HOUSTON — Here’s the thing: The Houston Astros really are just that damn good. They were that damn good in 2017 when they were cheating, and they are still that damn good in 2021 when, it’s reasonable to assume, they are not. And no matter who they face in the World Series, which they’re heading to for the third time in five years after dispatching the Boston Red Sox in impressive fashion Friday night, they play a brand of baseball worth savoring.
If you are from Boston or New York or Los Angeles or, perhaps better put, are a baseball fan anywhere outside of the Houston metropolitan area with a pulse, the previous paragraph may cause teeth-gnashing, eyebrow-furrowing, nausea, irritability or any number of other reactions typically listed on a TV commercial for a new pharmaceutical. The Astros are Major League Baseball’s villain, and nothing beleaguers fans – baseball, football, wrestling, any sort of entertainment really – quite like the heel finding success.
It’s just that since the Astros became baseball outlaws, they’ve also become something else: the second team ever to reach five straight American League Championship Series and the first to go to three World Series in a five-year span since the Yankees in 2002. Two full decades of baseball, and no team has mustered what the Astros locked in with a 5-0 floor-wiping of the Red Sox in Game 6 of the ALCS at Minute Maid Park.
The first appearance in the trilogy led to a championship that’s now disgraced because of the sign-stealing, trash-can-banging scheme that accompanied it, and the second ended with a Game 7 loss weeks before the revelation of that scheme. But these Astros are far enough removed from the versions in those series to appreciate this team for what they is: a fearsome assemblage of hitters, an excellent group of fielders and a team that has cobbled together enough pitching to find itself four wins from another ring.
Even those who despise the Astros can’t help but respect them. They play the kind of baseball that doesn’t exist anymore. They led MLB in batting average. Struck out the fewest times. Fouled pitches off more than anyone. Swung and missed at the lowest rate in the league. All of the things they did so well when they were cheating — they still do those things now.
Which, of course, might lead even a not-particularly-cynical person to think they still are. And that, as much as anything, is the consequence of what the 2017 Astros did. It didn’t just sully that championship; it also cast skepticism on their pursuit of any further ones. So why is it reasonable to assume they’re not running afoul of rules anymore? Beyond the utter hubris it would take to cheat again, the combination of MLB’s crackdown on in-game electronic communication and the shame that chases the Astros everywhere they go are compelling.
Beyond that, there is the knowledge that winning clean does change the Astros’ narrative. It makes what they did in 2017 even sadder than it already is — yes, in the same way Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez’s use of performance-enhancing drugs is sad. It wasn’t necessary.
These Astros, like the 2017 version, are excellent. Though they lost George Springer, they may be a superior offensive team now. Yordan Alvarez, the 24-year-old slugger and ALCS MVP, went 4 for 4 in the clincher with a pair of doubles and a triple and batted .524 in the series. Kyle Tucker, the 24-year-old right fielder, walloped a three-run home run that took an uncomfortable two-run lead and turned it into a five-run cushion. Both spent more of 2017 in the low minor leagues.
Luis Garcia, who pitched brilliantly in Game 6, is 23 and spent 2017 playing in the Dominican Summer League. Framber Valdez, 27, shut the Red Sox down in Game 5 and still hadn’t made his big league debut in ’17. Both helped limit Boston to five hits total over the final two games. Alvarez himself had seven.
After how poorly the Astros handled the revelation of their cheating, how long it took them to apologize, how they bungled more or less everything about the aftermath, the possibility of any sort of recognition for what they’re doing today not seen through the lens of what they did in the past was lost for most. It hardened the players, made them even more insular than they were. It’s odd when people derive motivation from their own misdeeds, but that’s exactly what the Astros did.
“We’ve made mistakes in the past, but you can’t go back,” said injured starter Lance McCullers, one of the few members of the ’17 team still in Houston, alongside first baseman Yuli Gurriel, second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Alex Bregman and shortstop Carlos Correa. “All we can do is continue to move forward, play good baseball, stay within our clubhouse and our fan base and our amazing city, and just do our thing.”
That thing is win.
Yordan Alvarez discusses the Astros advancing to the World Series and how much they proved in beating the Red Sox.
“We were talking about it the other day,” Correa said. “It was me, Altuve, Yuli, Bregman. We’ve asked the same question. We said, ‘Why? Why do we keep showing up and getting it done?’ And we came to the conclusion that it’s because we hold each other accountable. And what I mean by that is we expect everybody to be better than previous year, and we expect everybody to show up in great shape. So whenever everybody in our organization shows up to spring training, and they take their shirt off, the first thing we do is look at everybody. Why? Because your body’s gonna tell us if you put in the work and if you’re gonna try to make us a better team this year. We make sure that they prepare every single day to help us win because we know that the four of us can’t get it done by ourselves.”
They didn’t. They needed Alvarez and Tucker and Michael Brantley, whose professional at-bats remain a hallmark, and Martin Maldonado, the catcher whose half of a strike-’em-out-throw-’em-out double play to end the seventh inning was magnificent. They needed Valdez and Garcia and Phil Maton and Kendall Graveman, two trade-deadline acquisitions who in Game 6 served as the bridge to Ryan Pressly, who secured the final out.
When A.J. Hinch, their manager, was fired in early 2020 following MLB’s report on the scheme, they needed stability, too, and Dusty Baker took over and provided a semblance of that. Baker is 72. He hasn’t reached a World Series since 2002, when he was managing the San Francisco Giants. That’s four teams ago. Around the game, Baker is beloved, and for anyone who refuses to appreciate what the Astros do on principle alone, not rooting for Baker is like not thinking chocolate is good.
“Game 6 has been my nemesis in most playoffs and that’s what I was thinking,” Baker said. “I mean, you got to get past your nemesis. I was afraid of electricity when I was a kid, so now I’m an owner of an energy company. You try to get past things in your life.”
You try to get past things in your life. There may be no better way to describe the 2021 Houston Astros. They know that nobody will feel sorry for them when they get jobbed on ball-strike calls, like reliever Ryne Stanek did twice in the same eighth-inning at-bat. They know that when Correa does things like look at his wrist and tap it, saying the postseason is “my time,” that it will be met with derision, whereas if Fernando Tatis Jr. did it fans would love him for it. They know that outside of the 713, 281 and 832 area codes, they’re still the bad guy.
And that’s fine. Fans are allowed to feel how they’re going to feel, because fandom is at its heart an emotional and irrational thing. But amid the booing and sneering and everything else that’s about to hit the Astros, whether in Atlanta or Los Angeles, there should be a kernel of truth everyone recognizes, as much as it may pain them to do so.
The Astros are that damn good. And if they win another World Series, it shouldn’t surprise anyone.