The orange star with the letter H is the first thing that pops into view on the Houston Astros’ website, and it’s a dominant element of the “Houston Strong” uniform patch the team wore en route to its 2017 World Series victory, the grandest moment in the history of Houston baseball.
But in the eyes of skeptical, judgmental and admittedly envious fans around the country, and, more importantly, perhaps in the questioning gaze of Major League Baseball investigators, Houston’s shining star now represents a tarnished emblem.
As MLB owners gather this week in Arlington for an off-season meeting, the Astros face two significant investigations — one involving the conduct of former executive Brandon Taubman after the American League Championship Series and the team’s reaction to that event, the other involving allegations that the Astros resorted to improper electronic means to steal signs during the 2017 season.
Regardless of the outcome, both appear to be of a piece, products of an organizational philosophy that admits pushing to the bleeding edge of what is acceptable conduct in building and operating one of MLB’s most innovative, most successful teams of late, winners of 100 games each of the past three seasons while repeatedly garnering attention for conduct that some find unbecoming of the sport.
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In the waggishly theatrical words of Richard Levick, the communications strategist who advises companies that may find themselves at the ragged edge of acceptable behavior, Houston’s baseball team appears to have transformed the bright colors of “Field of Dreams” into the cloudy shades of “Casablanca,” from idyllic national pastime to a world where espionage is accepted coin of the realm.
Potential consequences await. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said this week he has the authority to impose sanctions beyond those set out in baseball’s written codes of conduct. Manfred is likely to address the matter Thursday in Arlington, but he has given no indication how long the MLB probe will continue.
Under a nightmare scenario for Houston fans, he could impugn the team’s 2017 championship. At the other end of the spectrum, he could levy fines, suspensions and forfeiture of draft picks.
But under any scenario, the combination of the cheating allegations and the Taubman incident, a byproduct of the ballclub’s 2018 acquisition of relief pitcher Roberto Osuna, the public profile of the Astros has shifted. The team has gone from heroes of a stricken city in the wake of Hurricane Harvey to baseball’s equivalent of the New England Patriots, the franchise that everybody outside of its hometown loathes but that all, in some fashion or another, seek to emulate in terms of on-field success.
Whatever happens, life likely will not be the same for those who adhere to orange and blue.
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“The Astros know they can erase the tarnish off their star by winning, just as the Patriots and others have done before them,” Levick said. “They would be wise to fire the people responsible so they can say ‘that was then, this is now.’
“It will soon be time for the Astros to make a sacrifice.”
The Astros, for the moment, are silent on the cheating allegations, citing the continuing MLB investigation. Owner Jim Crane said he would talk “baseball only” in a 14-second interaction with reporters at the owners meetings before security intervened. The Astros previously apologized for the conduct of Taubman, who was dismissed after his profane jeers directed toward female reporters in what all now acknowledge was a misguided defense of Osuna, the reliever who was acquired by the Astros while serving a suspension under MLB’s domestic violence prevention code.
Astros players also have been silent on the matter, which arose after the team disbanded for the year in the wake of its World Series loss to the Washington Nationals.
But Astros pro and con talk in recent weeks has been the primary engine of baseball’s Hot Stove League, the nickname for wintertime conversation that generally involves trade talk and contract negotiations rather than accusations that strike at the soul of the game.
Opinions on the severity of the matter, not surprisingly, vary widely among the Astros’ faithful.
If the allegations are proved to be true, “This would be a huge black eye that would taint all of the success we as fans of the Astros, as well as baseball fans in general, have experienced,” wrote Keith McDaniel, a member of the Facebook group Blessed to be an Astros Fan.
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“I’m also shocked at how many Astro fans are taking this so lightly and comical. The integrity of the game has been ripped apart,” McDaniel added. “I hope the investigation shows that it has all been blown out of proportion. But if not, the only way to overcome this scandal is to continue to win. Even then, it’s going to be difficult to regain the reputation that we all thought the Astros earned fair and square.”
Other fans are less concerned, even defiant.
“I don’t care if other teams hate us. We will just keep on winning,” wrote one fan. “This is a witch hunt,” wrote another. “Still a good group of men,” said a third. “I stand by my Astros,” added another group member.
Group member Billy Vidler, noting past allegations of chicanery lodged against the Yankees and Red Sox, fears the Astros will be a sacrificial lamb for the sins of more favored teams in larger markets.
“MLB had a chance to drop the hammer on Boston and New York and barely gave them a slap on the wrist. They were not going to damage their cash cow,” Vidler said. “Now, they have a good team that isn’t as important to the revenue stream for the league as a whole. Now they can come down with Thor’s hammer” and stand on their self-righteousness yelling, ‘We’ll deal with cheaters.’ They have their sacrificial lamb.”
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As with the Astros, who have been accused by former pitcher Mike Fiers of employing a video system that enabled them to steal the catcher’s signs to opposing pitchers, the Patriots were accused in 2007 of using improper means to intercept another team’s signals. Coach Bill Belichick was fined, and the team was penalized its first-round draft choice.
Also, in January 2015, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was accused of arranging for deflated footballs to be used in the AFC title game against the Indianapolis Colts. The team was fined and lost draft choices, and Brady was suspended for four games.
New England, however, continues to prosper, with six Super Bowl titles and a 9-1 record entering a weekend game against the Dallas Cowboys. The franchise is valued at $4.1 billion and continue to be the apple of New England’s eye and villains among most of NFL fandom.
The Astros, similarly, have profited under Crane’s ownership. Crane purchased the team for $615 million, with a significant amount of that value attached to the team’s interest in a regional sports network that subsequently went bankrupt, and Forbes this year ranked it 10th in value among MLB franchises at $1.8 billion.
In both veins, then, it’s not surprising that some Astros fans aren’t particularly offended about being compared to the Patriots, who, by the way, face a Sunday night game Dec. 1 at NRG Stadium, where they will no doubt be booed lustily as fraud and cheaters.
“I do think we are now nationally viewed as similar to the New England Patriots.” said Blessed to be an Astros Fan member Brandon Kura. “It’s a weird feeling. I kinda like it, because it’s like ‘us vs the world’ and it will make it that much sweeter if we win another World Series.”
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Similarly, Stephen Klineberg, the Rice University sociologist who tracks Houston’s civic psyche through the annual Kinder Houston Area Survey, said the Astros’ status in Houston likely will be unaffected regardless of the outcome of the MLB investigations.
“There is a lot of individual love. People love (Jose) Altuve. they love (Carlos) Correa,” Klineberg said. “They brought prestige and support and excitement to Houston.
“I think there will be a tendency to downplay this: ‘It’s a bad thing, but it’s not way out of the pale.’ It won’t be viewed as betrayal. There may be disappointment along the lines of ‘maybe they shouldn’t have done it, but it was not a uniquely evil act.’”
Levick, the crisis consultant, said the Astros could help their cause by reversing what he describes as a catastrophic recent series of public relations blunders that began with the Taubman incident.
He said the team’s initial decision to describe a Sports Illustrated report about Taubman’s conduct as inaccurate, followed by a second series of statements saying they would give the matter further study, was “a perfect example of overexuberance and poor judgment followed by reflection and poor judgment.”
The Astros also cited their support of domestic violence prevention groups in subsequent statements in which they acknowledged that the Sports Illustrated report was true and that Taubman would be fired. Levick said that statement, while a positive development, was “not a ‘get out of jail free’ card” for past missteps.
As for the cheating investigation, Levick said the Astros have allowed their critics to dominate the conversation by issuing only a brief no comment statement and by doing so in such limited fashion that he was unaware such a statement had been made. It was not posted on the Astros’ website or its social media platforms.
“There is so much self-inflicted damage here,” he said. “It’s as if they don’t understand the moment. What they need to do is to meet with MLB privately and negotiate their punishment and to communicate with fans that they take this seriously.”
“The Astros,” Levick said, “at one point were America’s team.”
Oddly enough, reflecting the nature of a divided America, perhaps they still are.