Scan the headlines of the stories written about the Houston Astros over the last few weeks, and you'll notice the use of the word villain. Even this publication has used that word to describe the Astros, and it's not because we're running out of adjectives: It's because the narrative really does fit for the 2021 edition of this baseball club.
The Astros clinched a World Series berth Friday night at Minute Maid Park, their third in five seasons, eliminating the Boston Red Sox with a 5-0 win. This was a controversial series involving two controversial teams. The Astros stole signs from opponents by using an illegal camera and TV monitor throughout the 2017 and 2018 seasons, and former bench coach Alex Cora took a similar scheme to Boston as the manager of the Red Sox in 2018. A league investigation in 2020 revealed as much, and there has been palpable fan anger in every major league city except for Houston and Boston since then.
When the playoffs began earlier this month, the narrative around the Astros was that they were using the anger as fuel for their own fire. They wanted to show baseball that they were more than just a "trash" team. While manager Dusty Baker disputed that notion, it still seemed like a convenient narrative.
Baker wasn't the manager when the sign-stealing occurred, but he's a savvy veteran who understands he has to stand by his team and try to deflect negativities so the squad can focus on baseball. If he says it's no big deal, then it won't be as big of a deal. The words will be written, but the players won't give very many juicy soundbites. They can go about their work without thinking too much about what happened last year.
The Astros know that many fans don't care for them. The disdain has been apparent throughout the season as fans returned to the stands. It was advantageous for the Astros to use the boos to drive them this season. And if the Los Angeles Dodgers return to the World Series with a chance to exact some vengeance, then the majority of baseball will be rooting for redemption.
But every sport has a good villain. It wouldn't be sports if we didn't have the favorites, the underdogs and the teams that are easy to hate.