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Astros to be spared fans' scorn over cheating because stadiums will be empty

Astros to be spared fans' scorn over cheating because stadiums will be empty

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Oakland Athletics closer Liam Hendriks was beginning to warm to the Houston Astros last July, his conversations with them at the All-Star Game in Cleveland humanizing several players whose on-field theatrics had irritated him in the past.

But his burgeoning respect for a team that averaged nearly 104 victories and won two American League pennants and one World Series title in the past three years was replaced by utter disdain when the Astros were found to have used an illegal sign-stealing scheme throughout their 2017 championship season.

“There were a lot of guys on that team I didn’t like, and then I spoke to them at the All-Star Game, and I actually enjoyed talking to them a lot,” Hendriks said at the team’s Mesa, Arizona, spring training facility in March. “Then this comes out over the offseason, and it’s like, now, I can’t even look them in the eye and have any respect for them.”

The Astros incurred a winter’s worth of wrath for their cheating scandal, which led to the firing of manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, and they were expected to be shunned by fellow players and taunted and verbally abused by fans in visiting parks throughout this season.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down baseball in March, pushed the start of a 60-game season to late July and forced teams to begin play in empty stadiums, sparing the Astros of fans’ scorn.

“Oh, I’m sure this may have caused things to dissipate,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said, when asked if the virus took the Astros off the hook. “The primary action probably would have been via fans in crowded ballparks, where it might have been more difficult [for them].

“The pandemic has acted as a buffer right now. I know how adamantly angry some people were about all this stuff, so yeah, it probably has cooled down a bit.”

Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons was mad at the Astros in March, admitting it would be awkward to face them this season.

“Your perception of them changes,” Simmons said then. “It’s like any relationship. If someone cheats on you or does something wrong to you, it’s going to affect you, and you don’t really know how you’re going to react to them face to face.”

One pandemic and four baseball-less months later, his resentment toward the Astros has eased.

“At first, I was really upset about it — honestly, I wanted them to feel the fans getting on them,” Simmons said this week. “But eventually, I guess I forgave them. I kind of let go of that.

“You just hope it doesn’t happen again, because you want to play on an even field and play the sport the way it’s meant to be played, so we can actually see who’s the better team at the end of the season.”

Opposing pitchers with long memories might try to exact revenge by throwing at the Astros, and rules this season strictly prohibiting fights could shield them from Houston batters charging the mound.

“I don’t worry about that until it happens,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said on a video conference call. “If somebody is still mad about that, they’re holding a grudge for a long, long time.”

Players who come within 6 feet of an opponent to engage in altercations “are subject to immediate ejection and discipline, including fines and suspensions,” according to the 2020 operations manual.

Baker, who has spent almost five decades in the game as a player and manager, doesn’t believe that will be a deterrent.

“If you’re that mad or you have a short fuse, a rule is not going to stop you,” Baker said.

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