LOS ANGELES — Baseball’s going to have to learn to live with this baseball team from Houston, apparently.
While other teams — and there are seven others out there — were learning to shut out the silence of empty ballparks, of empty hotel rooms, of a season that asked at least as much of them as citizens as it did players, the Astros are still most adept at quieting the noise.
Wholly unimpressive in the regular season, they were left then to thresh in the fens of their own consciences. The world was only too happy for it, too, given so much of that world is without its own deep regrets. No, the Astros would be left to hoist themselves from a muck of their own making, while the rest of the game tossed to them not a pole and a way out but more muck.
That’s the deal, of course. It had to be and will continue to be. The game protects itself first. What it offers first and forever is the promise of chance, of events that are undetermined until they actually, you know, happen. The Astros violated that. They were sentenced to dumb memes and trite signs and public scoldings, presumably not unlike this one, along with a few draft picks they won’t miss for some years.
The Astros cooperated by posting a 29-31 pandemic-shortened regular season. They were held up by an AL West that was atrocious outside the Oakland A’s. Without Justin Verlander and Yordan Alvarez, among others, they were overlooked as a postseason threat. They were the patsies. That might have been the schadenfreude talking.
So while it is difficult to look at the Astros in those uniforms and on these baseball fields as something other than who they chose to be for a time in their lives and careers, there also is the matter of the scoreboard, which for three games at the end of September and beginning of October has suggested they are pretty good at baseball. Again. Still. However it must be framed.
After knocking out the AL Central champion Minnesota Twins in two games, the Astros on Monday afternoon returned to the site of their greatest conquest, now a symbol of their crimes upon the game. They’d lifted a World Series trophy at Dodger Stadium. George Springer had been a World Series MVP here. Young and drunk on the fumes of their perfect ending, they’d promised more. And more.
Three years later, they can count their truest allies in the capacity of a team bus.
“The way that people want to perceive us is fine,” Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. said. “We have to go out there and win baseball games.”
On a hot morning 10 miles from their Pasadena hotel, they piled out of that bus and beat the Oakland A’s and their ace, Chris Bassitt, by a score of 10-5. Carlos Correa — who in the wake of their upset of the Twins had cheekily asked of the haters, “What are they going to say now?” — hit two home runs. Springer had four hits. Springer was 11-for-17 with three doubles, three home runs and seven RBIs in his past four postseason games at Dodger Stadium. Alex Bregman homered. By the afternoon, when Chavez Ravine had heated up and then refused to keep baseballs in the park, three Astros rookies pitched between McCullers, the starter, and closer Ryan Pressly.
They had fun handshakes after their home runs. They didn’t make the jittery mistake — A’s shortstop Marcus Semien did. They kept hitting. They kept winning. They clung to their manager, Dusty Baker, who is forever the most decent man in the room.
They speak of their love for the game. Their passion for it. Correa said he plays this hard and bleeds this pleasure from it because he understands how fleeting a baseball career can be. And you, perhaps, wonder how all that once led to, well, all that.
“I feel like people are going to have their own perspective of things,” said Correa, who is utterly likable.
They, he said, will stick to themselves, play their game, summon the genuine and honest ballplayers within, and have a laugh.
“We want to keep it that way,” he said.
In this half of the AL Division Series, players’ and coaches’ families for both teams remained at a shared team hotel. Local regulations forbid them from attending a baseball game in a 53,000-seat stadium. Instead, the league reserved two large viewing rooms at the hotel, one for each team’s traveling party. Municipalities at the other three sites — San Diego, Houston and Arlington — allow a limited number of fans, those being family members.
The gameday line of cars outside Dodger Stadium had looked familiar enough after a long, lonely summer. Those, however, were waiting to be tested for the virus at a facility just beyond the ballpark. A few other cars, whose drivers were headed to work, were waved up the hill, through the front gates and into an empty parking lot. A handful of folks with Dodgers allegiances and long memories had greeted the Astros bus on that corner with signs and shouts.
Perhaps they are the villains on that bus. Every game needs one. But Baker would push back at the notion the Astros are quite pleased in the role.
“No,” he’d said. “It might have evolved to that, but I didn’t see it. The role of the villain was given to us. It wasn’t something that we took on, even though some of it was probably merited. Or most of it was probably merited. I’ve been a villain most of my life, you know what I mean? So I might as well join the rest of the group.”
The worst of it, after all, might not even be the noise. That they can shut out.
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