A funny thing happens when sports teams have a long periods of sustained success: They become villains.
The Houston Astros are amid the most dominant stretch in club history. The team is headed to the ALCS for the fifth straight season after eliminating the Chicago White Sox with a 10-1 Game 4 win Tuesday at Guaranteed Rate Field. Next up is the Boston Red Sox in the penultimate American League playoff series, a familiar matchup for more reasons than just the 2018 ALCS.
They are also less than two years removed from a major sign-stealing scandal that cost the general manager, manager, bench coach and a prominent former player their jobs and cost the organization $5 million and two years of of first- and second-round draft picks. This sustained period of success has been more than tinged by scandal, it's been characterized by it.
So if any team is going to play the role of the villain, it's this one. It's the 2021 Astros.
With fans back in the stands this year following a year of COVID-controlled crowds, they let the 'Stros have it. In New York, Yankees fans brought trash cans to games and dressed as Oscar the Grouch. The Yankees faced the Astros in the ALCS in 2017 and 2019 and few fans hold grudges like those in New York.
But on the other coast, the laid back Los Angelenos were particularly angry. The Dodgers lost in back-to-back World Series to the Astros and the Red Sox, the team managed by the aforementioned bench coach, Alex Cora, went to Boston to manage the team in 2018.
Fans in the Southland felt cheated. Some even went as far as to say they should throw a World Series parade in the spring of 2020, spurred by a tweet from Yu Darvish.
When the Astros visited Dodger Stadium a few months ago, the fans were relentless from the time the visitors took the field for batting practice until the series ended. The teams split the series two-game series, so neither fanbase was happy anyway.
The allegations were back this week when White Sox reliever Ryan Tepera accused the Astros of stealing signs once again. The series ended with Chicago manager Tony La Russa accusing Kendall Graveman of hitting Jose Abreu with a pitch intentionally.
"Well, I questioned after they threw those three pitches in there, they should have just ejected him," La Russa said in his postgame press conference. "It will be a good test of the character and credibility of the winning team because it was intentional. The catcher kept looking in the dugout so they did hit him intentionally."
Will it ever end for the Astros? Not anytime soon and they seem to know.
"Coming from someone like that, it's not going to matter much," Game 4 starter Lance McCullers Jr. said of Tepera's allegation.
It sums up the attitude a team like this has to have in order to move on: No one likes us, we don't care.
The same players that were on embroiled in Trash Can Gate still lead the team: Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, the latter of which is seeing his legacy as one of the game's greatest hitters questioned. And those hitters have effectively quieted those hostile crowds by winning.
They have embraced the role of villains, because what other choice do they have?
That group certainly did come to play.
Altuve went 5-for-16 with a home run, nine runs scored and a stolen base in the series. He finished the ALDS with a 1.101 OPS. Bregman went 6-for-16 against Chicago, scoring four times and driving in four runs. Correa went 5-for-13 and hit a two-run double off Carlos Rodon in the third inning in Game 4.
Rodon threw him a fastball on 0-2. It was a good pitch, but not the right pitch.
This postseason feels like a continuation of their redemption tour of sorts that began last year. James Click replaced Jeff Luhnow as the general manager and Baker—one of the most respected and revered figures in the modern game—replaced A.J. Hinch as the skipper. Baker has continually shown why he is the perfect manager for this situation, providing a steadying presence throughout the tumult on and off the field.
George Springer left in free agency last winter. The Astros lost ace Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery last season and pitching prospect Forrest Whitley to the same surgery. Houston had a new crop of outfielders and a young rotation, but Baker deftly guided them to two straight AL West titles.
They managed to win this playoff series without veteran starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi, who was left off the roster, and relievers Pedro Baez and Rafael Montero, who are both injured.
And maybe this is a redemption tour for the 72-year-old as well. He was a castoff who was seen as too old school for today's analytical front offices a few short years ago and now he's leading one of the most analytics-heavy teams on the field.
That storyline is not lost on him.
"I didn't say they don't have a chip on their shoulder," Baker said following Game 4. "I've got a chip from all of the times I was let go. And a chip is one thing but you can't hold any animosity and hatred because it will eat you up. Positive energy lasts and negative energy dissipates."
The one fan base that can't boo the Astros is the one in Boston. Cora got his second chance after the league forced him to sit out the 2020 season as a result of the investigation. The the actions taken by the Astros and Red Sox might be in the past, but the subject will still be in the national conversation over the next few weeks as these two play for a chance to go to the World Series.
But, like Baker said, the positive energy lasts and there is a lot of positives to take into the next round, like the play of McCullers Jr., Yordan Alvarez and the relief corps.
The Astros have proven to be a juggernaut. Between the offensive onslaught against the White Sox and the Dodgers being on the ropes against the San Francisco Giants, the Astros now the favorites win the World Series. If you don't believe me, DraftKings has Houston at +190 and the Boston at +380.
Another ALCS felt inevitable from the start, and another World Series appearance feels inevitable as well.