WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — There was a game here Saturday night, the Houston Astros participated, and in an upset, the world did not explode.
This was Houston’s first contest since its illegal sign-stealing scheme was uncovered. It was only a scrimmage and it only lasted two innings because of weather, but it gave a glimpse of what the Astros will experience this year. They were booed at 5:23 p.m. when they were introduced as “2019 American League champions.” They were booed 20 minutes later. They were booed as a video played to commemorate their AL pennant, booed during player introductions and booed no matter what they did.
It did not matter that it was technically a “home game.” It did not matter that not one member of the 2017 team was in the lineup. When Astros leadoff hitter Myles Straw stepped in and Nationals ace Max Scherzer stared him down, a fan began yelling from behind home plate.
“A fastball is coming! It’s a fastball!” the fan said over and over, nodding to how the Astros once knew what pitch was coming by gleaning them off in-game video, then banging on trash cans in the dugout to tip off their hitters. “It’s a fastball!”
Scherzer pumped in 94-mph heat that Straw watched for strike one.
“What did I tell you, Myles?” the fan continued. “I told you it would be a fastball! You should have swung!”
“I don’t know; we won the World Series, so it wasn’t like I had a vendetta to hold,” Scherzer said after throwing 22 pitches in two innings. “For me, over here, we’re just trying to move forward and get ready for our season.”
Put the sign-stealing aside, for just a moment, and this spring-opening exhibition had enough layers to it. It was a World Series rematch. It was the first time Dusty Baker, Houston’s new manager, was across the field from his former team. There was real action, and real matchups and a real chance for hopefuls to prove themselves. That meant something.
But back in reality, where this sport resides, it is impossible to ignore the fallout of the scandal. It has been everywhere these past few weeks. It will continue to be everywhere in the coming months. And it was present Saturday evening, in a ballpark the Nationals and Astros share, for a game that was covered as if it counted.
“I’m hoping that, on our side, I can’t tell you anything about the Houston Astros or what they are going to do, whatever, but for us we act professional,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said earlier in the week. “We go about our business and get ready for the season. Go out there and compete and just get ready to play.”
Martinez has deflected all Astros-related questions since spring training began Feb. 13. But by saying he wants Washington to “act professional” and “go about our business,” he provided a tiny window into his thinking. A major topic surrounding the Astros is how often and how soon they will face retribution for cheating. Baseball’s way of dishing that out is for pitchers to hit batters with very hard fastballs. The Nationals, in theory, were the first team with a shot to act.
Yet it would have been silly for them to do so for a number of reasons: It is February. They beat the Astros for the title in October and can thus take the high road. Baker did not play any of his regulars, meaning Alex Bregman, José Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer, the stars who took part in the sign-stealing scheme, will be booed at another time.
Their spots were filled by Straw, Jeremy Pena, Taylor Jones, Abraham Toro and so on. And Scherzer used them to condition his 35-year-old body for the season. Scherzer completed his outing as the rain picked up, a white tarp was placed on the field and fans waited like sardines in a packed concourse. The game was canceled after a 93-minute delay. The teams spent only 29 minutes on the field.
“It was good to get out there, start throwing all my pitches,” Scherzer said. “That’s all you’re looking for, to get out there. I’ll get my routine. I’ve gotten in a five-day rotation here and off and running.”
Last February, in this exact matchup, the biggest story was a new pitch clock that Major League Baseball was testing to shorten games. Scherzer paid no attention to it and, after pitching two innings, declared he was “fundamentally against this.” But now MLB has much bigger problems.
The Astros are worried about retaliation for past actions. So is the league and the MLB Players Association. Indians pitcher Mike Clevinger has said Astros batters “shouldn’t be comfortable” during at-bats. Nick Markakis, an outfielder for the Atlanta Braves, told reporters that “every single guy over there needs a beating.” Yet the tricky part will be determining intent.
When Martinez was asked about that gray area — and whether he’s worried an honest hit-by-pitch could be construed as retaliation — he sidestepped that question, too. He was interested in how Victor Robles looked in the leadoff spot Saturday and how Carter Kieboom looked at third base and whether Scherzer could push through two live innings for the first time since Oct. 30, the night Washington won the World Series. The manager will leave the noise to everyone else.
But he couldn’t control the narrative with this matchup, or any including the Astros. He also couldn’t control the fans, who booed and booed some more and had a few items confiscated by stadium staff. A man held a white poster board that had “Houston *’s” written on it, implying the Astros’ 2017 title should be voided with an asterisk.
Then an usher took it, stealing a sign.
And then the signs got confiscated by ballpark personnel who said signs weren’t allowed. #astros pic.twitter.com/XNrhkxxo5n— Kristie Rieken (@kristieAP) February 22, 2020
What to know about the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal
The Houston Astros engaged in an extensive sign-stealing scheme throughout the 2017 season, including during their World Series victory, and in the 2018 season, using cameras and video monitors. Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers revealed the scheme to The Athletic in November.
What is sign stealing? It’s a long-standing baseball practice in which one team tries to decode the signs of its opponent. It’s not illegal, but the way the Astros went about stealing signs is.
What’s happened since? The Astros fired manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow in January after MLB suspended both for their roles in the scheme. Dusty Baker and James Click were hired to replace them. Owner Jim Crane and several Houston players, including stars José Altuve and Alex Bregman, apologized at the start of spring training; Crane said players shouldn’t be punished.
• Read more: MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred defends his decision not to punish Astros players
How does the rest of baseball feel? Many around the league weren’t satisfied with the Astros’ apology, and some opponents have been outwardly angry, saying they’re ready to dole out justice of their own. Here’s what baseball’s stars are saying about the Astros.
Go deeper …
• The Astros want to ‘move forward.’ The rest of baseball isn’t eager to let them.
• This was the time for the Astros to own their cheating. Maybe they missed the sign.
• Cheating ruins everything about sports. The Astros got what they deserved.