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Houston, We Still Have a Problem

November 1, 2017: 1000 Vin Scully Avenue, Los Angeles. Welcome to Dodger Stadium, home of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Game seven. Championship or bust. For one team, elation, but for the other, heartbreak. Astros pitcher Charlie Morton stands calmly, 60 feet and 6 inches from Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, one pitch away from glory. You could cut the tension like Hank Aaron could a fastball. Dodgers fans watch impatiently, rally caps equipped, though they have proved useless to this point. This is the final chance for the Dodgers. Morton pulls his hands behind his head, loads up, and fires. A 96 mph sinker that rides just inside the box. Seager makes hard contact, sending a grounder between first and second base, directly into the glove of superstar second baseman Jose Altuve. Altuve quickly moves the ball from his left to right hand and sends it straight into the glove of Yuli Gurriel, his foot firmly on first base. “The Houston Astros are world champions for the first time in franchise history!” exclaims the usually monotone Joe Buck. Game over. The Houston Astros, a team that for so long had dwelled in the basements of Major League Baseball, had just won the World Series.

Cut to 2019, and the reveal that the Astros had illegally stolen signs electronically. It was one of the biggest scandals in MLB history, casting doubt on everything that came both before and after it, but most notably, on their 2017 World Series title run. The whole world turned on the Astros. But, just two years later, the team had a chance to redeem themselves during the 2021 World Series. Sadly, they fell short. Before we unpack the meaning behind their loss, let’s take a look at how they got here in the first place.

We’re back in 2017, right after the big win. The players run to the center of the infield and embrace each other, then fall to the floor, just as they dreamed as little kids. Confetti whirls around in the autumn wind like a flurry of snow, sticking to glossy helmets. Tears stain the “World Champion” shirts that look so odd over the bulky jerseys underneath. The team sees only themselves in the reflection of the trophy they hold over their heads, now marked with fingerprints.

"This is a dream come true and an honor," series MVP George Springer exclaimed, according to ESPN. "It's about the Houston Astros tonight, our city, our fans… We're coming home champions."

Springer was right. This was their championship—one for the organization, one for the city, one for the people. It was a true underdog story. The team that was a joke for so long now bolstered a deadly lineup of hitters, all of whom could go yard at any given swing of the bat. Pick your poison, 1-9. It didn’t matter. They would all make you pay for putting the ball in that box. Plus, they were pretty damn fun to watch. If you were to turn on an Astros game in 2017, there was a decent chance the score would be in the double digits. Young fans watched wide-eyed, every night, as the team reinvented the sport of baseball that was for so long considered boring. Minute Maid Park was always rocking. Swing, dive, throw. They were fast. Don’t blink. Smack, huff, zoom. They were loud, hearts on their sleeves, never satisfied. They were young. They were modern. They were loved. They were the team of the people.

“We cannot thank you enough @astros!” wrote news anchor Melanie Lawson on Twitter at the time. “You showed the world we are #HoustonStrong… We are #WorldChampions!”

Over the next two years, the Astros continued their offensive dominance. Houston was turning into a dynasty. Night in, night out, they poured it on against their hopeless opponents. It seemed almost impossible that the Astros were winning so much, especially at home. But was it too good to be true? Allegations that the team had been illegally stealing signs from the other teams’ catchers had been circulating since 2016, but were simply swept under the rug. “The whole industry knows they’ve been cheating their a---- off for three or four years,” an executive from a team that faced the Astros in the playoffs during that span told the Washington Post. “Everybody knew it.”

The same happened when the team won the World Series in 2017, and then in 2018 when they lost in the ALCS. By the 2019 season, there were enough allegations that the league and its fans began to truly consider the possibility of the Astros cheating. “It was a big open secret, really big,” a scout from another team told the Washington Post back in 2020. “Throughout baseball, throughout the scouting community, for several years, not just starting in 2017. I would say probably 2016, maybe earlier, through [2019], things were going on that were blatantly against the rules.”

That postseason, Rays catcher Travis D’arnaud and former pitcher Seth McClung made major claims that the Astros had been stealing signs. D’arnaud went as far as to hide his signs while playing Houston in the 2019 ALCS, a series they would lose. “We just wanted to make sure that nothing was going on,” said D’arnaud when asked why the Rays weren’t using their usual signs. Cracks were beginning to form. The Astros couldn’t have cheated, though. Not this team… Right?

November 12, 2019: Mike Fiers, former Astros pitcher and member of the 2017 championship team, admitted to The Athletic that the team had been electronically stealing signs the year they won it all. “Operation Codebreaker” featured a camera at the center field of Minute Maid Park that allowed for a perfect view of the catcher. This footage would be streamed directly to the Astros dugout in real-time, and the team would relay this information to the hitter by banging on a trash can. Once for on-speed, twice for off-speed.

Betrayal. The city of Houston was betrayed. Their shining moment, the culmination of years of frustrations, the championship that brought a sense of pride to a city that needed it was now gone, ripped right out of their hands. Everything—the energy, the passion, the grit, the love—was all a lie.

Well-known Astros superfan HTownSportsTake tweeted at the time that he felt "like I’ve been duped and made a fool of by players I considered some of the ‘good guys' in all of the sports. The title, the players, and the great game of baseball that is as much a part of me as anything has me questioning what is real and what isn’t.”

"The championship meant SO much to this city," added @lloydofhouston on Twitter, "especially after… so many years of the Astros choking in the playoffs. [The MLB] may not have taken the trophy away from us, but we all know that it will never mean the same to us again, and that hurts."

The news sent the league into a tailspin. Never before had there been a cheating scandal of such magnitude. Manager Jeff Luhnow and GM AJ Hinch were suspended one year and immediately fired by the Astros. Others involved around the league were also suspended, like former player Carlos Beltran. But most importantly, the team had lost all of the respect it had gained over the last few years.

“I was pretty mad, pretty upset,” said Yankee Aaron Judge during a press conference in February 2020. “I was sick to my stomach. I had a lot of respect for them, the way they played, and what they did. And to find out that it wasn’t earned, they cheated, that didn’t sit well with me.” Dodgers pitcher Cody Bellenger claimed everyone knew the Astros “stole that ring” from them. Cubs' third baseman Kris Bryant spoke out about the team’s apology, stating that they were only doing so “because they got caught.” Bryant described the whole situation as “a disgrace to the game.” Overnight, the cutting-edge team responsible for changing the game and inspiring fans worldwide had become the most hated team in all of baseball.

That hatred never waivered. It was there throughout the 2019 offseason. It was in the voices of former fans. It was in forum posts on the internet when the pandemic hit. It was there throughout the shortened 2020 season, and when the team lost to the Rays in that year's ALCS. Time continued to move on, but the fans never did—not even In 2021, when the Houston Astros, the villains of the MLB, returned to the World Series for the third time in five years. Fans continued to show their hatred for the organization, despite this being a very different team.

“You can tell the amount of hostility and the amount of hatred in the stands,” said Astros GM Dusty Baker in a press conference after fans threw an inflatable trash can onto the field during a game against the Angels. Baker, a beloved and respected veteran, replaced Luhnow and Hinch. The Astros roster changed as well. All but five players from that 2017 team—Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel, and Lance McCullers Jr—had been shipped off to other teams in the league. This was a new team with young talents that loved the sport—a team with no malicious intent that just wanted to play baseball.

"We've made mistakes in the past, but you can't go back," McCullers told ESPN. "All we can do is continue to move forward, play good baseball.”

And they played good baseball. Through all of the identity changes and inconsistencies, the Astros just kept winning. This team was incredibly talented and had been since 2017. Maybe they never needed to cheat in the first place. But they did. And now, at last, an opportunity for redemption stood before them: The World Series.

“The team will need to win another title in 2021 and beyond for the public narrative to really change,” explained Kenneth Kline of Fansided. “For a franchise with something to prove, this would be all the team can afford to do to change the narrative and end the legacy on a positive note despite creating a dark plague in the game’s rich and storied history.”

This was their chance to prove to the world that they didn’t need to cheat to win it all.

It was the chance to finally put the era of Astros hatred to rest. A shot to right the biggest wrong in franchise history. An opportunity for the city to finally get the championship taken from them by their own team.

“I think they can redeem themselves,” Houstonian Ray Martinez told Houston Public Media. “Maybe the whole country can forgive them because everybody has fallen some way or another. But you just dust yourself off, get up and move on. That's in the past. We don't live in the past.”

Now all they had to do was win.

November 1, 2021: 501 Crawford Street, Houston. Welcome to Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros. Atlanta Braves pitcher Will Smith stands 60 feet and 6 inches from Yuri Gurriel, who made the catch to win the Astros that tainted championship in 2017. Behind him is Travis D’arnaud, who accused the Astros of cheating in 2019. He no longer has to hide his signals. There’s no camera in center field tonight. Smith launches, and Gurriel lines to the right, directly into the glove of Dansby Swanson, who then relays the ball to Freddie Freeman after a slight hesitation, but fast enough for the out. “The Braves are world champions!” yells Joe Buck, whose cheerful voice seems to rear its head only once every fall. Game over.

The world rejoiced to see the Astros fall once again. When the Braves made a Twitter post saying “THE ATLANTA BRAVES ARE WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS!” one user responded with, “And in better news, the Astros lost!!” Former NBC Sports Boston analyst Jared Carrabis wrote, “Some people wanted the Astros’ punishment to be that they were banned from postseason play, but I think getting there, having hope and losing every single year is way worse.”

And so, the Astros remain another year without a pure championship to call their own. The only trophy in their trophy case sits alone, forever tarnished by the disgraceful acts committed to putting it in that case. The same trophy once so clear and marked only with fingerprints, now meaningless and stained with mockery. A brutal reminder that the world sees the Houston Astros only as one thing: Cheaters.

But behind that label is a team. A team that played well all throughout the regular season. A team that earned their spot in the postseason. A team that got all the way to the World Series and was two games away from a championship. A team that had the chance to win a trophy they earned, a real trophy. But they didn’t win. That real trophy has eluded them once again. The trophy will show the world that the Astros can win a title on their own. The trophy will prompt fans to finally move on and accept the Astros as a different team. The trophy that will fill the black hole left behind in 2017. That trophy has yet to be found. Maybe next year.

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