WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – So, what now?
The apologies have been recited, and in some cases even spoken from the heart. Now, the Houston Astros venture into a 2020 season where they’ll be subjected to jeering fans and the occasional misguided fastball that might find their backside.
Major-league players are already on record that that would be appropriate recourse. Thousands of fans are disgusted by their behavior.
And the Astros know all this. The questions they will ponder now:
Will their stint as baseball’s heels last so long as Jim Crane owns the team, and stars like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa remain core players?
And what, if anything, can they do to flip what appears to be an ironclad script this season?
“This will probably be something that will be spoken about for a long time,” said outfielder Josh Reddick. “It’s something we’re going to have to learn how to cope with and put behind us and play baseball.
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“When we do win, that will be the best way to get over it.”
At home, anyway.
On the road, fans are already organizing to jeer them; a fan group representing the Los Angeles Dodgers – beaten by the Astros in the now-tainted 2017 World Series – will travel to Anaheim when the Astros pay their first visit, simply to try and extract a pound of flesh – figuratively.
That term could take on a more literal connotation between the white lines. Cleveland Indians ace Mike Clevinger said that he believes it’s not “going to be a comfortable few ABs (at-bats) for a lot of those boys, and it shouldn’t be. They shouldn’t be comfortable.”
In a sense, turnabout is fair play. The Astros were long suspected of illicit sign-stealing by rivals, nudging them from vigilance to paranoia when it came to mixing up their signs and giving the team something of a mental edge, even on nights they didn’t cheat.
Now, when an Astro takes a fastball off his body, he may very well wonder if it was one that got away, or something more intentional. Extra padding and earplugs both may be required wear.
“As a team, we’re ready for anything, man,” says shortstop Carlos Correa. “We know we were wrong so we gotta be responsible for what we did and go on the road and see what happens.
“It’s not going to be a fun season on the road.”
Any notion of image rehabilitation will not be measured in days, weeks, or perhaps even months. Certainly, if the Astros handle the indignities hurled their way with aplomb, and keep winning without any (known) cheating, that could certainly help tilt the narrative.
The core of the club remains young: Correa (25), third baseman Alex Bregman (25) and center fielder George Springer (30) will be playing this game for a very long time.
Absolution may take years – perhaps even after some of them are Astros no more. Springer and Correa are eligible for free agency after this year and next, respectively.
“We don’t want to be remembered as a team that cheated to win a championship,” says Correa. “Obviously, we feel terribly about that; it’s not what we want. That’s why we want to focus this year and be able to gain the confidence from our fans again and help us bring a championship to a city and see we’re just really good players.
“It doesn’t take away from the fact that what we did in ’17 was wrong. And I get it. I love this game too much to be seen as a cheater.”
The Astros – with Major League Baseball monitoring video rooms and dugouts thanks to regulations implemented since their 2017 title – nearly won the 2019 World Series, ostensibly by not cheating, at least not in the way they did in ‘17. Their star-studded roster got by OK without sport’s most notorious trash can.
It will help that the congenial and highly respected Dusty Baker will manage their 2020 team, an emergency appointment after MLB suspended, and Houston subsequently fired, manager A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow in January.
One of the team’s most significant publicly-facing figures, at least, will have no connection to ’17.
“I just want to ask for the world, the baseball world, to forgive them for the mistakes that they’ve made,” he said, wisely using “them” instead of “we.”
“And we’re looking forward to an excellent season this year in a great town that’s a great baseball town, and we want to bring a championship back.”
And how to regain credibility?
“Win. We win, we shut everybody up,” Reddick insists. “It will be difficult to deal with, absolutely, but this is a great group of guys; we’re a great team anyway. We go out there and win, we’ll be fine.”
For a team that’s won at least 100 games three consecutive seasons, but has eroded public trust in baseball like no scandal in the past two decades, the winning will surely be the easy part.