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UM, WHAT IF THE ASTROS WIN THE WORLD SERIES AGAIN?
After hurling vitriol and debris, irate Dodgers fans now realize post-scandal Houston remains an elite team, setting up a potential Cheaters vs. Victims rematch — with Mad Max — that would shame MLB
The inflatable trash cans were perfect, proving ballpark culture has evolved in southern California from a dopey beachball era. The orange foam asterisks worked, too, as Chavez Ravine shook from a hostility earthquake — tens of thousands of enraged fans, packed in a Delta variant superspread mass, chanting “Cheaters! Cheaters!’’ at the team that illegally stole signs, alerted hitters via can-banging and cost the Dodgers the 2017 World Series.
What wasn’t so cool were the vicious threats, the increased security, the baseballs heaved onto the field and the full 16-ounce beers splashed in the faces of Houston fans, which gives me pause as I deliver more distressing news to the people of Los Angeles.
In three months, the Astros could win the World Series again.
The takeaway from two nights at Dodger Stadium isn’t that cheaters never prosper. It’s that they somehow manage to survive and thrive in the 21st century, even if they are never forgiven or respected. In this case, the video villains deftly have moved forward from the scandal and no longer are bothered by the abuse, instead feeding off it with a smug confidence surely useful if they return for the mother (bleeper) of all Fall Classics.
The deathly, derogatory chants at Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa … the ferocious boos from early in batting practice to deep in the night … the pent-up vitriol from learning 19 months ago that their Dodgers had been swindled out of a championship … it all went into the waste bin, so to speak. The Astros won 3-0 in their first game in L.A., with fans in the stands, since Major League Baseball announced its investigative findings. And though the Dodgers rebounded Wednesday night behind the thunder of their latest nine-figure-contract hired gun, generational arm legend Max Scherzer, Houston clearly DOES NOT have a problem.
“It’s the most fun I’ve had pitching in quite a while,’’ said pitcher Lance McCullers Jr., who threw 6 2/3 shutout innings Tuesday night. “I enjoyed the reception and felt comfortable. There was a lot of booing, but I liked it. I enjoyed pitching in games and environments like this.’’
He’s one of only five players from the title team that remain on the active roster, joined by Altuve, Correa, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel. The drastic turnover doesn’t matter to opposing players and fans throughout the sport, who see “Astros” on jerseys and think “Assholes.’’ The lingering stench is that commissioner Rob Manfred granted immunity to the cheating players and didn’t force Houston to vacate the championship, allowing owner Jim Crane to skate and keep the trophy. Had Manfred issued stiff penalties to players participating in the scheme — and not simply let general manager Jeff Luhnow, manager A.J. Hinch, bench coach Alex Cora pay with their jobs as negotiated scapegoats — the animosity would have subsided by now.
So it would serve Manfred right, in a convoluted sense, to stand amid a champagne celebration and have to hand another trophy to Crane and an MVP award to Correa or Altuve. And it could happen — the Astros own the American League’s best record and the Dodgers, with their embarrassment of riches and resources, remain favorites to successfully defend the World Series title they finally won last fall. From an entertainment perspective, the matchup would far exceed anything else this sport could muster before its likely plunge into a crippling labor impasse.
Purists and most Dodgers fans would hate it, though. My advice would be to move on, as the Astros have, or risk a rotted soul in the postseason. It’s fascinating how Houston personnel who weren’t around for the 2017 scam, which extended to the following season, have embraced the new mission. You’d think they’d prefer distancing themselves from the ignominy, but there is Dusty Baker, who hasn’t won a World Series in four previous managerial stops, sensing a quirky way to end his career triumphantly at age 72. After dealing with the initial bitter storm last year, without fans in parks, Baker is having fun with the rancor that continues to follow his club at every enemy stop.
“That was a playoff atmosphere. These fans are in love with the Dodgers. I was here, and they indeed bleed Dodger Blue,’’ said Baker, who wore the L.A. uniform as a player in the 1980s. “Boy, it was exciting. It's not often that I would love to play in a game because I'm so far removed from playing, but this is a game I would've enjoyed playing in."
He loved it because the din of 52,692 spectators, the largest crowd at an MLB game since 2019, was quieted by his team’s airtight performance. How revealing that the Astros weren’t rattled by the commotion but the Dodgers were at times, with pitcher Walker Buehler having to pause for outfield cleanups. “It was definitely hard to get Walker into a rhythm with so many timeouts to clear the field of debris and stuff,’’ catcher Will Smith said. “That does affect the game.’’
Said Buehler, the Cy Young Award candidate: “Obviously there was a few stoppages in the game, just stuff going on the field. We get it. It's an interesting thing because I think the emotion is warranted, and I think there's not a whole lot we're gonna do to change that.’’
Consider the last comment to be his best pitch of the night. No amount of riotous revolt can change the outcome. Now that the fans have vented, why keep obsessing over a four-year-old story? The Astros will keep their trophy forever. Cora is managing in Boston, where he won a World Series two years ago, and Hinch is the skipper in Detroit. Only seven Dodgers directly burned by the scandal, including Clayton Kershaw and Justin Turner, remain on the team. Pitcher Joe Kelly’s purpose-pitch/pouty-face incident with Correa, which made its way onto songs and t-shirts when he said “Nice swing, bitch,’’ happened last year. So did Cody Bellinger’s back-and-forth with Correa, with the Dodgers slugger saying, “I thought Manfred's punishment was weak, giving them immunity. These guys were cheating for three years. I think what people don't realize is Altuve stole an MVP from (Aaron) Judge in '17. Everyone knows they stole the ring from us.’’ It prompted Correa to reply, “If you don’t know the facts, then you’ve got to shut the f—k up.’’
Correa also had a retort for Kelly in the eighth inning Wednesday, ripping a solo homer that started an Astros rally that fell short in a 7-5 loss. As he rounded third base, he cupped his ear, wanting to hear more boos. His wife, Daniella, tweeted, “That felt good,’’ adding a GIF of a “Schitt’s Creek’’ character sporting — you got it — a pouty face.
Think they’re disturbed by any of this? They have no shame, with arrogance and denial as their weapons. “You have no choice. You either thrive or you succumb to it,” Baker said. “If you succumb to it, then the crowd has won. You have to support and thrive for each other. It’s sort of a survival tactic.”
Scherzer countered with his trademark competitive fire, striking out 10 Astros (including Altuve three times) with heat averaging 95.2 mph in a performance that ended with … would you believe, a curtain call? The fans don’t care that he arrived only because the Dodgers, with their colossal organizational power, can play choose-your-superstar every July and December. Mad Max is theirs now, ready for the “Trash-stros,’’ one of the rare polite insults.
“The fans were great. When the crowd is nuts like that, you definitely can feed off of it,’’ Scherzer said. “To go out there and pitch well and have the fans ask for a curtain call — I’ve never had that happen. It was a cool moment, something I’ll never forget.
“You use it to your advantage. You can’t overdo it, or you’ll lose your mind. You’re human. You have 50,000 people going nuts, and, of course, you’re going to feel some adrenaline.’’
Adrenaline? It was Scherzer who created it. “That was one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever been in,’’ said Mookie Betts, who homered twice in the win. “It was amazing to be a part of. Being able to see everything and how he works … that was just a great thing to witness.’’
Said manager Dave Roberts: “It was awesome. It was fantastic. From the moment we got to the ballpark, you could feel that anticipation from our guys. The buzz in the crowd from the first pitch, him taking the mound for the first time … he delivered. Just the intensity, it was so much fun.’’
Assuming the Astros no longer are cheating — and with MLB and other teams watching their every move and twitch, how could they be? — what matters now is who wins the games. In that sense, the pressure is on the Dodgers after their latest bigfoot transaction, acquiring Scherzer and Trea Turner from Washington as they try to fend off pesky San Francisco in the National League West and avoid a harrowing one-game playoff with San Diego. The Astros will have a tough postseason road, navigating Tampa Bay and/or the Chicago White Sox. But a Victims vs. Cheaters Series is possible.
“Their lineup is very good,’’ Scherzer said, “very deep.’’
We now realize the Astros will be ready. “It takes a special player to put an Astros jersey on," reliever Blake Taylor said. “If you're not willing to withstand the criticism you're gonna get at every stadium we walk into, you can't handle it — it's tough. It's tough thing to ask a lot of guys to do. But the crew that we have right now, they're all in on this. They know that they're not the only ones going through this. Every single person in this clubhouse gets booed every time we walk on the field and just gets called ‘cheaters' and things like that. So at the end of the day, we're just one big family and we have each other's backs, no matter what."
Said pitcher Ryne Stanek: “We were fine. There were just a lot of mean words, but besides that, it was all good.’’
Sure, baseball could do a Mookie Betts Series — Dodgers vs. Red Sox. Or a Mookie Wilson Series — Mets vs. Red Sox. Or a rematch from last year — Dodgers vs. Rays. Or a rematch from 1959 — Dodgers vs. White Sox. Or a 1989 earthquake rematch — Giants vs. A’s. Or something completely wacko — Brewers vs. Mariners.
Let’s just do the “Astros Suck/(Bleep) Altuve’’ Series.
My one request: Please leave all guns at home.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.