Empty ballparks and the Astros: Are MLB's newly appointed villains still feeling the scorn?

Tim Brown
·MLB columnist

On the question of whether there remains a mandate to hate the sullied and dastardly Houston Astros, there should first be a reminder to consider life over the past four months and ask if a baseball player or team is even worth that sort of emotion.

Onward.

The Astros did cheat, they were caught, they do have rings and a trophy to show for it and these things do burn deep, so the guess here is a few months without the Astros — or the game — changes little. Empty ballparks may alter the volume, but personal demons and public trolls will have their say, somehow, as nothing is so drafty as an exposed conscience.

It has been mentioned — often, actually — how a suspended season saved Astros players from the nightly ridicule that would come in places such as Oakland, such as New York, such as L.A.-adjacent Anaheim, such as anywhere that is not Houston. But, then, that’s a rather shallow view considering, you know, why the season was suspended. Given the option of boos or none, in that case, Astros players almost certainly would vote boos and whatever else the bleachers thought they had coming.

[Still time to join or create a fantasy baseball league for the short season]

Well, it’s almost baseball time again. Like everyone else, the Astros have clunked through a few workouts, dodged some positive tests, endured some delayed tests and done a fair amount of griping about the tests. They are due to open their season next Friday at home against the Seattle Mariners before hosting the Los Angeles Dodgers for two games, a potentially awkward 48 hours given … you know.

So, the Astros playing baseball games again is likely to remind many that the Astros are a very good team with very good players who not that long ago won a World Series because, oh yeah, the trash can thing, the big investigation, the three managers and general manager who were fired as a result, the dozens of players who were not punished in any way, and then all the weirdness that ran alongside the apologies.

Trevor Bauer, the Cincinnati Reds pitcher, showed up for summer camp wearing a “TrasH-TOWN, Houston Cheated” T-shirt, and wrote in The Players’ Tribune just this week, “Baseball hasn’t forgotten about the Astros, by the way.”

A snippet: “Just understanding the temperature of baseball players and coaches around the league, and the sentiment of how many players were upset with how the Astros conducted themselves — not only the cheating scandal, but also pointing a finger in everybody’s faces and mocking them. There’s a lot of bad blood toward them.”

A’s lefty Sean Manaea said of the Astros on a Bay Area radio station recently, “You guys are already legit. Why do you have to cheat? … I really don’t have that much respect for any of those guys.”

It’s the sort of stuff that will follow them, it seems, through early series in Anaheim and Oakland and, if the season gets that far, a mid-September series in Los Angeles. None of this will have a lot to do with the baseball, but the Astros as a concept do suddenly have an ability to carry a conversation.

Last seen, back when the virus meant just keeping your hands away from your face as much as possible, they seemed emotionally spent. Four months ago, with the season apparently approaching, I asked new manager Dusty Baker if his team was breathing yet. We were in Port St. Lucie. New York Mets fans would spend the afternoon banging on trash cans and heckling players both familiar and not. 

Reporters had stared for weeks, looking for clues in José Altuve’s gait, in Alex Bregman’s eyes, in George Springer’s expression, wondering what was waiting out there for these Astros and how they would endure the worst of it and how much they could carry.

New Astros manager Dusty Baker elbow bumps with shortstop <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/9573/" data-ylk="slk:Carlos Correa">Carlos Correa</a> during a summer camp workout at Minute Maid Park. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
New Astros manager Dusty Baker elbow bumps with shortstop Carlos Correa during a summer camp workout at Minute Maid Park. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Baker sighed and hitched up his pants and said, “No. Not yet. You know, some are. Some aren’t.”

Then he mentioned something about people and the art of forgiveness, adding, “They talk about it. But they don’t.”

That was on March 8. On Wednesday, July 15, I asked again. Baker was on my computer screen along with a couple dozen reporters, all in their little boxes. He wore a gray mask. It puckered and ballooned as he spoke. He turned 71 a month back.

“Um, well, they’re breathing better,” he said. “You know? I see more smiles. Actually, I see more joy, you know? At the time four months ago, you have a good memory, that was a tough time. That was a real tough time. There’s been a lot to happen. This has been probably the most tumultuous four or five months I — we have all — lived in. And it’s really given us all a sense of what’s really important. And prioritized a lot in our lives. We’re in a different time and space than we were four months ago. It seems like. … It doesn’t seem like four months ago. It seems like it’s been a whole year. It was, boy, it was a tough time those last four months. And we’re still in it. We’re not out of it yet. It’d be different if we were looking back upon it, but we’re still kinda in the same position or maybe even worse than we were then.”

Then I asked if these Astros, after about 12 days of sporadic workouts and intrasquad games, those coming off three and a half months of quarantine, were more ready to play baseball games today than they were in the middle of March. If the distance had done them some good. And this is where Dusty went very Dusty, the way he can grin — or puff out his mask — and start talking and pull you along willingly on a zigzagged journey.

“Yes,” he said. “And I think, that’s why I’m hoping there won’t be any stoppages. I’m hoping that we do play, because I think people need, you know, a release. People need to have a distraction, so to speak. And some excitement. 

“Right now, it’s like a bad sci-fi movie. Or a bad B-movie. It’s even like, when I was home, it was like ‘Groundhog Day.’ I was doing the same thing every day. I just didn’t see Bill Murray, but it was like ‘Groundhog Day.’ You know, days are going quickly, but you were doing the same thing almost every single day. So, I think people are ready … I mean, I watched every Western movie, I watched a bunch of movies I would have never watched. I missed sports. I don’t like watching reruns. I don’t like watching the 1981 World Series. People asked me did I watch myself on TV? I don’t like watching myself on TV. I don’t even like watching when I knew the outcome of the game. So, yeah, we’re ready for a change, I think.”

It starts again for them next Friday night. Minute Maid Park will be mostly quiet, except for the artificial ambience. They wouldn’t have been hated there no matter what. That was going to be the easy part, playing under that banner and in front of friends. Besides, the quiet won’t be that bad.

“These guys,” Baker said, “I think they got a great memory on the energy that’s in this park, the spiritual energy that’s in this park already. Because this park was rocking. There’s still some of the spirit in this ballpark, whether it’s from above or whether it’s people at home. They tried to pipe in some noise during our intrasquad games. Doesn’t quite sound like crowd noise yet. It’s kinda like, I thought somebody had left the water faucet on, to tell you the truth. Everybody’s like, ‘Hey, man, you hear that water runnin’?’ ‘No, I think that’s the crowd noise.’ So, we have to improve on the crowd noise.”

Dusty Baker laughed. The demons and trolls are out there. It’s almost time again.

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