The Germans have a word for it. OK, the Germans have a word for pretty much everything. But in this case, when it came to seeing the Houston Astros get what was coming to them for more than a year, I could only think of one perfect, beautiful German word: schadenfreude.
The word literally translates to “damage joy,” but its meaning is the enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.
And that’s what I wanted — or what I thought I wanted — after most of the Astros’ organization avoided punishment from its 2017-18 sign-stealing scandal.
The Astros were fined $5 million, they lost first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and ’21, and general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch were suspended for 2020 and fired by the team. No players were punished because they were granted immunity, in part, for their cooperation in Major League Baseball’s investigation. They also got to keep their awards and hardware, including the 2017 World Series title.
It was the most severe punishment in history that MLB has dealt a team, even though it felt wildly inadequate.
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So when the Astros kicked off the 2021 season — and their COVID-delayed comeuppance tour, finally in front of fans — against division rivals in Oakland and Anaheim, I was ready to live my best schadenfreude life. I was ready to devour every delicious moment of Astros ignominy, to let it wash over my tongue like thick, sweet wine.
Instead, very little of it was appetizing. When A’s fans booed the Astros during the introductions, it felt right. The multitude of signs lambasting the Astros for cheating felt appropriate. But when A’s pitcher Chris Bassitt hit Carlos Correa and fans cheered lustily, it felt wrong. I felt wrong, and dirty, somewhat complicit in that act, in that moment of schadenfreude.
When the Astros headed south and visited the Angels, it only got worse. First, an inflatable trash can was thrown over the right-field scoreboard and landed on the warning track. Then someone took it further and threw a real trash can that landed in the same place.
It was made worse when tone-deaf Astros manager Dusty Baker tried to take the moral high ground.
“How many in the stands have never done anything wrong in their life?” he told reporters. “We paid the price for it. How many people have not cheated on a test or whatever at some point in time?”
Paid the price? Come on, man. Baker then chastised fans who were setting a bad example for their kids.
“It’s sad to me,” he said. “People make mistakes. We paid for ours, and I wish they’d leave it alone.”
For me, Baker’s attitude is at the core of the backlash against the Astros. They’ve never really showed much contrition, starting with owner Jim Crane, who fumbled a half-baked and insincere apology in January 2020 and said, “No, I don’t think I should be held accountable. I’m here to correct it. And I’m here to take this team forward.”
Crane’s statement is part of what has stoked the backlash that his team will continue to endure this season.
This week, we will find out how far that backlash extends when Hinch’s first road trip with the Tigers continues in Houston today, and then moves to Oakland for a four-game series that starts Thursday.
I asked Hinch on Sunday what he thought of the backlash this season against the Astros.
“I realize, I watched it,” he said. “I think it gets a lot of coverage. But I don’t have a lot to say about that or what they have to deal with.
“It’s tough to see around the sport. I wish the sport didn’t have a cloud over it regarding sign stealing and the Astros and that’s part of my history, too. So it continues to be a regretful and disappointing situation.”
Hinch was correct on two counts. It is a cloud that’s hanging over baseball. And I don’t see it going away soon. In fact, it’s sure to get worse as angry fans try to outdo each other when the Astros visit more American League West stadiums — Seattle is on deck Friday, with Texas coming in May — or when they visit the Yankees in May and the Dodgers in August – teams they beat to win the AL pennant and the World Series, respective, in 2017.
Hinch was also right to acknowledge the scandal as part of his history; unlike Baker, he knows you can’t apologize enough. From the outset, Hinch accepted blame, telling MLB Network in February 2020: “I still feel responsible and will always feel responsible as the man out front. … I’m sorry to the league, to baseball, to fans, to players, to the coaches.”
When the Tigers hired Hinch in October, he continued his contrition.
“I understand how wrong it was,” he said. “I’m sorry for that. I’ve said that before. I’ll say it again. I’ll continue to say it. …
“Wrong is wrong. And it was very wrong. I’ll make sure everybody knows that I feel responsible because I was the manager. It was on my watch. And I’ll never forget it.”
Hinch is unlikely to face the same backlash as Astros players because of the nature of his role; he sits mostly out of sight from fans. But he’s sure to get some booing when he emerges from the dugout in Oakland.
I asked Hinch how he might deal with any backlash during the A’s series.
“I’ll handle it,” he said flatly and calmly with the assurance of someone who has spent a lifetime in baseball dealing with hostile environments.
If there’s one person who should be spared acrimony in any of this, it’s Hinch. Yes, he could have stopped the whole thing — and he readily admits that. He reportedly made some attempts by damaging a monitor used in the scheme. But it’s naïve to think one person, even a manager, can easily stop widespread misconduct on a championship team.
It would be my hope, as unrealistic as it is, that Oakland fans would say and do nothing to Hinch. Or better yet, that they might applaud him — figuratively, if not literally — for his consistent apology.
And if you think I’m serving as a Tigers homer? Long before I was a sports writer, I was a Dodgers fan, one who grew up in Los Angeles and still feels the hurt of losing that 2017 Game 7 in the team’s first World Series appearance since 1988.
But if I can forgive Hinch, maybe you can, too. Because I don’t know where this ends. I don’t know how we give up our outrage, how our rancor reaches its limits and lets us move on to sunnier days in baseball. I’m pretty sure even the Germans don’t have a word for that.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.