During an early season game in 2017 – looking back, I think it was April 5, as the Astros hosted the Mariners – a pair of Astros fans made history. Stationed down the first base line as the seats just toward the base line in the right field corner, they apparently learned of new right fielder Josh Reddick’s affinity for wrestler Ric Flair, and his trademark shout, “WOOOOO!” As early April games in extra innings tend to go, the crowd of 20,000 had thinned considerably by the late innings, and the nearly empty seats started to reverberate with a pair of fans yelling, “WOOOOO!”, and by the game’s end, the shot had spread to the remaining fans at the game. If you missed out on the birth of “The Wave”, this may have been the next closest thing.
Growing up with my two younger brothers, Monday nights were wrestling nights. Mom would head out to teach, and we would move the coffee table out of the way, leaving the family room open to jump off the couches, drop elbows, clothesline each other, and generally wreak havoc. We were WWF (now WWE) kids, focused on Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage. Even though we were growing up in suburban Houston, we paid little attention to that “Southern” brand competing with the WWF, the entity known as WCW – the home of Ric Flair.
By the 2017 playoffs, the “WOOOO!” had become ubiquitous in Minute Maid Park. The PA system had blessed it with its introduction to Reddick’s at bats, and Houston fans seemed to show enough restraint to use it when Reddick made a good play. (Mostly. These are still fans, after all,) Its use continued throughout the World Series run, through Reddick’s ups and downs with the club, and throughout the 2019 season. The players embraced the theme, granting a “championship belt” and Flair-style robe to the player of the game. You heard lots of stories like that from the 2017 team, from the robe, to the “Club Astros” dance parties after victories, to burying Carlos Beltran’s glove in center field because he never did anything but DH anymore. These kinds of stories emanate from a team enjoying good times. They make a team easy to root for.
In wrestling parlance, characters divide along clean lines: the “babyfaces”, or “faces” for short, take the heroic role, overcoming cheating and dastardly deeds to triumph, while the “heels” play the villainous role, using whatever nefarious means they can find to win, whether that comes by distracting the referee, using brass knuckles, eye-poking, you name it. Knowing the popularity of the “faces” comes easily – just listen for the cheers of the crowd, and you will know how well they play their role. But what of the “heels”? Wrestlers speak of the amount of “heat” generated – how loudly do crowds boo the bad guy? Finding the right balance, that’s the trick – not becoming someone the crowd just hates, but someone the crowd loves to hate.
The Astros roster brims with genuinely good guys. (We say this of course, not knowing these players personally at all; all of us have found ourselves stung by a player we knew to be a “good guy”, only to see him caught up in some scandal or wrongdoing.) George Springer runs a foundation to help children overcome stuttering (a condition with which he still struggles, although you couldn’t tell when his voice booms through the field.) Alex Bregman’s foundation provides classroom technology for autistic children, and he spent the early parts of the coronavirus pandemic raising over $3M for the Houston Food Bank. Jose Altuve has the kind of smile that should have made him baseball’s poster boy. They and their teammates, for the most part, come across as gregarious, happy, and likeable.
Well, they did – until January of this year.
Ric Flair described himself as “the dirtiest player in the game.” He took pride in himself as a “limousine ridin’, jet flyin’, wheelin’-dealin’ son of a gun.” Flair would surround himself with protectors, most famously the “Four Horsemen”, who would help him cheat in any way he needed, or just take the beating for him while he slipped away. Crowds absolutely loved to hate him, and he became the biggest name in WCW – eventually winning their championship a record 16 times. Of course, the outcomes were predetermined, but the record still held significance; not because it demonstrated any skill in winning matches, but because it indicated that the company trusted him more than any other in their history to deliver – deliver the ticket sales, deliver the merchandise sales, deliver the buzz in the building when everyone just had to drown him out in boos. He summed up his popularity in another of his catchphrases: “You can like it, or don’t like it – but learn to love it.”
While you wouldn’t find many fans who disliked the Astros players personally prior to January, the franchise had already begun to rub many people the wrong way. The front office developed a reputation within the game as know-it-alls; whatever they may or may not have believed, they certainly left the impression that they thought of themselves as smarter than their competitors. That reputation only grew when Jeff Luhnow unapologetically traded for an accused domestic abuser in Roberto Osuna, then managed to say that the team had a “zero tolerance policy” for such issues – a policy that apparently took effect once the player joined the team. Their reputation took another hit when Brandon Taubman made inappropriate comments to female reporters during the celebration that followed the Astros defeat of the Yankees in the 2019 ALCS. Luhnow and owner Jim Crane then made matters worse with a series of tone-deaf public comments, and by the start of the World Series, you would have been hard pressed to find folks outside of Houston pulling for the Astros and not the Nationals. When commissioner Rob Manfred dropped the hammer on the team for their sign-stealing scheme from 2017 and early 2018, no punishment short of disbanding the team would have made many people happy.
The Astros had managed the impossible: replacing the Yankees as the team everyone wanted to hate.
The first movie I can recall watching in a movie theater was “The Empire Strikes Back.” Those images can still come back to me vividly – Luke’s X-wing soaring out of the swamp under Yoda’s command, stormtroopers blasting away in the shiny walls of Cloud City, and of course, Darth Vader, looming larger than life and ten times as scary. We loved it so much we hid under the seats and stayed for the next showing. To this day, “Empire” remains my favorite movie. Darth Vader became one of the most recognizable villains in all of cinema. But if you look back to “Star Wars” (oh, sorry George – “A New Hope”), Vader doesn’t seem nearly as menacing; at times, Tarkin seems intended as the primary villain – Leia even refers to him as “holding Vader’s leash.” Darth Vader didn’t really become DARTH VADER in the public consciousness until “Empire”, and that succeeded to the point where if you ask the average person to name one character from “Star Wars”, you probably won’t hear Luke Skywalker or Han Solo – you’ll hear Darth Vader.
Of course, the memorable villain hardly starts or stops with Star Wars. If you think of “Silence of the Lambs”, do you think of Clarice Starling or Hannibal Lecter? When you remember “The Shining”, do you think of little Danny, or of Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance? You probably can’t name a single character from “Friday the 13th” that didn’t wear a mask, but I bet you can name Jason. Villains can elevate above the heroes they face, and become legends in and of themselves.
We watch sports not only for the spectacle of athletic achievement; we watch for the drama. Drama requires conflict. The hero must face some type of villain. The “faces” need the “heels.” The time has come for the Astros to face facts: they’ve become the villains in the story. And if they’re the villains, then they need to play the part. Bregman has the perfect cocky smirk for it; the rest of the team needs to follow his lead. If people won’t let you forget the trash cans, then lean into it. Play the national anthem on steel drums. Have Orbit dress as Oscar the Grouch. Have all the players choose drum solos as their walk up music. If you’re going to play the villain, then go Darth Vader – play the best villain of all time. You’d think a team that keeps yelling “WOOOOO!” would understand that.
But here’s the good news: our dramas don’t require actual bad people – they just need someone to play that part. George Springer doesn’t have to start kicking puppies or stealing babies’ lollipops; Anthony Hopkins didn’t have to practice actual cannibalism to play Hannibal Lecter. David Prowse did have to actually force choke someone to play Darth Vader.
Richard Morgan Fliehr didn’t have to be “the dirtiest player in the game”; he just had to play a character named Ric Flair.
Featured image: Getty Images