Because of the coronavirus, a year ago the Major League Baseball playoffs were played mostly in empty ballparks. There was no traveling and no off days in the various League Championship Series. The Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves each came within a game of a pennant, but neither made it out of their respective bubbles.
The Braves squandered a 3-1 deficit and lost to the eventual World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games at the Globe Life Field bubble, a turn of events that has been well-documented.
The fact that the Astros came back from 0-3 to nearly beat the Tampa Bay Rays in the Petco Park bubble, only to drop Game 7, has largely been forgotten.
Considering the stigma of Houston’s scandal, in which the team used a center-field camera to steal catcher’s signs– a strict violations of MLB’s rules and sportsmanship conventions that sullied the results of the 2017 season and that World Series victory– having no fans in the stands on the road was probably a good thing.
The Astros hear it from opposing fans everywhere they go, and it’s a major story line as Houston gets ready to take on the Braves in Game 1 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday night.
Fans are back this year, and Braves supporters will be ready and vocal when the series shifts Friday to Truist Park. It’s the Astros against the world.
“Well, I don’t think that’s their main source of motivation,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said about his team. “People are trying to make it as their main source of motivation, but that doesn’t motivate you nearly as much as just driving to win and driving for excellence….
“This team is way past that because they know they can play. So, this is what you have to dwell on—me against the world. After a while, how long can you have that mantra?”
There are certainly other driving forces for both teams.
The Braves haven’t been to the World Series since 1999 and have won only once since moving from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966. That was in 1995. The last time they won a World Series home game was the Game 6 finale over Cleveland in that 1995 series. They’ve only won the title three times in their long Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta history, once in each city.
The Astros have been to the World Series three times in the last five years, defeating the Dodgers in 2017 and losing to the Nationals in 2019. Both series went seven games. The tainted 2017 win is the only one in Houston’s 60-year history.
Baker, now 72, has never won a World Series in his 24 years as a manager for five teams. This is his second chance, having led the 2002 San Francisco Giants during a seven-game loss to the Angels. That’s a gap of 19 years.
The Houston scandal predated Baker, who was hired in 2020 to replace the fired A.J. Hinch.
Those are certainly motivating factors.
“Everybody talks about that window of opportunity to win, and then most teams fell from that opportunity to win to the bottom and the basement and build it all over again,” Baker said. “But this team is totally different from the top-down. [Owner] Jim Crane doesn’t really believe in tearing it down. He believes in adding on and keeping the right pieces there.”
The infield pieces from those recent Houston teams are the same. From third to first, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and Yuli Gurriel have been there for the duration and were front and center during the scandal.
But the 2019 pitching rotation of Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers is gone with the wind. Cole signed a nine-year, $324 million contract with the New York Yankees; Verlander had Tommy John surgery; and Morton is slated to start for the Braves Tuesday night against Framber Valdez for the Astros.
Only McCullers remains. He missed the NLCS with a strained right forearm, and will miss the World Series.
“With the type of strain I have, it’s typically six to eight weeks before you pick up a ball,” McCullers said Monday. “We remained hopeful. We tried to push it as far as we could but just couldn’t make it back to throwing. It’s disappointing. I’m going to keep doing what I can do and have all the faith in our team and the guys that we have out there and try to win a World Series.”
MLB conducted a lengthy investigation into allegations of sign stealing after former Astros and then-Oakland pitcher Mike Fiers divulged the scheme after the 2019 postseason.
“I just want the game to be cleaned up a little bit. Guys are losing their jobs because they’re going in there not knowing,” Fiers told The Athletic at the time. “That’s not playing the game the right way. [The Astros] were advanced and willing to go above and beyond to win.”
MLB levied a one-year suspension on then-general manager Jeff Luhnow and Hinch, who were subsequently fired from the Astros. Hinch was hired to manage the Detroit Tigers this season after serving the suspension, but Luhnow is out of baseball.
In what amounted to a nine-page legal brief, commissioner Rob Manfred exonerated Crane but fined the club $5 million, the most allowed under MLB’s constitution—which binds the owners and the 30 clubs together—and forfeited four of Houston’s top draft picks.
The Astros will never live that down. Even in their NL Division Series victory over the Chicago White Sox, there were allegations they are still stealing signs.
“Yeah. It is what it is. They’ve obviously had a reputation of doing some sketchy stuff over there,” White Sox pitcher Ryan Tepera said before his club lost in four games.
Baker countered by calling Tepera’s comments some “heavy accusations.”
“So, I don’t have much response to that other than I was listening to Eric Clapton this morning, and he had a song, ‘Before You Accuse Me [Take a Look at Yourself].’ You know what I mean? That’s all I got to say,” Baker said.
The Astros go into the World Series with a big chip on their collective shoulders. It is them against the world. And those outside Houston will surely be rooting for the Braves as the accusations keep coming.