On May 26, the Houston Astros were playing the Los Angeles Dodgers at Minute Maid Park, and two opposing fan groups had been jawing at each other since the first pitch. By the top of the fourth inning, things got ugly. According to at least one bystander, an Astros fan got physical first, but the altercation ended with a Dodgers fan brutally pummeling the Houston supporter until he was bloody. The Dodgers fan’s young daughter sat screaming and crying in an adjacent seat until another Astros fan scooped her up to comfort her. Three men received misdemeanor citations for fighting in public and were banned from the ballpark for a year.
It’s not clear if the fight stemmed from bad blood around the cheating scandal that still hangs over the Astros. With the easing of COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings at sporting events and in states throughout the country, it’s possible that the return of live sports has created an outlet for pent-up aggression and misbehavior from fans who, to put it delicately, may have forgotten how to act. The opening round of the NBA playoffs was stained by several ugly incidents involving fans, and physical altercations have broken out at several MLB games this season. At a Rockies game in May, a San Diego Padres fan knocked out a Colorado fan with a single punch. Later that month, a brawl erupted in the stands at the Chicago White Sox’s home field.
University of Texas psychology professor Art Markman says bad behavior has always existed at sporting events. “They’re energetic situations in which people get highly engaged,” he explains. But our recent isolation and charged social atmosphere could compound the tension in public settings. “On top of the normal aggression you might see, you have a certain amount of anxiety with people reverting from the pandemic, [and] we’ve had a very contentious political year,” Markman says. “People are learning how to be together again in large groups.”
Beyond these explanations, Markman sees the Astros cheating scandal as another variable that could lower the threshold for tension to ignite into violence. “In order to get to the point where you’re being really aggressive, like fighting, there has to be something that motivates you enough,” Markman says. “Definitely the cheating scandal, particularly because of the success the team had while cheating, creates that kind of energy that could push people over the top. It provides that sense that ‘I can really hate you, because you guys are evil.’”
As fallout from the sign-stealing controversy has continued this season, Astros games both in and outside of Houston have felt like powder kegs that could explode at any moment. In the first series of the season, fans in Oakland threw a trash can onto the field. On the night that Dodgers and Astros fans brawled in Houston, bystanders said they saw three other fights break out during the game. At Yankee Stadium, fans have been chanting “F— Al-tu-ve!” even when their team isn’t playing the Astros. Trash talk is part of sports, but when it leads to violence, it’s worth asking if some fans are carrying it too far.
Ashley Buzzy McHugh, the spouse of former Astros pitcher Collin McHugh, has seen ugly fan behavior up close—both at the ballpark and on social media. “In 2019, there were players getting threats to their DMs and social media accounts that we legitimately had to report to the FBI,” McHugh says. She recently tweeted that “baseball (macro) has gotten exhausting and not fun … there’s so much grumpy energy, paranoia, bad blood, etc, i’m tired.”
Though some baseball fans decry the Astros’ sign stealing as a violation of the sanctity of the game, cheating has been a part of the sport for as long as baseball has existed—from the Chicago White Sox throwing the World Series in 1919 through the post–World War II abuse of amphetamines and the Steroid Era of the late nineties and early aughts and all the way up to the current rash of pitchers doctoring the ball with foreign substances to gain an extra (and illegal) edge over batters. Of course, fans should want the game to be played fairly, but in the end, our hysterical response to these transgressions erodes a central reason we watch sports—enjoyment.
The combativeness goes beyond fans’ verbal and physical spats at MLB games to social media, where almost every Astros post devolves into an argument about cheating. It seems obvious, but it should be noted that no Astros fans asked the Astros to cheat. “I didn’t bang any trash cans,” says Astros blogger James Yasko. “I wish they didn’t do it, but I’m not going to apologize to anybody,” he adds. Though Yasko says the scandal initially bothered him, a full year of abuse from rival fans has hardened his attitude into something more pugnacious. Now, he says, “You kind of lean into it just to find a little bit of enjoyment.”
On the field, Astros star José Altuve has often been a focal point of fans’ aggression—even though data suggests he didn’t take advantage of the team’s sign-stealing system. In a recent road game, Toronto Blue Jays fans booed and mocked Altuve every time he came to the plate, even though George Springer—another key member of Houston’s 2017 squad—is the highest-paid player on the Blue Jays’ roster. Likewise, the Astros were taunted in Boston, where 2017 Houston bench coach Alex Cora—whom the league penalized for his role in the sign-stealing scheme—now works as the Red Sox manager.
“Fan is short for fanatic,” says Emily Nyman, a Yankees fan and host of the podcast Breaking Balls. “People lose all sense of reality and rational thinking when it comes to their sports teams.” New York fans have been among the most critical of the Astros, but Nyman doesn’t care much about the cheating scandal. In a tweet earlier this month, she wrote: “PSA: Your favorite MLB team cheats in some capacity, whether it be sign stealing, PED use, or foreign substances on baseballs. Chances are they’re doing all 3, or at least 2/3. So pls dismount your moral high horse & come to grips with it.”
Her warning may be an omen for fellow Yankee diehards, since the team’s star pitcher Gerrit Cole has been implicated in MLB’s ball-doctoring controversy du jour. Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer, a strident critic of cheating, has also come under fire after the spin rate on his pitches—a metric aided by applying sticky substances to the ball’s surface—dipped following news of the MLB’s intent to crack down on the illegal practice. Live by the scandal, die by the scandal, it would seem.
“When you talk about the sign stealing or the sticky stuff, it all traces back to players acting on the negligence of the league,” says Adam C. MacKinnon, cohost of the Romantic About Baseball podcast. MLB’s failure to enforce its own rules, in a league rife with unwritten codes and open secrets, encourages players to exploit every advantage—until they get hung out to dry as examples. Ultimately, with cheating so pervasive, taunting a team for it feels a bit hollow “Teams, players, and fans—we arbitrarily draw lines between the kind of cheating we’re okay with,” Nyman says. “It’s usually because it’s being done by another team—that’s when we’re suddenly not okay with it.”
We watch sports for enjoyment and to root for something larger than us that represents our city or community or country. Fandom should be about rooting for the team you love, not lambasting the ones you don’t. Perhaps that’s too idealistic, but the death threats, bloody fisticuffs, and social media rage that dominate today’s conversation around baseball suggest we could all use a little more camaraderie in our seventh-inning stretch. When we reach the point of treating rival fans as mortal enemies, it means sports are reaching the point when they’re no longer fun.