An unimpeachable championship: Houston Astros win World Series
By David Waldstein
For five years, wherever the Houston Astros traveled, they felt the fury behind the booing and jeers from opposing fans, and withstood charges that their 2017 World Series championship was tainted by allegations of cheating.
Amid the outcry, the Astros never went away. They kept striving to legitimize their success, reaching the postseason each subsequent year while advancing to the World Series three times. But as close as they came in that half decade, they never managed to prove unequivocally that, yes, they could win a title without illegally stealing opponents’ signs. Now they can.
Playing at home, where the scandal is rarely highlighted, the Astros beat the Philadelphia Phillies 4-1 in Game 6 on Saturday to win the 2022 World Series, rewarding their loyal fans with an unimpeachable championship to pair with their tarnished title in 2017.
That was the year the Astros beat the Los Angeles Dodgers for Houston’s first World Series crown. But they were later forced to admit to using technology and banging on trash cans to steal and relay signs. In the wake of the scandal, they were shunned by the baseball world, with fans in opposing stadiums demonstrating their outrage by booing and flashing signs that vilified them as cheaters.
“I think that’s what drove this team,” said Dusty Baker, the manager for the last three seasons. “The boos and the jeers that we got all over the country, it bothered these guys, but it also motivated them at the same time. And it wasn’t an us-against-the-world thing. It was more of a, come together even closer-type thing.”
The Astros do not often speak publicly about how the scandal fueled their desire to win what some might call a clean championship. But Lance McCullers Jr., a longtime Astros pitcher and one of five active players left from the 2017 team, said on the field after the game that when right fielder Kyle Tucker caught the final out in foul territory, and the Astros players celebrated in the usual fashion, there was extra meaning in the hugs with the players from 2017 because of how important it was for their legacy.
“That was always going to be a dark cloud over our head,” he said of the scandal. “I’m sure a lot of people aren’t happy that we won, but at the end of the day we continue just to work and do things the right way.”
McCullers said that when the Astros were trailing by a run in the bottom of the sixth, he retreated to a special spot in the clubhouse for good luck, and was speaking to the team doctor when Yordan Alvarez came to the plate with two runners on base.
“I said, ‘We just need a home run here from Yordo,’” McCullers said. He got it, and then some. Alvarez, whose three-run, walk-off homer in Game 1 of Houston’s division series against Seattle kicked off his team’s remarkable postseason run, bookended that with a titanic blast off relief pitcher José Alvarado.
The ball soared high over the batter’s eye in center field, and landed in the seats, about 40 feet above the 409-foot sign. Its final distance was estimated at 450 feet.
“That was one of the furthest balls I’ve ever seen hit at this ballpark,” said Alex Bregman, the Astros third baseman. “I would need to hit it twice to hit it that far.”
Bregman is one of the players who has received the majority of abuse for the cheating scheme. He mostly shied away from making direct comparisons to 2017, but he did acknowledge the special hugs for the 2017 alumni.
“I think I hugged McCullers four times,” he said.
Winning a second title does not change history, but it helps isolate the cheating scandal as a one-time event, as far as people know, and not a crutch on which Houston rested its only title. For some neutral observers, it banishes the dark clouds for good.
“It goes away forever,” John Smoltz, a Hall of Fame pitcher who was broadcasting the Series for Fox, said after Game 5. “To win this one would be the greatest relief in the world.”
The victory provided special joy and perhaps some vindication, as well, for Baker, who had never won a World Series, despite leading a record five teams to the playoffs. At 73, Baker became the oldest manager to win a World Series.
The Astros hired Baker after firing A.J. Hinch, the manager of the 2017 team who was blamed for not putting a halt to the cheating operation. With an impeccable reputation and affable persona, Baker not only stabilized the team, but was able to deflect some of the ire aimed at the organization, while maintaining the Astros general level of excellence.
In 2019, Houston lost to the Washington Nationals in seven games. Last year they lost to the Atlanta Braves, both times in Houston, as the home fans were forced to watch the jubilant visitors celebrate on their home turf. In between, Houston lost the American League Championship Series to the Boston Red Sox in 2018 and the Tampa Bay Rays in 2020.
They had five straight trips to the ALCS since 2017, but previously no untainted title to show for it.
This year, they swept their first two rounds of the playoffs, with their only losses of the postseason coming in Games 1 and Game 3 of the World Series.
All the while, they heard relentless booing, chanting and jeers, all because of their own actions — and inaction of those who knew and did not stop it.
“People say some vulgar things to you, talking a lot of mess about your family, your kids, and they just let it brush off their shoulders” said closer Ryan Pressly, who was not on the team in 2017. He summed up his teammates’ reaction: “They are unbelievable. They are professional.”
Pressly and his cohorts in the bullpen were a big part of why the Astros held the trophy aloft on Saturday. Pressly closed out Game 6 in the ninth, finishing a postseason in which he had five saves and a 0.00 ERA. He is now 11 for 11 in postseason save opportunities for his career.
The Astros pitching staff as a whole is loaded with fiery arms, and collectively induced 71 strikeouts from the Phillies, a World Series record. Philadelphia’s .163 batting average is also the lowest for any team in a World Series of at least six games.
“You got to give credit to their pitching,” said Phillies manager Rob Thomson. “They got great pitching, they really do.”
Fans may never completely forgive them but they cannot attach any known dishonor to this most recent title. no matter how they try.
“People are going to say what they want to say,” Pressly said. “We won. We’re the best. Ain’t nothing they can say about it now.”