• The Star Staff

Even in a pandemic, everyone still hates the Astros

By David Waldstein

Just the thought of the Houston Astros skating away without any public rebuke rankled Jon Wilson.

A 43-year-old software consultant from California’s East Bay and a devout Oakland Athletics fan, Wilson was stewing at the injustice of it all as the 2020 season approached. First the Astros cheated their way to the 2017 World Series, he thought, and then their players avoided punishment in what amounted to an unsavory plea bargain after Major League Baseball’s investigation this year.

The final outrage was the empty ballparks. Because of the coronavirus, MLB decided to start its 2020 season without fans in stadiums, enabling the Astros to avoid what Wilson and many others had eagerly anticipated: a season-long public flogging in the form of loud, visceral, deep-throated jeers.

“How many different ways can they get away with what happened?” Wilson said in a telephone interview. “They don’t even have to face the wrath of the fans.”

So, earlier this month, inspired by a video of a lone Los Angeles Dodgers fan outside Anaheim Stadium booing the Astros (who were playing inside), Wilson took action. He hired a plane to fly above Oakland Coliseum during batting practice before an Athletics-Astros game, towing a sign that read, “Houston Asterisks.”

The words referred to the notion held by many fans besides Houston’s that the Astros’ 2017 World Series title is tainted. That year, Astros players stole signs using a live video feed and communicated them to batters by banging on a trash can. When The Athletic revealed the scheme last winter, many in the baseball world felt the championship deserved an asterisk in the record book to highlight the cheating.

In lieu of that, Wilson and others are carrying out an ongoing, underground opposition campaign against the Astros. With an assist from a widely followed Twitter account called 2020 Astros Shame Tour, Wilson raised the $1,200 for the flight in less than 24 hours. So much money came in, he said, that he can afford another flight when the Astros return to Oakland in September.

“It would be cool to have a banner follow the Astros from city to city,” he said. “No matter where they go, the same banner just keeps popping up to remind them.”

Even in a most unusual MLB season, fans like Wilson and the lone booer in Anaheim have uncovered unique ways to express their outrage despite not being allowed in ballparks, determined to keep a spotlight on Houston, which remains a lightning rod for negativity.

To the delight of the anti-Astros crowd, the Houston players have faced more than their share of misfortune this year. They’ve had bench-clearing altercations, suspensions, costly injuries, a five-game losing streak and enough batting slumps to fuel joyful speculation that perhaps the team’s players, especially second baseman José Altuve, can’t hit as well when it’s on the up and up.

A three-time American League batting champion, Altuve was batting .176 through Monday, 136 points below his career average.

Manager Dusty Baker, who was hired in January after the team fired A.J. Hinch in the wake of the cheating scandal, was asked last week if Altuve might be putting too much pressure on himself, trying to prove to a skeptical world that he can perform without knowing what pitch is coming.

“Altuve, he has been hitting all his life,” Baker responded. “It’s only a matter of time before Altuve hits again.”

Until then, many are relishing his struggles and those of his team: The Astros, who reached the World Series last season, were 12-10 and battling for second place in the American League West just over a third of the way through the season.

Brendan Donley, a writer and Cubs fan from Chicago, started the Astros Shame Tour Twitter account for the same reason Wilson had in flying his sign over an empty Coliseum: to give the Astros a steady reminder of their transgressions. While Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended and then fired, no Astros players were punished by MLB, something that outraged many fans and opposing players.

Donley opened the account in February, before the pandemic was declared, and within a short time it became a central clearinghouse for all things anti-Astros.

His account has exploded, with nearly 300,000 followers who get a daily dose of mockery, sarcasm and news of Houston’s struggles. Donley particularly enjoys that the account has gained more followers than either Alex Bregman or Carlos Correa, two popular Astros players implicated in the scandal.

“It would have been fine if it were only 10,000 people,” said Donley, who has written a book about the 1968 World Series. “But to see the legion of people who feel the same way is really cool.”

The anti-Astros movement has adopted a few heroes along the way. Among them is Trevor Bauer, the outspoken Cincinnati Reds pitcher who has written about the “bad blood” many MLB players still have for the Astros.

Another is Ramón Laureano, the Athletics outfielder who was hit by an Astros pitch Aug. 8, then engaged in a shouting match with Alex Cintrón, Houston’s hitting coach, charged the Astros dugout and incited a bench-clearing fracas that flouted any sense of physical distancing.

Cintrón received a 20-game suspension for starting the shouting match, while Laureano was barred for four games and joined Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly in the pantheon of anti-Astros antagonizers.

“Everybody who hates the Astros loves Joe Kelly,” said Wilson, the man who hired the plane.

Kelly, a Dodgers reliever, earned his special status July 28 — not so much for throwing a fastball behind Bregman’s head during a game in Houston but because he later taunted Correa with a pouty-face expression that incited another benches-clearing encounter and has since been canonized on social media and emblazoned on T-shirts.

Kelly received an eight-game suspension, which was later reduced to five games on appeal. Chris Young, MLB’s senior vice president for on-field operations, said in an interview that the league was not intentionally making an example of Kelly, who had previously been suspended for throwing at batters. But he added that the league would not tolerate players taking justice into their own hands against Houston.

“We will closely monitor any throwing incidents involving the Astros, as with any other team,” Young said. “There is just no place in our game for players issuing their own punishment by inflicting pain on another player. We can’t have that.”

Shame aside, the Astros have faced a litany of other baseball issues this year, including injuries to Justin Verlander, Michael Brantley and Yordan Álvarez, all while Baker tries to manage a shaky bullpen with nine rookies in it. No surprise, then, that the Astros are off to such a disappointing start — not that people outside Houston are upset over it.

“They are definitely not the same team, and that makes me happy,” Wilson said. “They need to feel what it’s like to be in last place, to finally have some tangible consequences. Because so far, they haven’t had them.”