WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Astros, by virtue of their misdeeds and attitudes and general petulance, are taking it on the chin this spring. Wherever they play, either at their home park here in West Palm Beach or elsewhere in the Grapefruit League, they are assaulted with boos and pelted with cat-calls and chants that include in some way or another the word “cheater,” or something much worse.
Sunday was no different.
The visiting Cardinals imported a ripe crop of red-clad fans to FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches — that’s the corporate name of the park the Astros share with the Nationals — which offered a nice contrast to the home side. Common it was to see Astros fans wearing T-shirts and hats emblazoned with a trite take on a historical statement — “Come And Take It” — whose roots trace back to the Revolution. Only the Astros’ version isn’t about military weaponry; it’s about the 2017 World Series trophy that the MLB commissioner’s office has allowed the team to keep despite its sign-stealing sins of the last few seasons.
Sitting near the middle of the home stands behind the Astros’ dugout was a young man, mid-20s, with a frat-boy haircut and Ray-Ban shades and a shirt that didn’t give his fandom away. But that hardly mattered. As Astros second baseman Jose Altuve walked to the plate for his second at-bat, boos intermingled with cheers. But the young man’s voice, whiney as it was, was unmistakable.
He didn’t boo. He cat-called.
He asked, loudly, if Altuve was going to give back his 2017 American League MVP award.
He asked, loudly, if Altuve and the Astros would return their WS trophy.
He was rude, boorish, impolite and entirely within his right.
Astros fans eventually had enough of him. “Shut up!”, a man yelled. “That’s enough,” another bellowed. Back and forth it went, the young man turning around, laughing and calling out the Astros for their admitted misdemeanors, and the Astros fans surrounding him refusing to let his insults go unpunished.
That was but one example from one afternoon of one spring training game played at the Astros’ home park. There were others, a man who asked me to bang on a nearby trash can when the Astros were hitting, for example. But imagine what Altuve and George Springer and Carlos Correa and Alex Bergman will face in New York and Cleveland and Chicago, cities whose fans aren’t prone to Sunday niceties. It will be brutal, it will be unrelenting, and it will be an amazing, if not sad, baseball scene to watch. The Astros don’t play in Philadelphia this season (they do host the Phillies in Houston), a fact for which Altuve and Co. should give thanks. Philly’s NFL fans famously booed Santa; Philly ballpark security once tased a fan who invaded the field. It’s almost worth cheering for an Astros-Phillies World Series just to see the melee.
This, by the way, isn’t the fault of the Astros (who cheated in the most un-baseball-like manner) and MLB (whose punishment of the offenders is widely viewed as inadequate). While there is sympathy for Astros who played no role in the scandal and are nonetheless guilty by association, both the organization and the league are facing a season-long blitz of negative publicity and ugly scenes.
Think of it this way: The narrative of spring training describes weeks of sun and green grass and laid-back vibes. All of that is true. But amid this winter escape the Astros are still being bruised by a public that has decided that if MLB won’t adequately punish the offenders, it will.