First came the bangs, then the bombastic barbs and eventually, the boos.
Now, four years after the worst of their baseball sins helped them to a World Series championship, two years after their indiscretions were revealed, the Houston Astros haven’t stopped dominating the American League – even if they’re still seeking the one thing may prove more elusive than even a second, more legitimate World Series title.
The baseball? Oh, that just keeps taking care of itself. Tuesday, the Astros faced the full throats of 40,000 Southside Chicagoans whose team was only tangentially hurt by Houston’s subhuman sign-stealing scheme, yet joined with fans across the country disgusted that the game could be besmirched in such a fashion.
So the fans – egged on by an unfounded accusation by White Sox pitcher Ryan Tepera – booed heartily, and levied charges, admittedly accurate, of “Cheater!” at the appropriate Astros and then sat in silent misery at what unfolded before them.
The cheaters in question, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman, all but posterized the White Sox in Game 4 of this American League Division Series, Correa erasing a 1-0 deficit with a two-run double, Bregman ambushing a 3-0 pitch for a dagger two-run double of his own, Altuve providing a 416-foot coda, a towering three-run home run off All-Star closer Liam Hendriks.
It was Altuve’s 19th career playoff home run, bidding farewell to Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson and greeting former teammate George Springer hello, the duo now tied with Albert Pujols for fourth all-time in postseason homers.
Eleven of those homers have come since 2019, after any documented Astros sign-stealing, powerful testimony that Altuve, in fact, is skilled in the art of pulverizing a baseball without the aid of a teammate providing the pitch selection via trash can.
Yet the Astros are just about over the stat-parsing. When Tepera, channeling an NBA coach mid-playoff series griping about the refs, levied his accusations, the Astros responded with talk of home-road splits, that they still scored six runs in Game 3, that the swings and misses were mostly aligned.
By now, though, defending such barbs often leads to a big pile of whatever.
“Listen,” starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. mused to reporters after the series clincher, “unfortunately for us, we did what we did and people are always going to be able to draw back on that, whether they want some retweets, or want some Instagram quotes, or they want to be heard, or they want to throw shade at us.
“But I think what we did today, here, spoke volumes.”
McCullers knows better than to think all the vitriol is merely the result of online clout-chasing. Fans were mad, are mad, may always be mad in some cases.
At the same time, the body of evidence in Houston’s favor only grows. Friday night, for the fifth consecutive season, the Astros will take the field for the AL Championship Series. It’s a span that goes back into the heart of their 2017 cheating, through the supposed crumbs of the scandal in 2018 and into yet another pennant run – this time with MLB hall monitors ostensibly posted up – in 2019.
MOVING ON: Astros finish off White Sox in ALDS, advance to fifth consecutive ALCS
REPUTATION: Dusty Baker responds to Ryan Tepera’s cheating suggestion
It stretches through the silent season of 2020, where the Astros were supposed to get their comeuppance from fans but a global pandemic intervened, sparing the Astros’ ears but not the sinking feeling that their medicine would someday be taken. And yet they rolled through an empty Target Field in Minneapolis, a neutral Dodger Stadium in L.A. and Petco Park in San Diego, as if the ALCS was their birthright regardless of location and circumstance.
That they blasted 22 home runs in 13 playoff games, and nearly joined the legendary 2004 Boston Red Sox as the only clubs to erase 3-0 deficits in a playoff series mattered little.
If they didn’t know it then, they do now, after a season’s worth of boos from each corner of the map.
So what choice is left, then, to close ranks and ball?
“Positive energy lasts. Negative energy dissipates,” says Dusty Baker, their 72-year-old manager brought in to clean up after scandal-stained A.J. Hinch was dismissed. “I don’t know if they feed off it necessarily, but we’ve been constantly bombarded by negatives, you know, especially on the road. But these guys, they come to play, and they love each other.”
The beloved Baker could divert from any scandal with his soothing tones and timely name-drops, and Tuesday’s selection was Bill Russell – not his former Dodgers teammate, but the 11-time NBA champion.
Baker says he was chatting with his good friend Russell one day and asked him why his Celtics were so good, expecting coach Red Auerbach or some other tangible to emerge.
“He told me that they loved each other,” Baker recalls. “And love can take you to heights you never thought you could get to. And they feed off of each other and pull for each other on a daily basis. And one guy falls down, and the next guy, you know, picks him up.
“You know, I love this team. And the city loves them, and that’s what counts.”
Friday night, that love will be back, October-style. Minute Maid Park should be stuffed to its roof for Red Sox-Astros, for the third playoff series against the clubs in four years.
And for a change, the opponent – not that many really could, anyway – won’t be able to claim an unfettered moral high ground.
The Red Sox manager is Alex Cora, probably the best in the business right now, certainly when it comes to navigating the modern playoff minefield. The Astros bench coach in 2017, he played no small role in the sign-stealing scandal, and his World Series champion 2018 Red Sox also were busted.
Should Red Sox fans be so daft as to play the cheater card on the Astros, the cries will surely ring a little hollow.
Publicly, the Astros would like to have you think they don’t keep score. Their greatest player, pending free agent Correa, modulates from anodyne to defiant, allowing after the game that it was “sad” that Tepera levied that accusation.
“Because we came out hungry,” he said.
Baker might dispel that notion, that the team puts on blinders and earmuffs and blocks all of that out.
So we’ll meet them in the middle. The players, undoubtedly, have a CVS-sized receipt of their haters, perceived and real. Yet the skipper probably has a point, too: It’s awfully hard to achieve when external friction elicits a reaction.
“You can’t hold any animosity and hatred,” says Baker, who has managed five teams into the playoffs and is seeking a second World Series trip, “because all that does is eat you up, and that’s negative energy, which doesn’t last. Positive energy lasts.
“You know, negative energy dissipates.”
The Astros are still waiting on that. For now, they can only crawl toward absolution one hit, one victory, one series at a time.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Astros may never silence the boos despite a fifth straight ALCS trip