PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — One day people will decide the Houston Astros aren’t worth fussing over any more, that there are more worthwhile injustices against which to scrape one’s soul, and that a dude wearing No. 87 who in 2017 was a junior at Middle Tennessee State is probably not deserving of overt ridicule.
That day’s not here yet. Maybe it can’t even be seen from here. These are the vagaries of hitching a person’s frailties — and a game’s conscience, an entire summer’s outrage, a thousand bad decisions — to the horizon.
The baseball season sits 16 days away. That many calendar pages.
I asked Astros manager Dusty Baker if his team is breathing yet.
“No,” he said. “Not yet. You know, some are. Some aren’t.”
On a cool, cloudy day, a stiff wind blowing, Dusty wore sunglasses with purple lenses. On his hands, wool gloves with no fingers, which he likes for pruning his grapes back home and, apparently, managing spring baseball games.
I asked him about people, their inclination for forgiveness, about when it might come.
“They talk about it,” he said. “But they don’t.”
Alex Bregman passed by. His eyes and lips were narrow. His jaw was set. The baseball field is where he was happiest. Maybe it still is. He does not look happy. He did not look up, did not register anything above his feet. In another half an hour here, a road game against the New York Mets, the insults would be loud and personal. Four Mets bros, their caps turned backward, the shoulders of their unbuttoned and flapping jerseys identifying them as Reyes, Alonso, deGrom and Piazza, would pound a rubber trash can behind home plate. When Bregman struck out, everybody was happy and the bros high fived, sure they had a hand in it.
“Hit him!” people yelled when Bregman batted, when George Springer batted, and yet Noah Syndergaard refrained.
“Sit down, you bum!” they shouted.
By the third and fourth innings, the second- and third-beer part of the game, a man stood a dozen rows from the backstop and screamed, “Springer! Yer a cheater!” Then he sat down and hugged what might have been his grandmother, who seemed very proud.
Sixteen pages on the calendar. Then it starts over in bigger stadiums under brighter lights, three in Oakland and three in Anaheim before they’re a third time into the starting rotation.
In the meantime, it is dark and not a little ugly. The sight of Astros players penned in dugouts and cornered in on-deck circles, prey to abuse they had to know was coming and is different when it actually breathes, reflects the least of who we are. We can hate what the Astros did to the game. And to themselves. We can change the game for the better as a result. We can believe the levied sanctions were just or inadequate. We can record and remember how we got here. We can express our disapproval. Then we can get over it.
Not because they deserve it, necessarily. But because we are more evolved. This has less to do with those Astros and their actions in the sign-stealing scheme than it does with a people in a society who would rather tend to themselves and their actions, that does not splinter into bloodthirsty mobs.
A person who spent time in the Astros clubhouse recently observed the team appeared to be in the throes of a nervous breakdown. Opposing pitchers had promised vengeance. Road crowds were raw and abusive. Media swarmed. “That’s a hard ring to wear,” Bruce Bochy had told the San Francisco Chronicle, as haunting an observation as any in the months since the Astros were outed. The opinion served the majority. Astros players had made their apologies, clumsily at times, but they had made them. The avalanche kept coming.
Just Sunday afternoon, explaining some sort of wearable technology with which he’d experimented, Syndergaard said he believed it would be beneficial, “And not using it in a cheating way,” because all joking and all suspicion somehow circles back on the Astros. They, of course, earned that.
Tony Clark, head of the players’ union and so in service to both those Astros and the league’s other 1,150 roster players, said recently the issues of security and emotional support for the Astros have been discussed with the league.
“You talk about security being available,” he said. “You talk about the individual teams and how they travel and what that travel looks like, to and from the ballpark. You talk about protections and securities in the ballpark. All of those things are things we address routinely. As a result of where we are now, very rarely do we address them or look to address them in spring training, more often than not it’s regular season. But that’s what we’re doing.”
The foot of the league, of the other players, of the fans who fill opposing ballparks and, perhaps, their own ballpark, will leave an imprint on Astros necks. You might say they have it coming. That’s fine. But until when? One lap around the league? More? They don’t even get to Yankee Stadium until September. They don’t even get to the regular season for another 16 days, another 16 pages. The game, at least, will recover.
“Am I worried?” Clark said. “I’m concerned about all 1,200 players. That’s my job.”
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