By: Kyle Wood
West Palm Beach, Fla. — There wasn’t a cloud to be seen miles around the palm tree-dotted FITTEAM Ballpark of The Palm Beaches. But the boos that pierced the calm sky when the Houston Astros were announced reminded baseball fans both fanatic and casual of the dark cloud hanging over the sport.
The complex is the spring training home for the Astros and Washington Nationals where they participate in the Grapefruit League. Both teams flaunt their recent World Series titles next to their massive logos on either side of the facility: Houston won it in 2017 and Washington did so in 2019 in a seven-game series over their spring-time neighbors in West Palm Beach.
Last night, an asterisk was spotted next to Houston’s sign that proudly displayed their only World Series title in franchise history.
Who would do such a thing? pic.twitter.com/bwzYn7OSO2
— Evan Roberts (@EvanRobertsWFAN) February 29, 2020
Noah McMurrain, a student at nearby Palm Beach State, believes that asterisk —
a reminder that the legitimacy of the 2017 Fall Classic is disputed — is ingrained in history (even though the physical sign was removed by the next morning).
The Astros were found to have used video to steal opposing teams’ signs during their championship season. That video was used to relay messages to batters about the type of pitch that was on the way, creating an immense competitive advantage for Houston en route to their victory. Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers notified The Athletic during the offseason, and the fallout has been tremendous.
Houston general manager Jeff Lunhow and manager A.J. Hinch were both fired by the organization. Alex Cora, the former manager of the Red Sox who was with the Astros in 2017, and Carlos Beltran, a member of the World Series-winning team who was set to begin his first year as the Mets manager, both lost their jobs.
“They definitely deserve the asterisk,” McMurrain said. “And it’s going to stay there forever.”
The Astros were fined $5 million and docked four draft picks for the cheating scandal by the MLB. Lunhow and Hinch were both suspended by the league for the 2020 season before their firing.
“They deserve whatever they got,” McMurrain said. “They should’ve got more.”
McMurrain expects Astros players to be intentionally hit by pitches this season in retaliation for the scandal but said he doesn’t have much sympathy for them.
“That’s how it works,” he said. “Especially because none of the players got fined.”
Baseball’s age-old form of vigilante justice hasn’t struck Houston the way McMurrain and others may have expected.
According to an ESPN.com article posted Saturday morning, the Astros don’t even lead the league in bean balls this spring training — the scandal-free St. Louis Cardinals have eight to Houston’s seven.
No Astros players were hit by pitches in their 2-1 loss to the Mets on Saturday, so that count remains the same for Houston.
The most recognizable Astros player in the lineup was outfielder George Springer, and he had to field the bulk of the boos with recognizable faces like Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman — who have both been hit by pitches in spring training — not playing on Saturday.
The loudest the crowd at FITTEAM Ballpark got was when Springer let a fly ball drop in front of him in left field to allow a single.
Right on cue: “You suck, Springer!”
Plays later, he made a potential game-saving grab at the wall and the contingent of Mets fans —and baseball fans, really — berated the 2017 World Series MVP all the same.
Most of the crowd of 5,437 had already left the park in an attempt to beat rush hour traffic on I-95 when New York mounted a ninth-inning comeback. So the collective anger unleashed at Springer at his post in left field and when he came to the plate — where he finished 1 of 3 with a crowd-silencing single and a cheer-inducing strikeout — was the only time many fans let their voices be heard.
Jake Okula sat on the grass just behind the outfield wall about 60 feet away from Springer wearing a home-made Fiers Astros ‘jersey,’ crudely drawn in Sharpie on a plain white t-shirt.
“I heard they were taking away some posters, so I had to kind of be clever about it,” he said.
Okula, a student at St. John’s University, came to Florida to watch his Mets and said he made sure to stop at an Astros game to heckle them.
Banners and signs are not allowed at FITTEAM Ballpark, and a fan had his sign, which poked fun at the Astros, confiscated last week.
This fan was holding this sign as the Astros players walked off the field after the National anthem. A few seconds later stadium security confiscated it. pic.twitter.com/58eMHuJ7K5
— Stefano Fusaro (@FusaroESPN) February 22, 2020
“A couple people came up to me like, ‘Hey, that’s pretty smart,’ because obviously he’s the guy who ratted ‘em out, Astros fans hate him,” Okula said. “I was just hoping Astros fans would yell at me.”
And they did.
Okula shared McMurrain’s sentiment that there’s an asterisk on the title and referenced prominent players like Aaron Judge and Mike Trout who have spoken out on the scandal.
“I can’t even imagine being an Astros fan right now,” he said. “I couldn’t back that.”
But they were out in abundance, and they had their own witty shirts to counter Okula’s.
One fan had on an Astros shirt that said “STFU Cody” on the back, an apparent reference to Correa’s comments directed at Dodgers star Cody Bellinger, telling him to “shut the f— up.”
Another even embraced the contested title with a shirt with an image of the World Series trophy that said, “Come Take It.”
And a child walked around the park in a shirt that said “Always be yourself, unless you can be like Bregman. Then always be Bregman.”
The rest of the MLB may not agree with the sentiment expressed on the toddler’s clothes, though.
Regardless of the boos, Houston has the third-highest projected win total in the MLB (Oddsshark) and are the favorites to win the AL West for the fourth year in a row.
“They’re still a really talented team, that’s the unfortunate thing,” Okula said. “I want to see them crash and fall.”