On Oct. 17, the Houston Astros were eliminated from the American League Championship Series in a winner-take-all Game 7 for a bid to play in the World Series. Opposite the Astros were the Tampa Bay Rays, a squad that posted a Major League best 40-20 record during the regular season, along with an American League (AL)-leading 3.50 team ERA. They began the series with a commanding 3-0 lead, but the Astros clawed their way back to tie it at three games apiece, looking to become the only team besides the 2004 Boston Red Sox to ever come back from such a deficit. Usually when there’s a team on the cusp of a historic feat in professional sports, many casual fans (or fans whose favorite teams have already been eliminated) are thrilled to root for the club on the verge of accomplishing the improbable right before their eyes. But that wasn’t the case for the Astros. Not by a longshot.
The truth of the matter is that most baseball fans would have loved to see the Astros swept in a 4-game series and sent home in embarrassing fashion. Why? Well, the Astros are a national pariah, disliked by almost everyone outside the city of Houston and even by some within. The reason for all the ill will towards the organization and the players is quite simple: They cheated. And contrary to what we all learn growing up, that “Cheaters never win,” the Astros did. In 2017, they won the World Series on the back of one of the biggest sign stealing scandals in baseball history, although that only became public knowledge over two years later when former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers came forward with a controversial confession. News of the scandal prompted an MLB investigation into the matter that culminated in over $5 million in fines for the club, the forfeiture of several draft picks and the suspension (and ultimate firing) of manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow in January 2020. Needless to say, the sports world did nothing short of calling for everyone involved in the scandal to be barred from baseball for life.
Now here is where I think it’s important to clarify that professional baseball is not and has never been immune to cheating. There is a certain level of cheating that is so commonplace even today it’s often overlooked. Take pitchers using pine tar for example, who are sometimes seen on camera reaching for a spot of tar on their hats or shirts. They rub their fingers with the illegal substance to get a better grip and higher spin rate on the ball, but are only called out on it when the offense is especially egregious. Even sign-stealing has happened since baseball’s inception. But while this practice has previously been largely based on real-time inference (i.e., making connections between a catcher’s signs and what subsequent pitches are thrown through direct observation), what set the Astros’ operation apart and made it so troubling was their use of new video technology with a team of staff specifically devoted to the task.
Granted, the Astros’ use of technology was damning. But given how widespread cheating is in the game, I find myself in the one percent of people who are willing to consider forgiving them for their transgressions. Here’s another reason why. On September 20, 2017, the Astros beat the Chicago White Sox to improve to 93-58 on the season with an AL West division title already under their belt. That same day, Hurricane María made landfall in Puerto Rico.
I won’t delve into the well-documented ramifications of the hurricane since there’s little I can add about how unbelievably devastating the storm was to the island, but I will say this: it was as if three and a half million people were plucked from our place in the world and tossed back to a simpler time. A time with no electricity. No internet. No cell service. Over these long months, my family and I became experts at many things—preparing canned foods, going to bed at 7 p.m., pushing water out of the house and making a game out of everything to keep our spirits up. It was so weird to see how school went from being the most important responsibility in my life to an awkward afterthought. This was my junior year of high school, a time when one is usually bogged down by the stress of things like standardized testing, AP courses and looking into potential universities. But with classes canceled indefinitely, it was as if none of that mattered anymore. With little or no connection to anybody outside our neighborhood for weeks on end, I felt like I had nothing to be excited about; no passion or interest to help me wake up in the morning.
This is where the Houston Astros come in. Now, I’m a die-hard Mets fan and I always will be, but they don’t often make postseason appearances. Growing up playing baseball in Puerto Rico myself, I’ve always had a soft spot for teams fielding some of the stellar talent the island has to offer. In 2016, I fell in love with the World Series runs of the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians along with their flashy all-star Puerto Rican infielders Javier Báez (Cubs) and Franciso Lindor (Indians). Amidst my unnerving situation, it wasn’t entirely unprecedented that I found comfort with an Astros team that had several Puerto Ricans including veteran ex-Met Carlos Beltrán and 2015 AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa. I became deeply involved with the team even with my minimal connection to the outside world. Sometimes that would mean waiting for my dad to come home from work, where he might have been able to connect to the internet, to tell me the results of the games from the night before. Other times I’d get lucky and hear the results over the radio for a few seconds before they moved on to understandably more important material.
I think there’s something to be said for the power baseball has to uplift a community. Just take a few minutes and search for the crowds’ reaction to Mike Piazza’s home run after the Sept. 11 attacks, Dallas Braden’s perfect game on Mother’s Day in 2010 or Dee Gordon’s home run in 2016 after the sudden death of a teammate. Keeping up with the Astros became the focal point of my life during a time that I truly had no other interest to turn to.
And so for an island that had to endure up to 5,000 storm related deaths—there is no official count, making it even harder on so many grieving families—, seeing a few of our compatriots accomplishing something great provided a much-needed ray of hope. Amid a new crisis that has seen at least another 800 Puerto Ricans die, I thought about how the Astros got me through the last one. I couldn’t in good faith root against them this time despite what had transpired in the intervening years. I understand why the Astros are by no means respected by the majority of baseball fans, and I’m hesitant to support the organization going forward, but they were exactly what I needed 3 years ago and are comforting even now. With Correa still around and starting catcher Martín Maldonado also hailing from the island, I won’t apologize for supporting them for the time being.