HOUSTON (AP) — Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman whipped the ball around during a crisp infield drill, then came together for a group hug near second base after finishing up Monday.
High above the diamond at Minute Maid Park, the sun gleamed off an oversized banner attached to a light tower.
“World Series Champions,” it said, along with “17″ and the Astros logo. And it was solid gold.
Nope, no tarnish on that tribute. Not here in Houston, anyway.
Because if the stain of their sign-stealing scandal on the way to the 2017 crown is hanging over them, the Astros aren’t showing it. Let the rest of the sports world condemn them forever as baseball’s biggest cheaters — they’re focused, they say, on putting another shiny flag on that tower.
“I’m not worried about narratives. I’m not worried about any of that,” Bregman said.
Back in the World Series for the third time in five years, they get that chance starting Tuesday night in Game 1 against the Atlanta Braves.
The Astros are favorites in Las Vegas and cheered at home, but nowhere else.
Heckled, cursed and taunted with fake trash cans at ballparks across the majors all season, the Astros know there’s nothing they can do to change any fan’s mind. The hate directed at them on social media, that’s not going away anytime soon.
Neither are the whispers. During the AL playoffs, there was loosely lobbed innuendo and speculation about misdeeds.
Note this: During workouts Monday, the only camera in center field was for the Fox telecast. The official Major League Baseball report that issued penalties in January 2020 said the Astros used a team camera in center to illegally help steal signals flashed by opposing catchers.
“We just want to really show the world that we’re the best team out there. In order for us to do that, we’ve got to get four more wins. I don’t think the outside noise motivates us at all,” Correa said.
Hard to block out, though.
“I wasn’t here with the team in 2017, but I’ve gotten booed just as equal as anybody else,” AL Championship Series MVP Yordan Alvarez recently said.
Outfielder Michael Brantley played against Houston that season while with Cleveland. He now wears an Astros jersey, fully aware many fans think it should say “Villains” across the front.
The team’s cheating past, he knows, is as much a part of the uniform as the Astros star-featured logo. And it follows them to this day.
“Sure does. We get it everywhere we go,” Brantley said.
The ones who get razzed the most are the four holdovers from that 2017 squad still on the roster, starting infielders Altuve, Correa, Bregman and Yuli Gurriel.
Bregman gets the most prickly about the subject. Altuve often breezes by it while Correa is quick to own what happened.
Charlie Morton, who starts the opener for the Braves against Framber Valdez, was the winning pitcher for Houston in the clinching Game 7 for that lone Astros championship.
“I never questioned how good those guys were and how good they are. So that’s my focus,” he said.
To Houston manager Dusty Baker, it’s in the past. Hired after manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were fired by the team and suspended by MLB, the 72-year-old skipper said his players aren’t spurred by the haters.
“That’s what I think people are trying to make it, as their main source of motivation, but that doesn’t motivate you nearly as much as just driving to win and driving for excellence,” he said. “You can only be driven by, ‘I’ll show you,’ or you can only be driven by negative motivation so far.”
“I think this team is way past that because they know they can play. So this is what you have to dwell on, me versus the world?” he said. “After a while, like, how long can you have that mantra? So I think that’s been gone a while.”
Altuve, the All-Star second baseman and driving force, has been with the Astros since 2011, from 100-loss seasons to 100-win years. He helped Houston beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the seven-game 2017 World Series and lost a seven-game matchup to Washington in 2019.
Could this postseason run somehow alter the perception of the past?
“I haven’t thought about that,” Altuve said. “But I think we have the same mindset we always have, just going out there and try to win.”
“There’s not a single guy that’s thinking about something else but winning,” he said.