Astros destroyed by fans and real games haven’t even started

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Only the slog to come will determine whether the 2020 Astros’ unique journey will be successful.

Already, though, we know this: It’s gonna be arduous. Example number, let’s say, 507 arrived Saturday night.

The Astros opened their Grapefruit League schedule with a home game, here at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Didn’t matter. They didn’t deploy a single member from their 2017 championship squad. Didn’t matter. The contest lasted just two innings before rain canceled the rest of the proceedings. Didn’t matter.

Opposing fans are out for vengeance in the wake of the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal that has rocked this sport, and they’ll take it wherever and however they can find it. In this 2019 World Series rematch, fans of the Nationals, with whom the Astros share this state-of-the-art complex, overtook the place and voiced their bitterness loudly, proudly and cleverly.

Consider that, every time an Astro came to bat against Nats starter Max Scherzer in those first two innings, a couple of wiseacre fans banged an empty nearby seat … similar to how the ’17 Astros banged a garbage can to tell their teammates what pitch was coming in real time.

“I figured something like that was going to happen,” a smiling Scherzer said during the delay.

One enterprising Nats fan, as noted by The Palm Beach Post, wore a T-shirt reading, “I was going to make a sign, but the Astros would have stolen it.” Another, as found by ESPN, carried a sign, “Houston *s,” that was confiscated.

Doesn’t matter what the calendar says. Winter is coming for your defending American League champions.

“You can’t control what’s coming from the stands,” said Dusty Baker, who replaced the fired (and suspended) A.J. Hinch as Astros manager late last month. “You can control your emotions and how you feel.”

If Saturday serves as any sneak preview, Baker’s words of wisdom will be easier to speak than honor. Astros fans here represented a distinct minority despite it counting as their home game, and the many Nats fans on site didn’t appear satisfied at all by the reality that their team bested the ’Stros in last year’s Fall Classic, winning all four games at Minute Maid Park while dropping all three at home.

Every time the public-address announcer mentioned the Astros, a cascade of boos immediately followed. When the Astros walked en masse from their clubhouse (situated behind left field) to their third-base dugout, the crowd strongly reprimanded them. A video congratulations to Astros All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman generated only ill will.

Nationals fans let the Astros hear it in Houston's first home game of their spring training season.
Nationals fans let the Astros hear it in Houston’s first home game of their spring training season.AP

Then came a montage of highlights from the 2019 Astros’ season: A towering home run by eventual AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez. Justin Verlander’s third career no-hitter. Gerrit Cole’s 300th strikeout. Their exciting AL Division Series victory over the Rays. And finally, Jose Altuve’s walk-off homer against Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman to vault Houston back into the Series.

Yes, they artfully edited Altuve’s trot around the bases to avoid the shot of him instructing his fellow Astros to not touch his uniform top. No, none of these clips captivated enough folks in the stands to emit a sizable applause. There were crickets.

To the Nats fans’ credit, they didn’t punish the Astros’ lineup of no-names, as Baker started 10 guys who totaled two postseason games; Houston leadoff hitter Myles Straw pinch ran twice against the Indians in the 2018 AL Division Series. The pre-game boisterousness turned into silence for the home team and rowdy support for the visitors once play began.

“Everything gets turned up a notch when the fans get really into it,” Scherzer said.

The Washington fans did offer two hearty ovations for Baker, who managed the Nats to consecutive National League East titles in 2016 and 2017 before getting dismissed due to postseason failures. Baker has seen plenty in his 20 years of playing, 22 years of managing and 70 years of living, yet nothing quite like what his Astros will endure. To capture his new team’s challenge, Baker emerged with a pearl from legendary Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh, whom he met long ago:

“You have to control your burning desire in your heart with a coolness of mind,” Baker said Saturday, citing the now-79-year-old Oh. “You need that coolness of mind to control that heart.”

Can Baker help his shaken charges control the burning desire in your heart? Shoot, can he guide them just to Opening Day without any more major turbulence?

“There’s always pressure for teams. That’s good pressure,” he said. “These guys have responded so well under pressure the last three or four years. I don’t think have guys have forgotten the feeling that they had when they were losing. These guys will turn negative emotions into a positive.”

Outfielder Michael Brantley, who joined the Astros just last season (and therefore carries plausible deniability concerning the 2017-18 chicanery that Rob Manfred documented) said before the game, “Any time you’re on the baseball field, it’s therapeutic.”

These Astros might require the most therapy ever, and every inch of experience that Dusty has gathered, to attain their potential. To block out what will be a steady flow of dissuasive noise.

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