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As Michael Brantley came up to bat in the fifth inning an advert for a gym flashed up on electronic hoardings with the slogan ‘Home of the Judgement Free Zone’.
It could easily have served as the motto of a raucous and roofed Minute Maid Park, the Astros’ safe and loving place, hermetically sealed off from the harsh verdicts of a suspicious outside world.
To some here, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred is the villain for meting out punishments last year for the Astros’ 2017-18 sign-stealing scandal while others, perhaps, escaped notice.
He was heckled by a couple of fans while answering (really, not answering) media questions about the ongoing ructions ahead of Tuesday’s opening game of the World Series, Houston’s first appearance in the showpiece event since their dirty tricks were exposed.
“The Astros winning would be a great accomplishment for the Astros and people are going to make up their own minds about what it means,” Manfred hedged. Some of those minds might conclude that five successive ALCS appearances and three World Series trips in five years means that the Astros are one of the finest teams in MLB. Other minds might be of the opinion that since no players were sanctioned, cheats do, in fact, prosper.
Manfred was less evasive on the topic of the Atlanta Braves, whose name and logo, along with fans’ crass “tomahawk chop” gesture, seem increasingly untenable after Washington’s NFL team dropped “Redskins” from their name and given that the Cleveland Indians are rebranding as the Guardians for next year’s MLB season. Yet Manfred defended them: “The Braves have done a phenomenal job with the Native American community,” he said.
Still, the commissioner may wish to brace himself when the series switches to Truist Park for Game 3 of the best-of-seven-games Fall Classic on Friday. He is less than loved in Atlanta, too, for yanking last summer’s All-Star Game out of Georgia after an outcry when Republicans in the state’s legislature passed a restrictive voting law following narrow election losses to Democrats in legitimate elections. (Some might also call that a cheating scandal.)
In short, this is not a World Series with a surfeit of charm and cheer to captivate neutrals, with all due attention to Houston’s stellar sluggers and Atlanta’s implausibly impressive late-season and postseason form, maintained with a 6-2 win on Tuesday despite their ace, Charlie Morton, pitching through pain before departing with a fractured right fibula that will rule the former Astro out until next year.
The good news for the Houston fans who delivered their habitual deafening playoff atmosphere is that the “rally towels” they waved so enthusiastically for so much of a game that lasted over four hours can also be used to wipe away tears when your side is 5-0 down after three innings. Or cover eyes when your pitcher gives up the first Game 1 leadoff home run in World Series history.
One follower wore an orange replica jersey with “NOT SORRY 17” printed on the back.
Beyond the stubborn loyalty common to all fanbases, Houstonians are unlikely to forget the boost the 2017 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers gave to the city’s morale as it struggled in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
The Astros brought in a new general manager and manager, though many of the players remain. Appointing the universally liked Dusty Baker has proved an on-field masterstroke, even if at the time in January 2020, two months after the Athletic broke the story, it felt like a calculated PR move to address an image problem, as if Exxon had hired Tom Hanks to run their fracking business.
It would pain their detractors, but maybe the criticism has made Houston tougher: a ready-made us-versus-the-rest tale of the kind that often seems to fuel teams. The Astros are so used to heckling by opposition fans that by now they are hard-boiled and impervious to it. “There’s nothing that a crowd is going to do to us that’s going to get us off our game,” Brantley, the left fielder, told reporters this week.
Anyway, are there really to be no second acts in American League lives, as F Scott Fitzgerald wrote (more or less)? Should the 2021 Astros – who are surely playing fair – be impugned for the misdeeds of previous years? Is there a statute of limitations for trash-can bangers in the court of public opinion? Should we move on now, as they, and evidently Manfred as well, would like?
Former Astros manager AJ Hinch was hired by the Detroit Tigers after serving a season-long suspension while his bench coach, Alex Cora, was axed as Boston Red Sox manager for his role in the misconduct but rehired a year later following his ban.
Then again, this is a sport with a long memory, one that is slow to forgive. Pete Rose, exiled since 1989 for gambling, could tell you that. Steroid-era icons Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa are still not in the Hall of Fame and probably never will be. Mark McGwire did not come close.
Talk of reputation and legacy can be drowned out for now. The participants forget the noise of the narrative when they take the field to a sweeter sound. “You get so tunneled into where you’re at,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker. “It’s a baseball game, a really loud baseball game.”