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In the abstract, a single spring training game isn’t supposed to be compelling. Usually, the initial wave of excitement about MLB’s regular season drawing closer eventually gives way to the reality of watching an exhibition.
And yet, it was hard not to marvel at the position the Nationals were in as they took the field against the Astros in West Palm Beach this past weekend.
Here were the defending World Series champions facing the franchise they topped in the Fall Classic, a club with whom they also share a spring training facility. The same club that’s become baseball’s evil empire following the sign-stealing scandal that tainted the 2017 title and became the talk of the sports world. Add in the Astros’ managerial debut of former Nats skipper Dusty Baker, and you had far more intrigue than any spring training game typically would.
The rain-shortened spring opener provided a mix of what Houston can expect for the 2020 season, and what the Nats won’t have to worry about. While the Astros didn’t play their regulars, Nats fans in attendance at FITTEAM Ballpark were free to troll just about anyone representing the Astros organization. Washington fans loudly booed Houston players during team introductions, and one even had a sign confiscated by stadium security.
For the Nats, these aren’t merely the spoils of winning any World Series. This is the unique high ground that comes with beating the cheaters for a title.
Washington is the only team in the big leagues that can broadly condemn the Astros’ scheme while looking forward to 2020 without regret. The same can’t be said for clubs like the Dodgers and Yankees, who came up short against Houston in the 2017 postseason. So it’s no surprise that the Nats weren’t thinking much about retribution.
“We won the World Series, so it wasn’t like I have a vendetta to hold,” pitcher Max Scherzer told reporters after Saturday’s game was called after two innings. “For me, over here, we’re just trying to move forward and get ready for our season.”
Perhaps Scherzer and company are just fine keeping it moving and forgetting about the scandal. But even in victory, it’s hard to escape a feeling that the Nats’ uplifting 2019 run will always be tied to the stench of the Astros’ misdeeds, for better or worse.
It’s a feeling Nats general manager Mike Rizzo harped on the moment pitchers and catchers reported earlier this month.
“One of the problems I have [with the Astros] is that [spring training] Opening Day, 2020, there are 50 media people here,” Rizzo told reporters, “and 47 of them were at the Houston Astros who cheated to win a World Series and there were three [reporters] here with the current reigning World Champions, and that is not right.”
Rizzo has a point. Scandal sparks attention, and the Astros attracted a circus as they stumbled through their attempted apology tour. The unintended consequence is that this mess has re-centered the Nats’ signature accomplishment around the World Series loser, not the winner.
Though MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s report claimed the Astros were not proven to have cheated in 2019, there are still allegations of buzzer devices and whistling aiding Houston last season, which the players have denied. And the Nats have made it no secret they were well aware of the Astros’ tactics heading before facing them.
So for casual baseball fans and national media, this saga may somewhat obscure what was an otherwise cinderella-like season for the Nats. This is a club whose postseason should be celebrated and put in the pantheon of memorable October runs like the 2004 Red Sox or 2016 Cubs. They’re still celebrated, but it feels like more for saving baseball the humiliation of having the cheating team win two world titles in three years.
For some D.C. fans, that distinction is the cherry on top of a well-earned victory. For others, as Rizzo’s comments intimated, the purity of the glory may have been stolen.