Now that the 2021 baseball season is underway, the Houston Astros have a taste of what it’s going to be like to play in opposing teams’ stadiums this year — and well beyond. During their opening four-game series in Oakland, fans tauntingly displayed signs calling them cheaters and worse. There were mini-trash cans and other objects banged on to simulate what the Astros did four years ago during their cheating run to a World Series title.
There was lusty booing and cussing, like the fan who, with shortstop Carlos Correa in the on-deck circle, shouted, “You suck, Correa!” There was cheering when Correa was plunked on the left shoulder by A’s righty Chris Bassitt on Opening Day.
In Saturday’s Game 3, after Astros left fielder Michael Brantley — who’d already gone 6-for-9 with four doubles and a homer in the series — was hit on the right wrist by lefty Cole Irvin in Brantley’s first at-bat, a few giddy fans could be heard after the initial “ohhhs and ooohs.” Luckily, X-rays were negative and he’s only expected to miss a couple of games.
That’s the kind of treatment the Astros are going to get in opposing teams’ ballparks for years to come. And it’s what they deserve — except for cheering when a player gets hit.
But if the Astros’ impressive showing in that first series is any indication of how much they’re going to let the road reception affect their performance, it doesn’t look like jeers, name-calling and noise-making are going to have much of an effect on their play.
Houston walked into RingCentral Coliseum and dominated from start to finish, outscoring Oakland 35-9 and out-hitting the A’s 47-21 to win all four games with little challenge. In the 10 regular-season games the teams played in last year’s pandemic-shortened, 60-game schedule, the Astros scored only 25 runs.
In their four wins, the Astros hit eight home runs and had 20 extra-base hits, becoming just the fourth team in MLB history to score at least eight runs in its first four games (2003 Yankees, 1995 Red Sox, 1978 Brewers). Houston is not only 4-0 to start a season for the first time since 2001 and fourth time in franchise history — it’s the first time the team has ever opened 4-0 on the road.
And it’s not like they were playing some cellar-dweller or even a second-tier or mediocre club. They were playing the defending AL West champs, the same team that finished seven games ahead of the sub-.500 Astros last year before Houston surprisingly took 3 of 4 games from the A’s to win the AL Division Series.
Some of the offensive highlights:
DH Yordan Alvarez, who played in only two games last year before undergoing surgery on both knees after his 2019 Rookie of the Year season, went 5-for-17 with six RBIs.
Brantley was 6-for-9 with four doubles and a homer before getting hit on the wrist.
Third baseman Alex Bregman was 6-for-12 with two home runs and 5 RBI.
First baseman Yuli Gurriel was 7-for-15 with a homer.
Kyle Tucker only had three hits, but he had a homer and 7 RBI.
Second baseman Jose Altuve was 6-for-16.
And we haven’t even mentioned the Astros’ pitching, which limited the A’s to nine runs and 21 hits in the four games.
It’s the first series of a 162-game season, and every team endures multiple slumps along the way. But I don’t think anyone expected the Astros to go into Oakland, of all places, and take all four — especially in their first games in front of rowdy and ready-to-give-the-cheaters-hell fans since the scandal erupted after they lost in the 2019 World Series to the Washington Nationals.
But this team clearly has something to prove. Is it that they’ve learned their lesson(s) and won’t ever pull a stupid stunt like they did four years ago again? Is it that they always had a potent enough lineup to win a championship without resorting to skirting MLB rules? Or both?
Remarkable as it seems, only five players are left on the roster from the team that won the 2017 World Series over the Dodgers: Altuve, Bregman, Correa, Gurriel — the starting infield — and pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. That’s it.
Days before MLB announced in January 2020 its investigation findings that the Astros had cheated en route to winning that World Series and during part of the 2018 season, I wrote how disgusted and upset I was in the team I had been a fan of since early childhood. I said they deserved severe punishment and that it would take time for me to come back around to being as devoted as I’ve been for so long.
Yes, I still consider what the Astros did — cheating by using electronic means to steal opposing teams’ pitching signs to gain an advantage they didn’t even need — wrong and deplorable. They embarrassed their city and the franchise and made a mockery of a proud pastime by needlessly flouting MLB rules when they already had a lineup superior to most of the other teams in baseball, if not all. Ultimately, they were fined and fired their GM and manager (who’s back in baseball as the Tigers’ skipper).
But the players who carried out the plot while at the plate — by acting on the signals they received from the less-than-imaginative strategy of banging on trash cans — faced zero repercussions. Every player who took part in the shenanigans should have come clean. To my knowledge, only Correa did.
There should have been some kind of penalty against each of them, whether financial or suspensions. As it is, their only punishment is the rough treatment they’re going to get from opposing fans in every stadium the team visits not only this season, but likely for the rest of their careers.
Obviously this late in the game, a substantive punishment against the players involved isn’t going to happen. Some, like Evan Gattis and Josh Reddick, are out of baseball.
The Astros have always been, for the most part, a classy organization until this astronomical mistake, along with their ill-advised signing of a reliever accused of domestic violence (Roberto Osuna), and the embarrassing incident of the assistant GM who ranted profanely to a group of female reporters about Osuna’s value after the Astros beat the Yankees to punch their ticket to the 2019 World Series.
As a 50-plus-year fan of the Astros, I hope the whole franchise, from front office to coaches — most of whom are gone — to players — again, most of whom are gone — have learned their lessons from all of these transgressions and will think twice before doing anything that might bring shame to the franchise, the city of Houston or their own names.
It’s one thing to proudly and boldly defend yourself in the face of accusations if you have nothing to hide, but the franchise only made itself look petty and classless — the antithesis of what it’s always been — when these controversies blew up. When you’re caught screwing up, man up and take your punishment.
It may seem somewhat hypocritical, but although I’ll never forget what the Astros did — and you can bet no one else in the baseball world *ever* will — I’m giving them another chance. If they do something equally brainless and arrogant, they might just lose this fan for good.