Scan the headlines of the stories written about the Houston Astros over the last few weeks, and you'll notice the use of the word villain. Even this publication has used that word to describe the Astros, and it's not because we're running out of adjectives: It's because the narrative really does fit for the 2021 edition of this baseball club.
The Astros clinched a World Series berth Friday night at Minute Maid Park, their third in five seasons, eliminating the Boston Red Sox with a 5-0 win. This was a controversial series involving two controversial teams. The Astros stole signs from opponents by using an illegal camera and TV monitor throughout the 2017 and 2018 seasons, and former bench coach Alex Cora took a similar scheme to Boston as the manager of the Red Sox in 2018. A league investigation in 2020 revealed as much, and there has been palpable fan anger in every major league city except for Houston and Boston since then.
When the playoffs began earlier this month, the narrative around the Astros was that they were using the anger as fuel for their own fire. They wanted to show baseball that they were more than just a "trash" team. While manager Dusty Baker disputed that notion, it still seemed like a convenient narrative.
Baker wasn't the manager when the sign-stealing occurred, but he's a savvy veteran who understands he has to stand by his team and try to deflect negativities so the squad can focus on baseball. If he says it's no big deal, then it won't be as big of a deal. The words will be written, but the players won't give very many juicy soundbites. They can go about their work without thinking too much about what happened last year.
The Astros know that many fans don't care for them. The disdain has been apparent throughout the season as fans returned to the stands. It was advantageous for the Astros to use the boos to drive them this season. And if the Los Angeles Dodgers return to the World Series with a chance to exact some vengeance, then the majority of baseball will be rooting for redemption.
But every sport has a good villain. It wouldn't be sports if we didn't have the favorites, the underdogs and the teams that are easy to hate.
The New England Patriots had Tom Brady, which is what made those two New York Giants Super Bowl wins even sweeter. The Golden State Warriors had a superteam with Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, but in the 2019 playoffs, it seemed like all of North America was behind Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors.
Root for who you want, but there is no question the Astros belong in the World Series this year. They scored 36 runs in six games against the Red Sox and outscored Boston 23-3 over the final three games. Houston faced a 2-1 series deficit. And much of the offensive success can be attributed to designated hitter Yordan Alvarez.
The ALCS MVP capped a dominant series with a 4-for-4 performance in Game 6, including two doubles and a triple. He's only the second player in Astros history to record 11 hits in a playoff series, coming one shy of matching Jose Altuve's mark of 12 in the 2020 ALCS.
While much of this run has been propelled by the same core of players from the 2017 World Series team (Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel and Lance McCullers Jr.), Alvarez, the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year, broke out when some of the others were neutralized.
Go ahead and root against the Astros. If they keep hitting like this, it won't matter. History might look back on this era's Houston squad as a villain, but sometimes the villains win championships no matter how loudly you boo.
Astros Players of the Game
RHP Luis Garcia: 5.2 one-hit innings, one walk and seven strikeouts. Garcia flirted with a no-hitter into the sixth inning, bouncing back from a dismal start in Game 2. After lasting just three outs, Garcia was throwing harder than he had all season.
DH Yordan Alvarez: 4-for-4 with two runs and an RBI. Alvarez and Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers are tied for second among postseason hitters with 11 runs (behind Altuve).
RF Kyle Tucker: 1-for-4, three-run home run. Two years ago, the Astros kept him at the trade deadline, and this is why. Tucker plated an insurance run on a double play in the sixth and homered in the bottom of the eighth to push the game out of reach.
Red Sox Players of the Game
CF Enrique Hernandez: 1-for-4 with a triple. Hernandez had a magical month, and it looked as though the magic would continue when he tripled off Garcia with two outs in the sixth. But Phil Maton got Devers to pop out to Correa to end the inning.
RHP Nathan Eovaldi: One earned run on five hits and a walk over 4.1 innings. Eovaldi gave the Red Sox a chance.
Mad About the Villains? Feel Good for the Hero
Baker is returning to the World Series for the first time since 2002, when he was the San Francisco Giants skipper. Back then, his son, Darren Baker, was the batboy who was saved by J.T. Snow in Game 5 of the World Series. Now, Darren is playing in the Washington Nationals organization.
Only the ninth manager to win a pennant in the AL and NL, Baker was a castoff a few years ago who was considered too old manage. A.J. Hinch, the Astros' former manager and the current manager of the Detroit Tigers, was the model other teams were trying to duplicate. But with a second World Series appearance 19 years after the first one, Baker has clearly evolved as the game has.
So if you want something to root for in this World Series, Baker is a good story. He's one of only two active Black managers in MLB, with the other being the Dodgers' Dave Roberts.
Some things are still the same—like the toothpicks he chews in the dugout—but Baker has proved that sometimes old-school baseball minds have a place in a new-school era.