At the very end, when the Houston Astros sprinted out of their dugout for bear hugs and champagne showers and impromptu dance contests and all the rest, when Minute Maid Park erupted in a joyful roar that rocked the stadium to its foundation, when the players finally unburdened themselves of a bit of the emotional baggage they’d carried for two long years, there was a magical quality to this moment in the city’s sports history.

The Astros are back in the World Series after a regular season that frequently tested them, occasionally infuriated them, and ultimately hardened them and brought them together. Has the team vanquished its demons and buried the sordid history of its 2017 cheating scandal? To the fans who say they’ll never forgive the franchise, the answer is no. But the 2021 Astros aren’t paid to win back hearts and minds; they’re paid to win baseball games, and that’s exactly what they keep doing. 

By defeating the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, the Astros proved again that they’re a damn good team, a resilient team, and perhaps a championship team. That was the message of this ALCS after Houston was embarrassed in 9–5 and 12–3 losses to Boston in games two and three. After falling behind in the series, the team closed the clubhouse doors, talked things out, and reminded themselves to be the club that has been the American League’s best over the past five seasons.

“We talked, and we said we had to play better,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “We said this is not good enough. And we showed up.”

They picked themselves off the mat and outscored the Red Sox 22–1 over the final twenty innings of the ALCS, culminating in a 5–0 victory to clinch the pennant in Friday’s game six. On the field, it looked like something close to hardball perfection. 

Now four victories from winning their second championship in five seasons, the Astros open the 2021 World Series against the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday at Minute Maid Park. It’s the Astros’ third trip to the fall classic since 2017 and a teensy bit of closure to the sign-stealing scandal that diminished that season’s World Series victory.

“I’ve given up trying to figure out what the narrative is, whether success now will make people think different about the past and this organization,” said general manager James Click. “There’s nothing more we can do to change the past. There’s very little we can do to change how people feel about this franchise. But we had forty thousand fans here screaming their heads off today, and our goal right now is to win and keep winning.”

We’ll need years to digest everything that has happened with the Astros’ recent history. That the franchise appears likely to be remembered for something other than their talent, composure, and ability to play at its best when the stakes are highest is its own fault.

It may be true that other teams have engaged in similar crimes against baseball and have suffered few, if any, consequences, but in Houston, the franchise did itself no favor by mishandling almost everything after the scandal was first reported by the Athletic in 2019. The Astros mumbled apologies, which is just as well since they seemed to regret nothing, including getting caught. As penance, they might be better remembered for the scandal than for winning more regular seasons games between 2017 and 2021 than any other American League team, or for making the ALCS in five straight seasons and reaching the World Series in three of them.

That’s unfortunate, because these Astros are a joy to watch. This season, Houston led Major League Baseball in runs and batting average while striking out the fewest times of any team besides the Toronto Blue Jays. The starting rotation, boosted by rookie right-hander Luis Garcia, was one of baseball’s best. The team’s one glaring weakness, a shaky bullpen, received an upgrade thanks to Click’s dealing at this season’s trade deadline.

Indeed, that bullpen delivered 7 2/3 shutout innings in game four to help turn the ALCS in Houston’s favor. With the emergence of series MVP Yordan Alvarez and outfielder Kyle Tucker, the 2021 club is deeper and more potent on offense than the 2017 champs.

“We know what it takes to get to this point,” closer Ryan Pressly said. “We set out goals at the beginning of the year. When we set these goals out, we mean it. It’s not just something on a bulletin board or anything like that.”

What’s also obvious is that the city of Houston has embraced the team with a passion and energy that’s breathtaking to see and feel. With fans back in ballparks this season after pandemic restrictions forced MLB to play the 2020 season in empty stadiums, rival teams’ fans showed up in droves to boo and taunt Houston at away games, hoisting signs that said things like “ABCs of Cheating, Altuve, Bregman, Correa.”

This is how the Astros responded: they grew closer and rallied around one another. This is how their fans responded: they loved this baseball team, completely and without reservation.

“It’s brought up every day, so you have to see it,” team owner Jim Crane said, while wiping away tears during the ALCS victory celebration, of the anger Houston stokes in other MLB fan bases. “But I think it’s behind us. … We’re proud of the guys, and they’re great players. Great players that win championships.”

During this month’s playoff games, home fans delivered a wall of sound that will ring in the ears of José Altuve, Carlos Correa, and every other player in the Astros dugout for the rest of their days. Sometimes—not often, but sometimes—a team captivates a city to such an extent that it becomes the subject everyone’s talking about in corner bars, restaurants, churches, and offices.

When a team has been as good for as long as the Astros have been, it’s easy to take their excellence for granted. That is, until the rest of the world turns against them. When that happened to the Astros, every home game became an opportunity for Houstonians to stand up for their own. Over and over again, fans delivered the same message: You belong to us, and we are proud that you do. Pregame videos at Minute Maid Park proclaim: “Houston vs Everybody.”

At this point, the Astros have seen it all—posters with a picture of the World Series trophy and the words “Give it back,” the heckler at Yankee Stadium who put a particular New York vibe on his handmade sign, which read: “Altuve Biggest Rat in NY.” Houston embraced the role of villains. Correa thrived on the boos. Others tuned out the noise and focused on what they could control—their effort, their performance, and playing for one another. While the Astros were reviled on the field, they maintained a sense of calm within the club.

Amid fastballs fired at heads and inflatable trash cans tossed onto the field, the Astros won 95 games and spent the final months of the regular season atop the AL West division. They needed four games to get past the Chicago White Sox in a best-of-five division series that included Chicago reliever Ryan Tepera insinuating more foul play from the Astros (without offering proof). “They’ve obviously had a reputation of doing some sketchy stuff over there,” Tepera said. “We can say it’s a little bit of a difference. I think you saw the swings and misses tonight compared to, you know, the first two games at Minute Maid.”

To which Astros manager Dusty Baker replied: “I never even heard his name before until we played the White Sox.”

There’s no evidence the Astros have done anything illegal in a 2021 season that was remarkable on many levels. Perhaps most impressive is that the team has remained excellent on the field despite having rebuilt the roster to shore up the core of Altuve, Bregman, Correa, Yuli Gurriel, and Lance McCullers Jr.

Alvarez, who batted .522 in the ALCS, suddenly looks like the most unstoppable player on the planet. Lefty Framber Valdez held the Red Sox to one run in eight innings in game five’s 9–1 Houston win, and Luis Garcia followed with 5 2/3 innings of one-hit ball in game six.

Both pitchers had been hit hard in their first starts of the ALCS. Both were part of the team meetings and the one-on-one sessions with pitching coach Brent Strom that helped get both back on track. With Lance McCullers Jr. and Justin Verlander out with injuries, and with Zack Greinke pitching all of 1 1/3 innings in the entire six-game series, the Astros still had enough to win.

The ALCS may have turned in game three, when Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez pointed to an imaginary wristwatch as he walked off the mound after the sixth inning. That was his way of mocking Correa, who’d done the same thing after hitting a home run in game one, his way of telling the world “It’s our time.” (Sister Mary Catherine Do, a member of the “Rally Nuns,” made the same wrist-pointing gesture after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch prior to game six.)

So the World Series has its story line: Houston versus Everybody. The Astros are fine with that. Baker said his team was brought together by “sheer will, pride, belief, and love.”

“This group of guys, I’ll love them forever,” Correa said. “We stuck together, and we accomplished one of our goals. Now we have to go and win a World Series championship.”