One trash can tossed from the bleachers into the outfield—that’s clever. Two flying trash cans—that’s a message.
So is a fan holding a placard that says: “If you’re looking for a sign from God, the Astros probably stole it!” So much for “forgive and forget” when it comes to the 2021 Houston Astros.
That was the welcome the Astros received in Southern California, when they played the Los Angeles Angels in the first week of the new baseball season. Days earlier, in Oakland, Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” boomed from the public-address system. That day, A’s pitcher Chris Bassitt got the loudest ovation of the game for drilling Astros shortstop Carlos Correa with a 94-miles-per-hour fastball.
This is the check the Astros have written themselves for engaging in a 2017 sign-stealing scheme that may or may not have helped them win the World Series. Because news of the scandal was revealed after the 2019 season ended and COVID-19 forced MLB to hold its 2020 season in empty stadiums, this year will be fans’ first chance to express their displeasure with the Astros.
The early results? Well, it appears that the pandemic didn’t change baseball fans’ faith in the power of heckling. Or, perhaps fans are so thrilled to be back in the ballpark that they’re robustly engaging in their most inalienable right: to let the Astros—bless their cheating hearts—know that all is not forgiven.
By opening the new season with a six-game road trip to Oakland and Anaheim, the Astros got a full-on taste of what they’re going to encounter in every park, especially in New York and Los Angeles.
Here’s the larger question: will it matter? Battered reputations and the occasional flying trash can aside, the Astros may be talented enough to overcome it all and make a fifth straight playoff appearance. They won five of six on that first road trip and outscored the A’s and Angels 45–18. Because they’re good; really good. Their lineup, featuring the likes of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman, is one of baseball’s best; the front of their pitching rotation is excellent, thanks to Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers, and Jake Odorizzi; and the team returns an assortment of young pitchers who carried them to within a game of last year’s World Series.
But even if opposing teams find themselves incapable of beating the Astros on the field, fans outside of Houston will find ways to extract their pound of flesh. “You can tell the amount of hostility and the amount of hatred in the stands,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said after nine innings of listening to profanities hurled at his players and the constant banging of trash cans in the stands.
That weekend of boos in Oakland was a warm-up for the series in Anaheim, where those two trash cans were tossed onto the field during a game. The first can—an oversized, inflatable novelty item—caused little concern. The second, however, got the Astros’ attention. This one was no blow-up toy; it was a real garbage can that sent bottles, cans, and wrappers onto the field once it landed.
Perhaps the flying debris makes a fitting metaphor for the Astros’ reputation, but it also endangers the players and umpires. “Any time there are objects thrown on the field, I feel like a line has been crossed,” Astros general manager James Click said. “Booing is certainly one thing, but we’ve got to make sure that everyone stays safe.”
Only six members of the 2017 World Series champion Astros—or, as fan signs have named them, the “Houston Asterisks”—remain on this year’s roster. That doesn’t include Justin Verlander, who underwent elbow surgery in the fall and is not expected to pitch this season.
Cue the manager (and somber string music). “It’s a sad situation for America,” said Baker, who got the job after Astros owner Jim Crane fired A.J. Hinch over his role in the scandal. “I mean, what are the kids supposed to think in the stands? People make mistakes. We paid for ours.”
Actually, the players weren’t punished at all. Okay, they did pay in one way: their good names are gone, perhaps forever. Also, what was perhaps the finest moment in the long and often tortured history of Houston sports—the 2017 World Series—has been forever tainted.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred offered amnesty to players in return for their cooperation with the league’s investigation of the sign-stealing operation. That left them free to reap the rewards of the 2017 championship and all the rest of the team’s recent success. Third baseman Alex Bregman inked a six-year, $100 million contract extension to stay in Houston, while outfielder George Springer entered free agency and signed with the Toronto Blue Jays for $150 million over six years. Correa will probably score something in the $300 million range when he becomes a free agent after this season.
If that’s punishment, sign me up.
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow was also fired after Manfred’s report became public last year. But Hinch served the one-year suspension Manfred handed him and was then promptly hired to manage the Detroit Tigers. Former Astros bench coach Alex Cora returned to manage the Boston Red Sox after a yearlong suspension.
Okay, some background. Two years after the Astros won the 2017 World Series, it was revealed—by Oakland pitcher Mike Fiers, a former Astro, in an interview with the Athletic—that the club engaged in an elaborate scheme to steal opposing catchers’ signs by monitoring a video screen and informing batters what pitch was coming by banging a trash can.
The Astros were just about the coolest story in sports that year, a team that rallied around a hurricane-battered city (and vice versa) to deliver a feel-good ending complete with parades and tears and everything in between. Who couldn’t love watching these young men play with so much energy and passion, clearly having the time of their lives?
As it turned out, those little upstarts crossed some lines. When fans learned that the Astros had come up with a system that enabled them at times to know what pitches were coming, all hell broke loose. Amid calls to take away the 2017 World Series trophy, the Astros did themselves no favors by offering apologies that ranged from half-hearted to half-assed. They were booed loudly during 2020 spring training games, offering a preview of how the regular season would be, prior to COVID-19 forcing MLB to play last season without fans in the ballparks.
The 2020 season wasn’t entirely without incident. During a game at Minute Maid Park last July, Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly threw at Bregman and Correa, then made a crying clown face toward the Astros dugout on his way off the mound. Without live-game crowds, however, the Astros escaped the harshest repercussions they had coming to them. After underperforming in last year’s pandemic-shortened regular season, the team snuck into the playoffs with a 29–31 record, then got hot and almost wound up back in the World Series.
Athletes throw around phrases like “mental toughness” enough to rob the words of their meaning. Well, this season, the Astros will need genuine, next-level mental toughness—buzzwords won’t do.
“That’s fine. This is a veteran team,” outfielder Michael Brantley said. “We’ve been to the World Series; we’ve been in the playoffs. . . . They can boo, they can yell, they can do whatever they want. But at the end of the day we have each other’s backs, and that’s all that matters.”
If the Astros had a slightly different attitude, they might embrace the villain role, rally around the rest of the league’s animosity toward them, and just go ahead and add a trash can patch to their 2021 uniforms. In for a dime, in for a dollar.