Houston Astros vs. Washington Nationals, Feb. 22, 2020. Photo by Larry Elkin.
I have never set foot on a major league baseball diamond, yet I consider myself one of the latest victims of cheating by the Houston Astros.
I don’t mean cheating in the sense that I am a fan and customer of the sport whose three most recent seasons are now tainted by Houston’s efforts at closed-circuit organized crime. I don’t mean cheating in the sense that the New York Yankees, the team of my childhood (albeit not adult) fandom, may have been done in by the Astros’ self-described “dark arts.”
I believe the Astros literally cheated me out of a few bucks. And I am talking about the 2020 Houston Astros, the team that bears the burden of atoning for its predecessors’ sins.
Early last Friday I realized that my travel schedule was perfect for taking in a spring training game the following day. I needed to drive from Fort Lauderdale, which is south of all the spring training complexes on Florida’s east coast, to Palm Coast, which is well to the north. I just had to pick a game and arrange my driving schedule for Saturday so I could stop and enjoy it.
I mostly follow the New York Mets these days. But they were due to open their Grapefruit League season with a split squad, meaning half their players would be at a different game elsewhere. The Miami Marlins, my secondary team, are hard to watch during the regular season, let alone after a winter layoff. But there it was, a gem on the schedule: The Astros would be playing the Washington Nationals on Saturday evening at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Yes, the two teams that met in a memorable World Series last year share a spring training facility, only 45 miles from my home. It was perfect.
I bought my $41 ticket – you can get a good seat at the last minute if you are attending solo – and arranged my schedule to allow adequate time. When I arrived, though, I found myself fighting traffic to get into the ballpark anyway. More than 6,000 of my fellow Floridians and visitors had the same plan as me. I entered the packed FITTEAM Ballpark just as the first batter strode to the plate.
It was only then that I discovered that on Friday, after I had purchased my ticket, Houston manager Dusty Baker announced that none of his regular players would appear on Saturday. Not one. I had come to see stars like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and George Springer face the music and take their hacks. Instead, the Astros marched out 10 guys (they were the home team and the designated hitter was allowed) seemingly recruited at the Wawa convenience store on nearby Belvedere Road.
The Nationals did their share. They started ace pitcher Max Scherzer. He threw 22 pitches over two scoreless innings, striking out two batters. So the chum that Baker tossed out to absorb the fans’ boos and spare his stars’ feelings actually acquitted themselves pretty well, all things considered.
Baker mouthed some diversionary platitudes about giving the youngsters a chance. He gave them a chance on Sunday, too, keeping his veterans on the bench. He finally started those veterans on Monday – on the road against Detroit, in Lakeland, Florida. They got booed there, of course, but it did not stop Houston from crushing the Tigers 11-1.
Spring training scores and outcomes don’t mean anything. The games don’t count. By May, when the regular season stats begin to accumulate, nobody even remembers what happened in Florida in February.
But character counts, always and everywhere. And the Houston organization seems to keep demonstrating a deficiency in that aspect of its game. We saw it last year, in the clubhouse ugliness involving then-assistant general manager Brandon Taubman and Sports Illustrated writer Stephanie Apstein. We saw it in the team’s insincere-sounding pseudo-apologetic press conference at the start of spring training. And as far as I am concerned, we saw it again on Saturday night. The Astros took fans’ money to see some major leaguers get in a few innings’ work before the traditional transition to young prospects, but they failed to deliver the goods.
It’s not a big deal to me, this post aside. The game was called after Scherzer’s two innings, when rain squalls blew in off the Gulf Stream. I was just as happy to climb back into my car and head on up to Palm Coast. The Astros did not produce the product their customers paid to see, but I figured there was no big surprise there. The Nationals made up for it. They may not be my team of choice, but they are legit champions – and they know how to play the part.