Sports is built for villains. Its best, most compelling storylines need them to function. It does its best to create them, too. The mere fact of opposition, of there being an active intelligence attempting to thwart your endeavor, is part of what elevates sports to cultural relevance. Individual struggle is certainly worthwhile, but the most watchable conflict is external.
That said, sports doesn’t create villains very well. Absent any moral signposting, it’s difficult to bridge the chasm between temporary opposition and active villainy. In most cases, any hatred one feels for the opposition mid-game fails to last. In professional sports, this is something of a problem: a lack of outright villainy means a lack of true conflict to draw in audiences.
Baseball has been lacking in villainy for years. At the turn of the century, we had the New York Yankees, who were perfect: good, rich and completely unapologetic about pilfering every other team’s best players and turning them against their former homes. They won plenty, but it was a delight to root against them, and truly wonderful to see them fail. Then we had the steroid era. Regardless of how you feel about PED use in baseball, it’s difficult to deny that there was a significant audience invested in player-specific villainy. Barry Bonds is probably a less interesting villain than the Yankees, but he was still better than the formless void that has persisted for the last 10 years.
And then came the Houston Astros.
Even when they were a rags-to-riches story, the Astros rubbed many the wrong way. Their scorched-earth rebuild was followed by internal purges as the front office marched past Moneyball and into a techbrotopia. Their arrogance even while losing — they allowed Sports Illustrated to write a cover article about how they would be the 2017 World Series champions in 2014, a season in which they went 70-92 — upset other teams. But by the time they actually did win the 2017 World Series, it was easy to frame any dislike of Jeff Luhnow’s team as sour grapes. They had a plan, they stuck to it, and they won the World Series. Just like they promised.
Since then, however, they’ve stumbled into villainy with such force one might almost assume it was intentional. The baseball world has noticed: the sign-stealing scandal* has dominated conversation to the point that even the Mookie Betts trade was utterly overshadowed. Their cheating was a perfect blend of funny, nefarious and impactful. It blew up the MLB landscape and the team’s response has been, essentially, to double down on everything.
*Not to mention the Osuna/Taubman debacle, which is obviously villainous but equally obviously on a different moral plane to cheating.
When the Astros were put on blast by Cody Bellinger, who might reasonably consider the scandal to have cost him a World Series ring, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa told him to “shut the fuck up.” Contrition? Heartfelt-sounding apologies? Not for the Astros, who seem hell-bent on ensuring as many people hate them as possible. An unprecedented number of players around the league are publicly calling them out. Fans of opposing teams are rightfully up in arms.
The Astros are not the story MLB commissioner Rob Manfred would have wanted, or anything particularly close. But it’s clearly true that the sign-stealing investigation and its fallout have sparked an intense interest in the sport. Sports are better with a villain to cheer against, and the Astros have managed to make themselves the ultimate bad guys. Well done. Everyone hates you now.