Most Houston Astros road trips this year have sounded the same.
Angry jeers and scornful chants. Curse-laiden reminders of their stained reputations. In some cities, fans have banged trash cans. In others, garbage bins have been tossed on the field. Each new trip brings a new hostile response.
Whenever they come home, it’s like nothing ever happened.
More than a year after the revelation of the team’s sign-stealing scandal, most of their fans have simply tried to move on.
“I don’t want to come off like we don’t care; we do,” said Patrick McLellan, a lifelong Astros fan who co-hosts a popular podcast, “Lima Time Time,” about the team. “But it’s like, ‘We’re good here.’ And not that ‘in-your-face’ good. It’s just, we are content and have kind of come to grips with what happened.”
He added: “There’s no dark cloud over the city.”
Indeed, games at Minute Maid Park — where the Dodgers open a two-game series Tuesday — are strikingly routine this season, a total contrast to the treatment the team gets everywhere else.
Hours before first pitch, a congregation of orange and blue fills the streets, parking lots and sports bars surrounding the stadium — from the two-story Biggio’s Sports Bar several blocks away, named after the Astros’ Hall of Fame infielder, to the baseball-themed restaurant in the Westin Hotel across the street, where almost every employee’s outfit includes a gray blazer, silver name tag and Astros-branded face mask.
Once inside, they take their seats like parishioners filling long-vacant pews, returning to old familiar habits — cheering loudly for pregame player introductions, clapping along to “Deep in the Heart of Texas” during the seventh-inning stretch — after a year of spectator-less baseball.
The club’s 2017 World Series banner still hangs in the outfield. A life-sized replica championship ring remains on display outside the front gates. People still proudly wear jerseys with José Altuve’s or Carlos Correa’s names across the back.
Eighteen months after the scandal first began, they’ve all either forgotten, forgiven or reconciled their support of the team.
“It’s not a permanent sentence,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. “And neither should it be.”
Turner has backed the Astros from the start, never condoning the sign-stealing but also never wavering in his support of the team.
Explaining his rationale in a recent interview, Turner started with the role the club played in the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s deadly impact during that 2017 season, when the city was inundated with up to 51 inches of rain that flooded more than 300,000 homes and apartments, caused $125 billion worth of damage and contributed to the deaths of more than 100 people.
“At a time when this city went through a great deal across the board, and this city needed something to lift its spirits, the Astros as an organization and as players demonstrated their love for this city,” Turner said. “And you don’t turn your back on that.”
The Astros’ success became a rallying point that fall, starting with a phone call Turner received from club owner Jim Crane the day after the rain subsided.
“What are your thoughts about the Astros playing this weekend?” Crane asked, as Turner recalled. “Do you think it would be disrespectful or insensitive?’”
Turner’s response: “The people in this city need something to cheer for. This would be a positive distraction from the devastation.”
Cheer they did, starting with a doubleheader sweep of the New York Mets in the Astros’ first home games following the hurricane right through to a championship parade with an estimated attendance of 1 million.
“That’s when the love affair got even closer, stronger,” Turner said. “They literally carried the city on their backs and in their hearts.”
Behind the scenes, of course, the Astros were breaking the rules, using their sign-stealing system that included the prohibited use of live video feeds to alert hitters to the coming pitch via loud bangs against a dugout trash can.
Even in the finale of that post-hurricane series against the Mets, the Astros had 24 trash-can bangs, according to data published on a website called signstealingscandal.com, created by an Astros fan named Tony Adams (data from the games in the doubleheader was not available).
Following MLB’s investigation, manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for a season by the league and subsequently fired from the team by Crane. Players were given immunity in exchange for their cooperation during the investigation, but the club was fined $5 million and stripped of four draft picks.
The initial reactions in Houston varied.
“We were all super disappointed, we were all shocked,” said Eric Huysman, another Astros fan who co-hosts the daily “Locked on Astros” podcast. “I distinctively remember hearing the trash can banging at a game every once in a while, but I didn’t know what was going on. None of the fans did, even if they heard it.”
Some were more defensive, adamant that while the Astros were in the wrong, they couldn’t be the only team stealing signs illegally — the Boston Red Sox were also punished by MLB, though less severely, for sign-stealing infractions that occurred in 2018.
“Many [fans] felt that sign-stealing had been part of baseball forever,” said Ralph Cooper, a longtime sports radio host in Houston. “Maybe the Astros did take it to another level, but they were under the impression that other teams were doing the same … and that the punishment was too much.”
A year-and-a-half later, much of that tension has subsided. Fans gave Hinch, now the manager of the Detroit Tigers, a warm reception when he returned to Minute Maid Park for the first time in April. Correa, the subject of much criticism in the wake of the scandal, was recently honored with a local sportsmanship award for his work in the community. McLellan said the vitriol the team has received on the road has “galvanized the fan base even more.”
“They look at them as professional athletes, but they also look at them as Houstonians, because of how they’ve been able to impact the community during these times of trial,” echoed Cooper. “They loved the team when [Jeff] Bagwell and [Craig] Biggio were here, but I think now they’ve even taken it to another level.”
Where others see the Astros’ star-emblemed logo and star-studded roster as symbols of cheating, those in Houston remember so much more — the winning, the recovery, the devout bonds they felt during a season they know will forever be subject to scrutiny.
“It’s taken this long to get to this point where it’s like, ‘I don’t care about what everybody else says,’” McLellan said. “That was the greatest moment of our lives. We went to the parade and we celebrated. We won that World Series, whether you credit us or not. That’s what it feels like.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.