made of. 

Don’t forget lovable veteran Zack Greinke, who joined the team last year and has never earned a World Series ring. Greinke’s antics this season, giving the batter signs before he throws or reclining on the infield grass while the grounds crew repairs the mound, have been pure gold.

Perhaps most important, pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. had the good sense to decry the labeling of Correa a villain, describing him as a great husband and father who contributes to humanitarian efforts in Houston and his native Puerto Rico. Being a good person off the baseball field in no way absolves an athlete of cheating. But it does elucidate a fundamental truth: humans are not villains or heroes. Even the best and worst of us are complicated beings capable of both good and bad. As a fan, I haven’t forgiven the Astros for their cheating, but the Astros are bigger than a handful of players or a few seasons of baseball.

Three years removed from the apex of the team’s cheating scheme, they look much different and face fundamental questions of identity. This offseason, the team could see the departure of center fielder George Springer and longtime right fielder Josh Reddick. Correa has just one contract year remaining. Rising newcomer Kyle Tucker has been the team’s bright spot. What percentage of the 2017 roster must remain for the team to be the same “Astros,” worthy of ire? How do fans condemn the cheating but keep loving their team while league-wide ridicule persists? And who will the Astros be in 2021?

At the end of the 2017 season, the Astros were champions; the cheating scandal then left that victory in question. In 2019, they were left with the bitter taste of a World Series defeat. Even with the postseason salvage of their 2020 season, this year ends with the inescapable mark of shame. What comes next is anyone’s guess. But being a fan is about being there through it all to find out.