We’re a sophisticated bunch over here, but let’s suppose a few of us used to be the kind of person lampooned in the famous monologue that decries: “Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches professional wrestling?” (around the 1:00 mark). I once was such a person in the Age of Hulkamania. Even then I sensed, although I didn’t know it at the time, that professional wrestling was made up of good guys and heels. The ultimate heels back in those days were the Iron Sheik and Rowdy Roddy Piper. My childhood self really did think they were bad. It took a few years (and some social science) to realize that the heels were never as bad as they seemed, and the good guys never as good as they seemed. Not so much in wrestling (which I ditched at age 13), but in life.
So too is it with sports. Every “brand consultant” tells every elite player to manage his brand. Players all have their own charities now—some save puppies, others help poor kids, and still more save the planet. Of course the trick is to pick a cause that won’t ever hurt the brand. Avoid political stances. Be authentic, but never be real.
It must be exhausting. A few players come from such dire circumstances that the veneer is hard to maintain, and others struggle with fame and substance abuse. They make bad choices that should not be minimized.
But the world is not divided between bad and good guys.
Which brings me to us, the fans. We actually root for these guys. We actually like them. And in our minds we all have a certain contract with them. Some people (younger ones) legitimately look up to athletes as a version of celebrity and expect them to be demigods forever. Others just want them not to be bad guys, not to make us feel embarrassed. Others just want them to win and don’t get caught. No matter the case, we all feel some kind of disappointment when those expectations aren’t met.
I’m a relatively successful middle-aged man with things outside of baseball that give me greater joy, but I love the Houston Astros, and I have for a long time. I particularly love two guys: George Springer and Jose Altuve. I mainly love them based on how they play baseball, but I also have the impression that they’re the kind of guys who would pull over and help you change a spare tire on a cold, wet afternoon. In short, I think they’re good guys. I want to root for them for their entire careers.
It’s hard to know the mind of a professional baseball player. One would have to imagine that to be this great at anything, one needs to be wired in a particular way. Millions of kids play baseball the world over. Thousands get college scholarships. Roughly two thousand are added to franchises each year, and only dozens make it to the majors from any draft/free agent class. Of them, very few achieve the level of excellence that any of our key contributors make.
Could it be that the very thing that makes these Astros so great also made them push and ultimately rip the envelope of competitive balance? Could it be that underneath the shy smile of a Jose Altuve lies a competitive fire and will to win equal to Alex Bregman, or even Kobe Bryant, who sometimes came across as arrogant? Could it be that our Astros, even the lovable ones, want to win so badly at baseball every day, and that they want to win more than any of us have ever wanted anything in our entire lives? Maybe the elite athlete is wired in a way that we will never understand, and for all of the attempts to be “just like us” on Instagram, they’re nothing like us (not just because their wives are beautiful and their houses are much bigger).
Regardless of whether they’re good guys or just bad guys in sheep’s clothing, the guys that were so easy to root for are now baseball’s heels. It’s taken some time for me to let this set in. I mean, Altuve is perhaps the most likable athlete of our generation, the Steph Curry of baseball. Yordan Alvarez would probably give anybody in the street a hug if they asked for one. And Yuli would probably give them $20 with a smile. But we’re the New England Patriots of baseball now. Once a cheater always a cheater. Is it fair? No. But who cares at this point?
The crowd is fickle. I don’t meant to get all religious here, but the crowd turned on Jesus in less than a week. And no Astro is Jesus (although I’m sure there’s a Jesús on the farm somewhere). Jim Crane speaks and acts exactly how any billionaire would speak and act. The press conference was not great, Bob. As fans, we don’t even need to pretend to like him. But the crowd is fickle, so I say “embrace it.”
2020 is the year of rooting for the heel! All this winning had made me dizzy. How many 100 win seasons can you have? Now there’s another angle: Will teams throw at us? What will Lance McCullers do in response? Which Astro has been so angry about this story that they’ve worked twice as hard? Will Correa finally put up an MVP season? Will Bregman stare even harder? Will Michael Brantley’s stoicism crack? Will every game feel like the intensity of peak Lone Star Series games against the Rangers (I mean, when they were good)?
The last three years have been amazing, and we were 8 outs away from two championships in three years. Can we get back to the World Series? Can we hold the A’s at bay?
Maybe the Astros are the bad guys now. That doesn’t mean they won’t be fun.