ANAHEIM, Calif. — A gray, life-sized, inflatable garbage can was heaved over the right-field scoreboard and made its way onto Angel Stadium’s warning track at the conclusion of Monday’s sixth inning, the latest — perhaps most glaring — indication of the anger that still festers around the Houston Astros.
Moments later, with Jose Altuve up to bat, a real garbage can landed in almost the exact same place, spilling a handful of plastic bottles as it collided with the dirt and interrupted play once more.
The animosity, persistent throughout the course of a four-hour game from the 13,447 fans in attendance, was a continuation of what the Astros experienced in Oakland over the weekend, only this time they didn’t win in spite of it.
“You can tell the amount of hostility and the amount of hatred in the stands,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said after a dramatic 7-6 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, which dropped his team’s record to 4-1. “How many in the stands have never done anything wrong in their life? We paid the price for it. How many people have not cheated on a test or whatever at some point in time. I mean it’s easy if you live in glass houses, but I don’t think anybody lives in glass houses.
“I think that sometimes we need to look at ourselves before you spew hate on somebody else. It’s a sad situation for America, to me, when you hear things — I mean what are the kids supposed to think in the stands? And some of them are kids that are following their parents. It’s sad to me. People make mistakes. We paid for ours, and I wish they’d leave it alone.”
One of many loud “Astros suck!” chants broke out after the second garbage can fell to the field. There also were persistent chants of “cheaters!” and “Where’s your trash can?” not to mention ear-piercing boos for the likes of Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel, central figures of an Astros team that was punished for using an intricate sign-stealing system that included banging on trash cans during the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
The Astros initially dominated through the noise, sweeping an Oakland Athletics team they lost to seven out of 10 times during the regular season last year. They hit .320/.398/.565, pitched to a 2.00 ERA and outscored the A’s by a combined 26 runs in a four-game series.
The Angels series began similarly. Altuve was booed vociferously as he walked to the batter’s box to begin the game, then laced a sharp infield single on the first pitch. Gurriel got “cheater” chants and smacked a single to right. Fans were banging on the edge of the upper deck for Bregman, who hit a sinking liner that squirted past the glove of Angels left fielder Justin Upton to plate a run. And Correa batted to fans mockingly asking, “Where’s your trash can?” before lining a base hit to the opposite field, giving the Astros a 2-0 lead in the first inning.
The Angels ultimately came back, scoring four runs off Joe Smith and Blake Taylor in the eighth inning. But Altuve, Bregman, Gurriel and Correa — four prominent players who struggled through the shortened 2020 season — are now batting a combined .397/.489/.577 to begin the season.
“We go out there to play a game, and the fans, they do whatever they want,” Astros catcher Martin Maldonado said. “They’re gonna be loud. But I think that gives us a little bit more motivation. We feel like we’re in the playoffs in the fifth game of the season.”
Kolton Freeman, Will Wraith, Cooper Harbuck and Haley Harbuck arrived with ready-made signs to heckle the Astros and felt the support early on. Before being allowed inside, they had to hold up their signs so security could inspect them.
“They were standing for like five minutes just holding them up,” Haley said, “and the amount of fist-bumps they got just going in the stadium — people knew what we were going for, the message we were sending them. You felt like, as an audience, sitting here, that you were being listened to.”
One of the signs read: Yo, you guys need an extra buzzer?
The other: Astros Can’t Hang
The other: Had A Funny Sign Planned For This Week But The Astros Stole It!
Mike, Jack and Nicole Zerkel, who paid $1,600 for four tickets to boo the Astros during the Angels’ home opener last year before the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a regular season without fans, had custom-made “cheater” masks and T-shirts. Nicole, one of many Los Angeles Dodgers fans in the crowd, called the experience “very satisfying.”
“It feels good to let your frustration out.”
Dyan Nava drove 85 miles from Apple Valley, California, with a sign that read: If You’re Looking For A Sign From God The Astros Probably Stole It! She’s a teacher, and she wanted to send the message that it’s “not OK to cheat.”
And then there was Ivan Gonzalez, who wore a retro Altuve jersey and Astros cap and sat in the upper deck, way up in the right-field corner, while fans berated his favorite team. Gonzalez was born and raised in Houston and raised his three children to be Astros fans, but his wife, Danielle, is a die-hard Dodgers fan.
“That season’s done and over with,” Ivan said of 2017, which ended with the Astros defeating the Dodgers in Game 7 of the World Series. “They took their punishment. It’s a new day, new season. I’m gonna cheer on my team.”
As Ivan sat eating his nachos in the fourth inning, Altuve navigated a six-pitch at-bat. He fouled a ball off on the fifth pitch, and the crowd went wild when a fan threw the baseball back onto the field of play. On the next pitch, he recorded his second hit of the night. Ivan believes the Astros are drawing motivation from the vitriol they’re experiencing.
Their manager would prefer they distance themselves from it.
“You can’t carry that scarlet letter around all your life,” Baker said. “We’ve paid the price. How many times can you say you’re sorry? That’s all you can do. All you can do is go on with your life. There aren’t many saints walking around on this Earth, and if there are I don’t recognize them.”