Real live baseball returned this weekend as spring training games started across Arizona and Florida. Yeah, Cactus League and Grapefruit League games are meaningless in the standings, but it's baseball, and spring games are fun in their own way. The Houston Astros opened their exhibition schedule Saturday night against the Washington Nationals, coincidentally enough, the team that defeated them in the World Series four months ago.
The Astros and Nationals share a spring training facility -- FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Florida -- and are frequent Grapefruit League opponents.
The Astros were the home team Saturday night but the crowd was very pro-Nationals, and, as expected following the sign-stealing scandal, the Astros were booed throughout the night. Orbit, the team mascot, was booed during his pregame romp around the field. Players were booed during introductions. The MASN microphones even picked up a fan yelling "He's wearing a buzzer!" in the first inning, referring to rumors Houston's hitters used buzzers to steal signs in 2019.
"There were a lot of Nationals fans here -- we had a lot of fans here too -- you could tell who was for us and who was against us," new Astros manager Dusty Baker told reporters after the game. "All in all, it wasn't too bad. You kind of expect to get some (boos), but like I said, they weren't too bad."
Incredibly, the Astros showed an American League pennant highlight video prior to Saturday's game even though the Nationals were in the other dugout. Talk about a lack of self-awareness. Fans also brought signs into the ballpark to taunt Houston:
Needless to say, confiscating the sign is incredibly weak. As long as it doesn't say or show anything offensive, or target a player's family, all signs should be fair game. When you're at the center of the sport's largest cheating scandal since the Steroid Era, you're going to have to deal with the taunts and signs. The only thing you can do is wear it. Confiscating signs is cowardly.
Astros players heard boos during Saturday's rain-shortened two-inning game even though Baker fielded a starting lineup heavy on prospects and minor leaguers. Not a single Astros regular was in the lineup and only one of the nine starters,, is projected to make the Opening Day roster. Here is the starting lineup Baker sent out there:
"I'm curious about most of them because I don't know them," Baker told reporters before the game, including MLB.com's Brian McTaggart, about Saturday's replacement-heavy lineup. "I'm more curious about the young players that may help us at the start of the season or as the season goes on, so you can have some input on the decision of who's on your team."
. GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were suspended and then fired, the team was fined $5 million, and they will forfeit four high draft picks as well. No players were disciplined because they were given immunity in exchange for cooperating with the investigation.
Because no players were punished, there has been speculation Astros players will be targeted this season -- some opposing pitchers, including Indians righty Mike Clevinger, have strongly hinted at throwing at Houston's hitters -- though commissioner Rob Manfred recently said throwing at players will not be tolerated. That applies to all players, not just Astros.
"We have been working on for some time a memorandum about being hit by pitches, intentionally throwing at batters," Manfred said last week. "It's really dangerous, really a dangerous undertaking, and completely independent of the Astros investigation we will be issuing at the beginning of this week a memorandum on hit by pitches which will increase the ramifications of that type of behavior."
Only six 2017 Astros position players remain with the team: Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel, Josh Reddick, and George Springer. If anyone does get thrown at, either during spring training or the regular season, it figures to be one of those players. I doubt a player like, say, Michael Brantley, would have to wear one when he wasn't with the team in 2017 or 2018.
Max Scherzer started Saturday night and threw two innings for the Nationals -- he looked strong and healthy, which is easily the most important actual baseball news to come out of the game -- and there was nothing close to a purpose pitch. No Astros hitter was buzzed, pun unintended. Scherzer looked like a veteran going through the spring training motions and getting his work in.
Like Saturday, Astros players will be booed all season -- there were rumors early Saturday morning that any fans heckling Astros would be ejected, but the Washington Post's Jesse Dougherty says that's false -- even the players who had nothing to do with the sign-stealing, like the minor leaguers in Saturday's lineup. That's just the way it's going to be. The boos will be inescapable.
Eventually Astros regulars will have to play this spring, of course, and once guys like Bregman and Springer are in the lineup, the boos will grow louder and retaliation watch will be on, even in spring training.
"This is time for the kids to play," Baker said, explaining Saturday's lineup. "We'll play some of the regulars the day after and some of the regulars the day after that in Lakeland."