Opinion: Houston loses, America wins

2017 scandal still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of fans four years later. Was it worth it?

The scene was set — bottom of the ninth, one on first, two outs. 10:30 p.m. in Houston, Texas, in game six of the World Series. It’s a cast of characters that you would never have expected. Seeing them in this position would have been improbable to even consider in October. To imagine it back in July? Preposterous. And yet, here we were. Will Smith set his feet on the 0-2 pitch and watched it fly.

I’m going to level with you all real quick: I’m not a Houston fan. As you can guess by the title, I am, in fact, strongly anti-Houston in every way possible. The Texans, Astros and Rockets are all my sworn enemies in professional sports. During the college selection process, I made sure to avoid anything from Houston. No Rice, no University of Houston, none of it.

However, in the particular case of the Astros, my hate is almost universally shared by baseball fans. Leading into the 2021 World Series, Twitter data showed that only three states were primarily supporting the Astros: Texas, Louisiana and, interestingly enough, Delaware. Why Houston has fans in The First State, I have no idea.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Astros — a team that includes José Altuve, Carlos Correa, Yordan Alvarez and Alex Bregman — you may question why so many people root against them. However, for those familiar with the last four years, the answer is easy to find.

On Nov. 1, 2017, the Houston Astros won game seven of the World Series over the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was the first championship for the franchise and the first championship for Houston since the 1995 Rockets won the NBA title. It took over 20 years, but H-Town could finally celebrate.

2018 looked to be more of the same. The Pittsburgh Pirates traded ace pitcher Gerrit Cole to Houston at the start of the season. The batting lineup was still sending balls into the upper deck. All signs pointed to success. They made it to the 2018 American League Conference Series before getting mauled by Boston.

“Oh well,” some fans might say. “The Conference Series is still a great outcome!” Worse was to come. Analytics, aces and elite hitters assembled for an all-star cast. Houston looked set for success heading into 2019. The Astros were a dam: strong, unyielding. In Game six of the ALCS, the dam started to crack.

In the bottom of the ninth inning, star second baseman Jose Altuve sent a dagger into the hearts of Yankees fans with a walk-off home run to left field. They were going back to the World Series. This might not seem like such a bad thing but wait. Rounding third base, Altuve saw his team surrounding Home Plate, ready to celebrate. He yelled something to them, which looked like, “Don’t take my shirt off.” He ran to the dugout, changed into the ALCS championship shirt and took an interview. When asked why he didn’t remove his shirt, Altuve said his wife was upset about the last time he took his shirt off and that he was modest. Then, later in the offseason, his story changed. He “had a tattoo that wasn’t healed yet.” Okay, a bit fishy, but whatever, it happens. More cracks began appearing in the dam.

On Nov. 12, 2019, “The Athletic” released a report. A whistleblower within the Astros organization revealed that the team had engaged in sign-stealing using a camera mounted in center-field. A covert team inside Minute Maid Park would then read the sign and relay whether the pitch was a fastball or an off-speed pitch by banging on a trash can. This had gone on for years, including during the Astros 2017 Championship Run.

This bombshell sent questions flying in every direction. How deep did it go? Who was involved? But the biggest spotlight of all shone down on the star of the franchise, Jose Altuve. Suddenly, that incident in the ALCS looks a lot more suspicious. Why didn’t Altuve want his shirt off? Did he have a buzzer? Fans went through games to find the evidence for themselves, and it was hard to ignore. One Astros fan, Tony Adams, went through every at-bat for the Astros at home, and he heard the distinctive “bang” from a trash can over 1,100 times.

Before we continue, allow me to shed some light on the context. Sign-stealing has been around since the beginning of the sport. Catchers signal to the pitcher what pitch they want, and an opposing player can read the sign. So if the Astros stole signs, what’s the big deal if everyone does it? The Astros broke the rules of sign-stealing by using technology — in this case, a camera in center-field — to relay the signs, as opposed to a runner on base winking to the batter. Baseball is a sport based on respect and pride, and an extreme violation such as this would not be allowed to go unnoticed. The dam was starting to fail.

The championship was tainted, carrying the stench of scandal. Fans’ reactions were livid. Key players like Altuve, Bregman and Correa became some of the most hated men in the MLB. Key Astros staff were fined, suspended and fired. The spite died down for a time. That is until the MLB dropped the ball.

Looking back, the reactions to the scandal would have been much better if the MLB had given the championship to LA. The Astros would lose their rings. The trophy would come to the Dodgers for the first time since 1988. Repercussions would punish the team, and all would be right in the world.

Rob Manfred, the MLB commissioner, released a statement. The MLB would not strip the Astros of their 2017 title, and no players would be suspended. Furthermore, Houston players’ reactions were seen as nonchalant, which drove the fans wild. They had cheated, and they showed no remorse.

The dam was broken, and a tidal wave crashed down on Houston. Players from across the league spoke out on the scandal, with superstars Mike Trout (Los Angeles Angels), Cody Bellinger (LA Dodgers), Aaron Judge (New York Yankees) and Kurt Suzuki (Washington Nationals) all reacting.

“Everyone knows they stole the ring from us,” Bellinger said, referring to the 2017 title.

“They cheated,” Trout added as spring training camps began. “I lost respect for some of those guys.”

Once the games got underway, the Astros felt the consequences of their actions. Pitchers, typically very proud and traditional athletes, got their revenge in the only way they could: A fastball to the ribs. In just the first five games of spring training, Houston batters were hit by seven pitches. Though it’s not uncommon for batters to occasionally get hit (the typical response to a home run is a ball to the back), this rate was unparalleled. The average HBP rate across the MLB was 0.41 in 2019; during 2020 Spring Training, the Astros were operating at 1.40.

The fan reaction was intense, with fans rolling into 2020 spring training with one sole purpose: Make life miserable for the Astros. The team earned themselves the nickname of the “Houston Asterisks,” as a nod to the many requests to mark the championship in the record books. They banged trash cans at almost every game. Jose Altuve, the face of the franchise, earned the title of “Jose Al-boo-ve,” owing to the jeers from the crowd anytime he stepped up to bat.

Even a global pandemic wasn’t enough to stop the cycle of fury, with fans carrying their hatred over into the next season as well. For the first time since the scandal broke, the Astros returned to LA on Aug. 3, 2021. Fans sold out the game, with the stadium filling as the players warmed up almost an hour before the game. Spectators carried trash cans to the game, threw debris onto the field at Houston players and booed loud enough to cover the sound of the PA announcer with each Astro at-bat.

Looking back on the events of 2020, many people ask whether or not the Astros deserved this hatred. The almost fanatical reaction against the team was extreme but warranted. Houston broke one of the most sacred rules in baseball and then doubled down on top of it.

In some ways, I’m sure that much of the hatred against Houston isn’t so much for the way they cheated but the way they reacted. The lack of remorse showcased by the athletes, ownership and fanbase led Houston to the incredible title of being supported by almost no one. A team that made a living on trash cans threw their last four years in the garbage. Ironic.

So here we are — bottom of the ninth, two outs. Atlanta leads by seven, a runner is on first and there’s an 0-2 count. The pitch and the swing. Welcome to a moment in history, as called by Joe Buck.

“Left side, Swanson! To First! THE BRAVES! ARE WORLD CHAMPIONS!” It was over. Houston loses. America wins.