I Welcome Your Hatred

Up until about October 19, 2019, my sharing a physical vessel with and serving a demanding extradimensional creature that eats roasted tire rims and insists that we all refer to it with a definite article in its name was the most embarrassing thing I could bring up in conversation around here.

These days, it’s usually that I’m a fan of the Houston Astros.

The eagle-eyed among you may have spotted that I said October, and not November, when Mike Fiers blew the whistle on the Astros’ sign-stealing operation in 2017, a scheme that somehow combined the high-tech analytics the team had become famous for—witness the Codebreaker spreadsheet that suspended GM Jeff Luhnow, who cut his teeth at McKinsey, the extremely analytically-driven firm currently in charge of reopening New York State, supposedly didn’t know about—with all the finesse and complexity of a trash can.

I said October, because for the past year and a half, every Astros fan I know had gone through the following decision process.

  1. It sucks that we traded for a closer* who did something objectively terrible.
  2. This is as close to the breaking point as we can get with a front office that doesn’t sign fan favorites and dumps contracts the moment they think no one’s looking.
  3. Well, at least the team isn’t covering up what he did or protesting his innocence.
  4. I guess we’ll stay fans, but cautiously?

A season and a half of wrestling with our consciences, and on the night that José Altuve hit a walk-off two-run homer off a hanging slider to send the Astros to the World Series, assistant GM Brandon Taubman decided to ruin it all with an unbelievably malevolent and unnecessary outburst.

Which is all to say that, when the sign-stealing stuff came out, it was almost less embarrassing, until fans of nearly every other team and a decent number of players decided that this was the moment to get incredibly het up over how cheating in baseball, a thing that has been going on—in this very same vein!**—for over a century, destroyed the integrity of the game.

Let me save you the trouble: I’m not going to get into whether cheating in baseball, qua sports crime, is wrong. Most importantly, the Astros, like every other ballclub, knew what they were signing up to do. They chose to play outside the rules, and when you do that, and you get caught, you get punished. That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway.***

For another, while I initially heaped salt on 2017 Astros saying that they didn’t know how much it helped in the end, I’ve since come to learn that a lot of former sign-stealers have similar feelings on their rule-breaking. For a third, I have a very clear memory of the 2000s steroids scandal snowball, partly because I re-read plenty of writing from those days, and the same exact arguments were used then for juiced hitters either staying at the top of their game longer or taking jobs away from players who stayed clean. I remember when Barry Bonds wasn’t a forgivable home run king, but The Man Who Destroyed Baseball.

Lastly, if you ask me, the real danger, which is omnipresent in baseball, is owners colluding, not just to depress player salaries, but to alter the game itself: the juiced ball debate of this year recalls the beginning of the 20th century, when team owners changed the structure of the baseball without seeking their players’ approval, or even telling them about it.

So: I have my reasons for thinking it’s overblown, but objectively speaking, it was wrong.

What I actually want to get into here—the thing that has nagged at me pretty much constantly since November—is what I’m supposed to think about being a fan of a team that’s labelled as “cheaters” when I am, after all, a teacher.

I imagine that very few of you who read this article are my students, or students at all, but if you are, here’s the thing: I take my responsibility to teach Latin seriously, but I take my responsibility  to teach you to be good people much more seriously. Given how large school looms in your lives, it becomes the place where you learn to function in real society without being subject to the consequences that that real society imposes on you, and as teachers, we have to meet the challenge of preparing you for that.

Are you allowed to tell students they shouldn’t cheat when your favorite baseball team is currently famous for exactly that? What do you tell students about honesty, about self-respect, about hard work and decency and all those good things, when players you’d actually love to meet are standing on feet of somewhat-reprehensible clay?

Most importantly, and especially in the time of quarantine, when students have more control than ever over their conduct and how seriously they choose to take their classes: as a teacher, you will have kids who choose to do something they shouldn’t, academically speaking. It’s going to happen, for myriad reasons that are sometimes very understandable, and you’ll often only have found the tip of the iceberg, but that still means you have to deal with it. Is your argument fatally wounded when your team did something that was dishonorable at best, no matter what every other team was doing?

Well, here’s the thing: Astros fans are supposedly the bandwagon di tutti bandwagons, but if you talk to guys who graduated from McQuaid Jesuit some years ago, they know I was a fan when the Astros were mid-rebuild and served as Jon Bois’ eternal GIF fuel. I loved every single doofy moment of the Lastros/Trashtros/Disastros trainwreck, from Jonathan Villar doing his best Mark Sánchez impression on the basepaths to notable 2017 Astro and non-boo-receiver Marwin González apparently stepping on a thumbtack some dastardly player had placed on first base.

This might be, to be fair, purely a psychological thing. Roger Kahn wrote, “You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat,” and no one falls in love with a bad team more profoundly than me. I’ve seen two teams—my hometown Cangrejeros, and my adopted-hometown Red Wings—hit grand slams in a game and proceed to lose, and I have loved both since. Those of you who know about my fictional baseball league know how much I enjoy talking about the Ingenieros de Rincón’s absolutely catastrophic .132 season. It’s a thing with me.

Point is, though, I stuck around, and I’m still sticking around. So is almost every Astros fan I know, because we’ve been uniquely asked to give up on our team, or prostrate ourselves and beg for mercy from other fanbases, after a few years of getting told we only became fans when our team pulled off the rebuild.

Much the same way, I’m not about to give up on a student because they made a bad choice in an environment almost as artificial as professional sports. You can decide what you want to think about my sporting allegiance, and I can’t really stop you, but to me, these are two sides of the same coin: I’m not going to give up on a team because I’m told to by people whose last horrible season happened before the Great Depression, or possibly never, and much the same way, I don’t get to give up on someone in my classes who doesn’t do the right thing all the time.

Sure, you can say those are grown men out there making that choice, not children, but let’s be honest: most of us know whether what we’re doing is wrong even when we’re thirteen. It’s the choice we make with that information that matters, and whether you’re a millionaire athlete or an eighth-grader in your first year of Latin, you might choose the less-than-stellar option. That might affect my opinion of the person, in either case, for a while. But it doesn’t mean I’m giving up on them.

I can’t promise I won’t ever be annoyed at something my students do, or that I won’t have to come down on them for doing something wrong. That’s part of the job.

What I can promise is that I’ll still be a fan of theirs, too.

* Yankees fans: You are cordially invited to send any comments regarding this right here.

** Dodgers fans: We know about your illegal pitching mound. I’m not saying Koufax/Drysdale wouldn’t have been good without it, but they probably wouldn’t have been that good.

*** Red Sox fans: Let’s pretend I held off on writing this until the second report came out and we could all see Rob Manfred flip-flop on a front office’s responsibility for their team when it’s a big market that’s threatened. Let’s also pretend that both of these reports haven’t been cover for trying to kill a quarter of the minor leagues. Sound good?

**** Mets fans: Keep on truckin’.