One of the most enthralling things about spring training to this point has been charting the reaction of opponents and fans to the Houston Astros.
Let’s put it this way: It has not been a positive experience for the team now dubbed the Asterisks.
Houston’s players are getting hit by pitches and their players are being heckled by fans intent to vent their anger about the sign-stealing scandal that has enveloped the franchise.
The Astros are going to have to get used to it. And they realize it. But that’s not going to make it any easier for them as they move from city to city this season.
In terms of opposing pitchers targeting their players, the Astros had already been hit eight times before last weekend even began. Major League Baseball understands this might be a problem – a few pitchers have hinted its likely to happen – and have already told opposing teams there will be repercussions if umpires determine pitchers are intentionally throwing at Houston players.
“Every team is going to handle it in their own way,” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said in February. “It’s baseball. I really don’t know what to say when we’re on the road. We’ll see what happens. But at the same time, we’re going to be focused on winning games.”
You can bet this is going to create a huge mess. You can anticipate situations where umpires will make snap decisions about the intent of pitchers throwing high and inside and ejecting them.
Those ejections are certain to lead to other ejections when managers and pitching coaches spring to the defense of their players. And those ejections could lead to suspensions that could alter the competitive balance in games down the line.
This is a major concern of teams who will play the Astros this season. Imagine what would result if umpires don’t allow pitchers to brush Houston hitters off the plate.
Those hitters will eventually come to the realization they more than likely will not be pitched inside, thereby giving them another unique advantage by being able to crowd the plate looking for more pitches thrown over the middle or outside corner.
But any potential competitive advantage the Astros gain from this will certainly be offset by the emotional strain from the abuse they are certain to get from fans in opposing cities.
Many fans feel they’ve been cheated or duped by those players on the 2017 world championship team. And they are angry about it.
There has already been evidence of this happening. On the day of their first spring training camp, security was instructed to take critical signs and banners away from fans holding them in the ballpark.
There is a video currently circulating of a fan pestering Astros players as they were sitting in the dugout during a rain delay. You can hear on the video the voice of an Astros player trying to give it back to the fan.
In a game last week in Port St. Lucie, Fla., the home of the New York Mets, loud boos erupted each time Astros centerfielder George Springer appeared on the field.
According to a report in USA Today, on Sunday against the Cardinals, Astros shortstop Jose Altuve was berated as he waited in the on-deck circle. The fan was insistent Altuve give his 2017 American League MVP trophy to the Yankees Aaron Judge, who finished second in the election.
And Astros outfielder Josh Reddick, who teammates say chose not to participate in the sign-stealing routine, reported that he and his family had been targeted with death threats.
There is only so much MLB is going to be able to do to stop this from happening. Although security guards will likely be posted around the Astros dugout, fans are still going to be able to hound their players on the field, in hotel lobbies, while they are sitting with friends at dinner.
The toughest part for the Astros is knowing they will not be allowed to react to the abuse by going after blustering fans. Even verbal responses to the heckling will likely be caught on someone’s cellphone and sent streaming across the world in an attempt to embarrass the players.
After manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were fired in the wake of the scandal, Astros management countered by hiring veteran Dusty Baker as their new manager.
The Astros hope Baker’s experience and calming demeanor not only will help the players, but defuse any problem the team may encounter with the media as it continues to dig for details.
“We’re gonna have to have each other’s backs this year,” Justin Verlander told Newsday in February. “It won’t be easy, but in the end, the play on the field will speak for itself and I hope that we make the baseball world proud and we make Houston proud, too.”