Welcome James Christopher’s semi-regular blog about baseball. James is a lifelong baseball fan with a passion for the game, the teams and the fans.
NOVEMBER 22, 2019
Astros Fans and the Media
Right now, the sports media is like a minefield of suck for Astros fan. Anytime we ‘click’ on an article, it’s another chance for the Earth to explode under our feet. I wrestled with writing this because of said mine field, but I figure I used to wear actual body armor when going to work, so this will be a piece of cake.
The purpose of this writing isn’t to try to legislate the story of Astros sign stealing. My grandfather used to say ‘best the world think you’re a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.’ I don’t think it makes any sense for someone like me (or most of Twitter) who aren’t connected to the story or have access to those who are connected, to try to create fake traction or pile on for the sake of clicks or growing an internet presence. I will, however, outline where I sit on it for clarity and for understanding where I’m coming from. I had a history professor at the University of Texas tell me once that, when you teach history or talk about things like this, you bring inherent bias and its best to get those biases out in the open so they can help the audience navigate your argument.
As any one knows I’m a die hard Astros fan. I was raised in the Dome. I love my guys. I also believe that the Astros stole signs. The only question remains is did they break rules of the game to get the signs. Astros fans think 100% no. Non Astros fans think 100% yes. But I’ve learned that trying a case through social media is not super sure footing to stand on. I mean, how is Casey Anthony doing in now her tenth year in prison? Oh. Right. She got off. In an investigation that’s not a legal proceeding and is ran by billionaires with incentive to not upset the apple cart, it remains to be seen how this will go down and I suspect neither Astros or non-Astros camps will be happy with the result.
But what I’m more interested in discussing is the relationship that the Astros fans have with the media, both traditional and social. And again, full disclosure. I’m a Longhorn graduate and fan. I am a Cowboys fan. I know what it’s like to be a fan that the media will always give love to and therefore, be hated by other teams that are not them.
Since the Astros moved into the Dome, the Astros have had an interesting relationship with baseball and the media. They were mocked for the Dome, mocked for the fake grass and Ken Burns devoted all of 30 seconds in Baseball. Just enough time for Bob Costas to make fun of the Astrodome. That same doc didn’t even credit the Astros with the uniform revolution that took over the league. The MLB has made them change divisions. They’ve changed leagues. In 1986, their best season to that date, the series was overshadowed by rampant cheating accusations attributed to Mike Scott by the OTHER New York baseball team. They were even accused once, by many, for changing the direction of the Astrodome AC depending on who was hitting. Out for the home team. In for the road. What?
More recently, the narrative is that Astros fans feel disrespected because they aren’t covered as well as the Yankees, Dodgers or Cubs. Because. They aren’t. The World Series ratings shed some light on why the national media would prefer one of those teams in the World Series. It’s baseball’s biggest problem. It’s a regional game. The Super Bowl ratings ebb and flow with who’s playing, but not with the volatility we see in the World Series. Yes. Cowboys/Patriots (I still have hope) would be a ratings monster. But Chicago/Houston would still be the most watched American sporting event of the year. With baseball, only a few games a week are truly nationally televised. Yankees/Red Sox and Dodgers get the lion’s share with Houston close behind. So, when you get a team that has a Cinderella season, the national networks haven’t carried them as much and the national fans of baseball are likely to have some apathy when it comes to tuning in. It’s a dog chasing its tail and it’s not likely to change. But Astros fans view it through a lens of disrespect on the team, the city and the people who live here. I know I do sometimes.
The Astros fans’ relationship with the media is getting more toxic when viewed through the nature of how reporting sports has changed. The old bastion of baseball coverage – the local paper and their army of beat reporters are dying. Newspapers are cutting staff. Closing their doors. Sports Illustrated laid off people. ESPN is covering baseball less and less. So we’ve moved from sports reporters who cut their teeth on the beat to ‘sports personalities.” They rely on callers, followers and clicks. And the life cycle goes like this: we need more callers/followers and we need them to participate and then, 80% of the time we’re gonna mock them for having a take. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
I can’t be mad at it. It’s how they put food on the table. It is the game now. It’s just gross a lot of the time. This is where I will give a shoutout to the Sean Salisbury Show team (Sean Salisbury, Adam Seger, Michael Connor,) who let their callers talk and, if they are off base, they’re not putzed when contradicting them. They let them finish and, at least, thanks them for their passion. I rarely have heard them go full ‘Rome is Burning.” I suspect, for Sean at least, it’s from his past as a pro athlete and having been on all sides of this cycle. Or ya know, they’re just good humans. But I digress.
The relationship with the Houston 9 and the media went to 11 thanks to something called ‘a Brandon Taubman.’ You know the story. He chose to mock female reports over trade for Roberto Osuna. Caught in a fog of champagne, the Astros threw gasoline on the fire by calling the reporter a liar without doing even the cursory of investigations into what happened. It was an abhorrent move by the team that they tried to make up for, but the horse had left the barn. I was, again, pretty grossed out by the whole episode.
And now, here is where I speculate: this smaller band of ACTUAL reporters who are doing their best to survive in this new sports news world essentially circled the wagons. And I began to notice some hit pieces in the media. The (former) World Wide Leader wrote an article about a ‘happiness index’, a way to measure how happy each team was with their final result of the season. (Huh?). They list the Astros 6th (I think) because Taubman will erase the good feelings that come with an amazing season.
Then Buster Olney, who I generally like, writes a piece about how the Astros screwed George Springer by manipulating his service time. It’s a practice that all teams do and several players this year will deal with the ramifications of being a year later into Free Agency than maybe they should have. Calling out the Astros and Springer only? Seems like some selective story telling. And yes, I have a blue and orange tin foil hat. He does mention in one block of the article that it’s something every team does, but the headlines are all people read anymore. Damage done.
Then a few hours later, all hell breaks loose with the Fiers’ revelation. Articles written about the Astros cheating with small mentions that it’s a league wide issue in the body, but the axe is being grinded, it seems. Basement dwelling twitter hacks are lauded as traditional media and empowered. Astros fans are left spinning with how fast this all went down and any attempt to ask a question is shouted down as ‘what-about-ism.’
All the while the baseball media is talking about the Astros, they aren’t talking with the same voracity about the Angels opioid issue, juiced baseballs, the new tension in the labor agreements or the decimation of the MiLB. (Thanks for that one, Astros). And this has left Astros fans in shock. They’ve gone from good guy to heel almost overnight.
At the core, they became the bad guys by changing the way the game is played. They changed the sport, not with ‘baseball men’ but with people who have advanced engineering degrees and without the tact to avoid going scorched earth and ignoring the political fallout such rampant changes stemming from outsiders can bring. And as a result, they rattled off one of the best 3 season runs in history. And now to be a little prejudiced, but are we surprised that engineers aren’t super good with people?
So the sign stealing became a narrative everyone can buy into pretty easily. It doesn’t take much to explain. It even has the word ’steal’ in it. Apparently, people in glass houses can throw stones as fans of other teams, ignoring past sins of their own clubs are acting like they are the Avengers and the Astros are Thanos.
The answer is, of course, complicated: all teams are full of Captain Americas and all teams are Thanos. It’s what happens when humans get together. It’s what happens when billions of dollars gets involved in a game meant for kids. The nature of baseball makes it even more complicated when you factor in the ‘baseball;’ the nature of a game predicated on failure. Where the game itself is trying to kill you. Where every minute edge, be it from trashcan or needle in the butt, can mean the difference between a win and a loss.
But the quick turn of Astros reputation combined, with the changing nature of sports coverage, has left Astros fans (as it would with the fans of any baseball team,) with three options.
- You, just like the traditional sports reporters out there, circle the wagons. You defend your team. You realize what the Astros have meant to the city, particularly those who went to games when they lost 100 of them. And those in the city who realize what the team meant to the city after Harvey.
- You can quit watching baseball altogether. Honestly, for about 4 years, I did. The steroid thing, the Astros association with Clemens, really turned me off. The Astros didn’t look like the Astros to me anymore. The team had been run into the ground. So, while the 1994 strike didn’t do to me what it did to my father in law, the steroid thing did. It wasn’t until Crane bought the team, the move to the AL and the return to the blue and orange, that I felt like my Astros were back and so was I. So I came home. I didn’t even mind the 100 loss seasons as much. (I mean I did). I was just glad to have baseball back.
- The last option is, I guess, you could find a new team. But I don’t think it works that way with baseball.
I will also add: Yankees fans. Dodgers fan. I get the anger. Your teams came close to a win and if there is even the inkling that part of it wasn’t above board, I’d be mad too. I don’t think that games were truly swayed by this. Just like no football or baseball game comes down to one penalty or play call. But I won’t quibble on the anger part. I’d be mad too.
I think the story should absolutely be discussed. I just think there are more responsible ways to do it, if the story were driven by actual journalists not living in daily fear of their jobs, we might get that.
I just think it’s sad, where we are, with the nature of baseball story telling. It’s honestly a reflection of how media works in our country these days anyway. Folks looking for likes, for clicks and the ramifications of what comes next not considered.
But Jim isn’t that you.? Don’t you want likes and clicks for your show? Of course. I would love for Let’s Get Two to grow into something that I think would be both popular and a resource. But I won’t sacrifice the integrity of what our show stands for to do that. I’m not gonna intentionally talk about things I don’t have anymore information on that the average dude and make wild accusations that I don’t have to face repercussions for if I’m wrong. I’m not going to do controversial takes for take sake. We’ve not even talked about the story on our show, a fact that led to a death threat on Twitter (lame) We also haven’t discussed the Angels or the growing MLB labor issues. Our focus will remain mainly on the MiLB and what it means for baseball and our overall culture. I need it to stay fun for me. I started the show because 3 hours at a park – any park – is three hours of pure joy.
And as I said, I used to wear body armor to work. So, to me, not every incident deserves the same level of urgency, or if it’s twitter, panic.
Again, I fully believe the Astros stole signs. The punishment they incur will be determined on how much they crossed an actual rule. If they did, they deserve to be punished commensurate with other incidents and escalated depending on how far into the grey area they fall. But I also, having been a fan of this game for 40 years, refuse to believe that only the Astros are guilty and that the other teams are in fact, 29 sets of choir boys. The jaded part of me thinks that this will result in a fine, lost picks and low level assistant GM (or former) will be suspended or banned. Enough to be strong on the issue, not enough to cause retaliatory accusations that might result in more high profile teams going down as well. See? Blue and orange tin foil hat.