The first day of spring training is like the first day of school: light and breezy, full of hugs and handshakes and “how ya been?”
Not for the Houston Astros, not this spring. The team practically barricaded itself inside its training complex Wednesday, roping off the parking lot and fortifying the area with security guards to keep players inside and reporters out.
When the Astros do present themselves publicly Thursday, they will not do so as the champions of the American League. They will do so as baseball’s greatest villains of this generation.
“A villain team, like the New York Yankees forever?” asked Andy Dolich, a veteran sports industry executive and former marketing chief for the Oakland Athletics.
That would be the Yankees of the previous century, when late owner George Steinbrenner routinely berated players and employees, and routinely spent whatever it took to win so that his team did indeed win. Since 2000, however, the Yankees have won the World Series once, same as the Kansas City Royals and Miami Marlins.
Baseball’s greatest villain this century has been Barry Bonds, who delighted in the boos while conducting his steroid-infused (allegedly) march to the title of all-time home run king. But the scandal of performance-enhancing substances tarred an entire league, while the scandal of technology-infused sign stealing has so far tarred only the Astros.
The fallout has been deep and wide. The Astros’ players have been condemned by their peers, among them the Dodgers’ Enrique Hernandez (“They cheated. They got away with it. They got a ring out of it.”) to the Angels’ Andrew Heaney (“I hope they feel like [crap]”) to the Philadelphia Phillies’ David Robertson (“It’s a disgrace what they’ve done.”)
Pitcher Mike Bolsinger, pummeled by the Astros in what turned out to be his last major league game, has sued them. In a national survey, a majority said the Astros should be stripped of their 2017 World Series title. The Los Angeles City Council voted to ask Major League Baseball to award the title to the Dodgers, the team that lost that World Series to the Astros.
And Hank Aaron, who did not speak ill of Bonds when Bonds passed him on as MLB’s all-time home run leader, said the Astros involved in the sign-stealing scandal should be banned for life.
The Astros’ reputation has taken quite a hit. In Morning Consult Brand Intelligence polling, the number of Americans saying they viewed the team unfavorably was greater than the number that viewed the team favorably. That made the Astros the least-liked team in MLB, and the only one for which more people had a negative reaction than a positive reaction.
“If people think your organization is dishonest, or cheaters, I think that weighs more heavily than your record,” said Shavonnah Schreiber, managing director of SNR Creative, a marketing firm in Houston.
“People want to be associated with a winning team. But if it feels like — or it is perceived that — the wins came dishonestly, I do not think people like that.”
In a Morning Consult poll last year ranking 12 pro teams that had won at least three championships in a six-year span, the only team viewed unfavorably was the New England Patriots.
In 2007, the NFL issued $750,000 in fines and stripped the team of a draft pick over the “Spygate” illegal video saga. In 2015, the NFL suspended star quarterback Tom Brady for four games, issued $1 million in fines and stripped the team of two draft picks after an investigation into whether Brady and the Patriots improperly deflated and used footballs.
Schreiber, a lifelong Astros fan, said the sign-stealing sting has been deeply felt in a Houston community where fans painted their homes in team colors after the World Series championship. She said the team and its fans might rally around their newfound status as baseball’s villains.
“There are people that will say, ‘OK, they say you won because you were dishonest. Now win again, and prove you’re going to win, period.’
“I do think there are people who hope that is going to be true. Because then it takes away some of the sting of cheating: ‘I’m just better than you anyway.’ ”
For now, at least, the Astros are the face of what Dolich called “the new-wave Black Sox scandal.” When they visit Anaheim on their first road trip of the season, they will be greeted by several thousand Dodgers and Yankees fans who are invading Angel Stadium to boo the Astros.
“They’re going to circle the wagons, I think,” Dolich said. “They know that multiple attacks are coming, at all levels. But I believe the best way is to go out and present your product the best way you can, to go out there and win ballgames and be as clean and as exemplary as you can, as opposed to positioning themselves as ‘woe is me.’ ”
Or they could be defiant, just as Bonds was.
“Dodger Stadium is the best show I ever go to,” Bonds said in 2005.
“They say, ‘Barry sucks’ louder than anybody out there. And you know what? … You’ve got to have some serious talent to have 53,000 people saying you suck.”