The Aggrieved World Series

Photo: Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

It has been a positive year for Major League Baseball. There have been some rough points — the pseudo-controversy involving pitchers allegedly using foreign substances, some Tony La Russa high jinks, many Mets executives acting like morons — but there was a lot for the league to hang its hat on, too. A season that began with reduced (or zero) capacity in the stands ended with roaring, often-transcendent postseason crowds — and MLB managed to get in every game on its schedule along the way. The Angels’ hitting-and-pitching sensation Shohei Ohtani put together a season unlike any in baseball history and became a crossover pop-culture attraction. The biggest highlight came in August, when the Yankees and White Sox played a Field of Dreams game in Iowa, which ended up being less about Kevin Costner nostalgia and more about how amazing it is to stage an MLB game in a cool new place. (A Central Park game seems inevitable. Anybody up for the Grand Canyon?)

The league still has some terrifying labor issues looming on the horizon this off-season, and baseball wouldn’t be baseball if certain people weren’t claiming the game is about to perish forever, but all told: not a bad year. The World Series between the Astros and Braves, which begins Tuesday night, would seem to be the perfect opportunity to celebrate the season. And, considering how perilous the labor-management fight is shaping up to be, it’s important to appreciate every bit of baseball you can watch while you can watch it. But it must be said; it is going to be really difficult for a lot of casual fans to cheer for either one of these teams.

Before the denizens of Houston and Atlanta start heaving projectiles in my general direction: No doubt there are plenty of fun humans on both the Astros and the Braves, this year’s two unlikely World Series participants. The Astros are managed by Dusty Baker, the lovable 72-year-old who has won more games than any manager in MLB history without ever winning a World Series. They also feature Zack Greinke, an iconoclast and future Hall of Famer who, like Baker, is missing only a title on his résumé. The Braves have Freddie Freeman, a prince of a human being who began last season praying for his life amid a severe bout of COVID-19 — then ended up winning the MVP. And they’ve got Joc Pederson, a likable goof whose unusual sartorial habit this postseason has inspired the odd visual of thousands of middle-age Braves fans dressing up for games by wearing thick goatees, camo hunters’ gear, and … Barbara Bush pearls. (Seriously, they’re selling pearls in the official team store.)

So why is it such a heavy lift to root for the Astros or Braves? The problem here isn’t really with their players. It’s with the fans.

Houston and Atlanta are two fan bases that have defined themselves by circling the wagons against external forces. They have adopted a siege mentality that has devolved into a constant battle against enemies both real and imagined. You know how when players win a title, they say, “No one believed in us”? This is a World Series between fan bases who feel everyone is out to get them. It’s the perfect matchup for 2021: It’s the Aggrieved Fall Classic.

The Astros, of course, were at the center of the wild, utterly absurd cheating scandal of 2019, a plot that featured the team using the advanced technology of “banging on a trash can” to signal to their hitters that a certain pitch was coming. This may have seemed silly, if irresistible, to outsiders, but it certainly was a big deal within the game. Both the Astros’ general manager and manager lost their jobs, and the team has been booed lustily during every road game they’ve played since — particularly José Altuve, who was accused of wearing some sort of buzzer that was supposedly sending him secret messages at the plate, or something. (There is zero evidence this ever existed, not that anyone ever cared.)

I’m on record as finding this whole would-be scandal hilarious rather than somehow damaging to the integrity of the game. But there is no question that it has turned the Astros into the game’s biggest villains even though almost everyone from the front office in 2019 is gone, and only seven players from that team remain. So naturally, Astros fans have decided that everyone in baseball is out to get them and respond to even the tiniest slight as a disrespect worthy of an infinite flame war. (It’s about ethics in baseball-scandal journalism.) Rather than admit to their franchise’s culpability in what turned out to be a rather serious scandal (if not in my eyes, in the eyes of every other team’s fans, and to Major League Baseball itself), they’ve turned the anger outward: If you are troubled by the Astros’ continued success, it’s because you are the offender, not them. If the Astros end up winning the World Series, many of their fans will no doubt enjoy spiting their detractors more than actually reveling in victory. Which is not how this is supposed to work.

Of course, if you feel more strongly about the scandal than I do and just want to dislike the Astros straight-up for their role in it, you should very much feel comfortable continuing to do so. I will not stand in your way. In any case, Houston is a nonstarter. So why not just root for the Braves?

Two years ago, before game two of the 2019 National League Division Series between the Braves and Cardinals, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an interview with Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsley, who, in addition to throwing a 100-mile-per-hour fastball, is a member of the Cherokee Nation. The paper asked him about the Tomahawk Chop, Braves fans’ favorite cheer, which features 40,000 (almost entirely white) fans waving their arms and chanting, you know, like the Indians. Helsley became the first player to go on record as being against the Chop:

“I think it’s a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general,” Helsley said. “Just depicts them in this kind of caveman-type-people way who aren’t intellectual. They are a lot more than that. It’s not me being offended by the whole mascot thing. It’s not. It’s about the misconception of us, the Native Americans, and it devalues us and how we’re perceived in that way, or used as mascots. The Redskins and stuff like that. That’s the disappointing part. That stuff like this still goes on. It’s just disrespectful, I think.”

Interestingly, the Braves seemed to listen at first. They put out a statement within hours of Helsley’s, saying, “We will continue to evaluate how we activate elements of our brand, as well as the in-game experience, and look forward to a continued dialogue with those in the Native American community once the season comes to an end.” They also did not distribute red foam tomahawk chops for game five of that series, as had been planned. The next season, it turned out, was played in empty stadiums, so the issue was temporarily sidelined. But when fans returned this season, it was clear — at least at the beginning of the season — that the Braves were attempting to at least slightly curb the chant. They reduced the number of prompts (which had previously been incessant), no longer giving out the foam chops and emphasizing team memorabilia that wasn’t so explicitly focused on Native American imagery.

You can probably guess what happened next: Fans were furious. The Braves were inundated with complaints about the lessening of the Chop — and, more to the point, fans began taking it on themselves to carry it out with renewed fervor, a clear defiant “just you try to take this away from us.” (The elections that happened between 2019 and 2021, and the tumultuous political climate in the state generally, may have played a role here.) As anyone who watches this weekend’s games in suburban Smyrna will see — and this is your reminder that the Braves moved their team out of downtown Atlanta three years ago specifically to cater to what they believe to be the wishes of their primarily white fan base — the Chop is now louder, and more prominent, than ever. (It is also surely not what MLB wants the soundtrack of games three to five to be, but it will be.) That this happened the year MLB took the All-Star Game out of Georgia because of the state legislature’s voter-suppression laws isn’t a coincidence, either. Braves fans have made it clear: You will pry the red foam tomahawk from their cold, dead hands. If you don’t like it, they’ll just chop louder. Not all Braves fans do the Chop. But it’ll sure sound that way this weekend.

All fan bases are inherently aggrieved, but these two go the extra mile. Either the Astros or the Braves are going to win the World Series. I hope their fans remember to be happy about it.

The Aggrieved World Series