The Rise of the Villains and the Return of the Asterisk

Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

"And therefore since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days"
- Richard III

When Jose Altuve hit perhaps the most significant home run in Astros history off All-Star Closer Aroldis Chapman to clinch the 2019 ALCS for the Houston Astros, everyone in the Astros fandom felt that we were on an upward trajectory towards matching, if not exceeding, the greatest achievement in franchise history: the winning of the World Series. Win two in three years, and the Astros could legitimately take their place among the most dominant teams in MLB history. Even without the World Series win, the Astros could look back from where they were back at the start of the decade, with 3 straight 100-loss seasons and look at where they now stood (3 straight 100+ win seasons, 3 straight division titles, 2 World Series berths).

How little did we realize that we had just witnessed the high point of the Astros season. From there, it seems as if anything that could go wrong for the Astros did: Taubman’s comments to a group of female reporters, and the Astros giving a master class in how NOT to handle a public relations gaffe; Becoming the first professional franchise to lose 4 home games in a 7 game series, blowing a chance to win 2 World Series in 3 years; The confessions of a disgruntled ex-pitcher that stated that the team was using illegal and unethical means to steal signs and convey that information to batter via a series of methods, from banging of trash cans to electronic bandages. At the time of this writing, the Astros stand on the cusp of severe sanctions from MLB, with the commissioner making multiple remarks about such actions.

As the team awaits the final judgement from MLB, most of the other franchises and social media have deemed the team the worst sinners in baseball since the 1919 Black Sox. Given how the Astros went from plucky feel good story (especially post-Harvey) to powerful juggernaut, it is easy to see where resentment for the team would come from the other fan bases, especially the Dodgers and Yankees, the two most prominent victims of the Astros’ rise to power. However, the Astros also suffer from being the targets of scorn from other players/executives. They eschewed conventional norms and had no qualms about saying so. The success and the arrogance of the Astros executives put off many, so when the chance to take them down a peg emerged this October, the rivals all lined up to take their collective shots. Luhnow is regarded as one of the best GMs in the business, but also among the most polarizing. L’affair Taubman just highlighted to many that the Astros may have good minds, but perhaps not the best character people. At a time when baseball should be celebrating its great achievements (World Series and speculation about the offseason), the Astros gave MLB as series of multiple black eyes.

What punishments will the Astros face? While the case is ongoing, it is hard to see how the Astros avoid major penalties, especially if half of the reported information is confirmed. Loss of draft picks, fines and suspensions for key personnel seem a given. Who and how much will depend on what MLB discovers. Will the commissioner channel his predecessor from a century ago and go Judge Mountain Kenesaw Landis on the guilty parties, throwing in some lifetime bans? Depends if he feels that electronic sign stealing is an existential threat to the game ala gambling. In my opinion, electronic sign-stealing does not reach to that level, but if you want to make this a deterrent, then you must send a message.

Yet, whatever the official ruling for the team, the Astros are now fully entrenched as the villain de jour of baseball. Massive success + a good cheating scandal x major resentment = perfect villain for MLB. No doubt the level of booing/trash-talking/malice for the squad will increase for the 2020 season. Are the Astros ready to deal with that role? Prior to this off-season, the Astros really weren’t much of anyone’s idea of a villainous team. Sure, you could resent the success, but historically, the Astros didn’t merit much attention one way or another. Not the case now.

It may be foreign territory for the team, but they have the personnel who could lean into that role, embracing their inner Richard III. Bregman, for all his talent, is also looking to increase his social media stature, and his arrogance, coupled with some questionably timed social media posts (see prior to game 3 of the 2018 ALCS) make him an obvious target. Verlander might be the modern DiMaggio, given his pitching success and marriage to bombshell Kate Upton, but his recent dust-up with a reporter, getting the team to block said reporter from a post-game press conference didn’t exactly endear him to the press, which in turn, will help turn him more heel than hero. Gurriel’s ill-timed ethnic dig at Yu Darvish in the 2017 World Series may come back up. Need we mention Osuna? Maybe the hardest Astro to root against will be Altuve, or at least, outside of the Bronx and Boston. Then again, if MLB comes out with significant punishments on the Astros for sign stealing, he may quickly go from little hero to little devil.

Come what may on the penalties, the Astros’ 2017 World Series title will have a long-standing shadow of controversy. Assuming Manfred does not strip the title from Houston, there is going to be, at least outside of Houston, an asterisk on that title. That f*****g asterisk, sometimes going by the alias "Yeah, but…" For the Houston sports fan, especially where the limited city championships are concerned, that asterisk is a major thorn in the city’s side. The 1st 2 AFL championships* (yeah, but that was the start of the AFL, and it doesn’t exist anymore); the Houston Comets and their 4 straight WNBA titles* (yeah, but it is the WNBA, and they don’t exist anymore); the Houston Dynamo* (yeah, but that is MLS, and they were really still the San Jose team before they came over anyway); the Houston Rockets back-to-back NBA titles* (yeah, but those were the seasons that Jordan didn’t really play, and he won the 3 before and the next 3 after). When the Astros won in 2017, it seemed that finally, the city had a championship that no one on the outside, not even the biggest detractors from New York or Dallas, could dispute or slight with that asterisk. Unfortunately, it is back, and just as prominent as any of the other championships the city can claim in its sporting history.

Thus, the Astros ride into an uncertain 2020 season. The "good guy" narrative is over, and the Astros, much like the reviled English king, must learn to embrace the role of the villain. Are the Astros near are dark as Richard III? No, but then again, history shows that Richard was not quite the villain Shakespeare made him to be (after all, the Bard had to appeal to his main benefactor, Queen Elizabeth I, and making a play that villainizes her grandfather’s (Henry VII) greatest foe is just smart business). As a fan, it is a little hard to stomach that this squad will wear the black hat on the road, and the slings and arrows of the fans are coming. Still, there can be something fun about playing the heel, and many an actor would sell his soul to play the character of Richard III in a great production. This squad, barring a post-season ban, should be well-position to compete in the brutal AL, and leverage its newfound villainous role to glory, thus giving the city a non-asterisk championship.

(POST SCRIPT: The results were released on Jan 13 2020. The Astros were guilty of sign-stealing and were punished accordingly. The team lost $5M in fines, 1st and 2nd round draft picks in 2020/2010, their manager and GM. No players were fined suspended, but public opinion is all negative about the Astros. Hopefully, the team is ready to play the role of the villain, because they, like Richard III, are set in that role.)