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Thursday, July 29, 2021

Even With Limited Capacity, Lively Atmosphere For The Houston Astros And New York Yankees Resembles A Step Towards Normalcy

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The combined attendance of three games between the Houston Astros and New York Yankees was 30,787.

It is a figure that roughly fills up Yankee Stadium at two-thirds capacity but as things slowly creep back to normalcy after a year of limited capacities, empty stadiums and cardboard cutouts in some places, it was hard not to notice the lively atmosphere from those who watched three fairly compelling games.

It was fitting that during the week New York State announced it was reopening by May 19 and New York City announced hopes for a full reopening by July 1 that the environment was as raucous as it would be with three straight regular sellouts such as the combined crowd of 146,548 who witnessed the three playoff games in 2019 or the 147,824 who watched the Yankees win all three games over the Astros in 2017.

Or perhaps it was as raucous as it might have been in September if the original schedule got played and the sport was not reduced to 60 games with no fans and divisional play due to the COVID-19 pandemic that started March 11, 2020.

There was plenty of reason to believe the atmosphere would be lively going into the series given all the infamy that has unfolded since the 2019 ALCS meeting that was decided on Jose Altuve’s homer off Aroldis Chapman’s slider in Game 6.

Shortly after the Astros lost in seven games to the Nationals, the sign-stealing scandal details was revealed. And it was some ugly findings with revelations of a scheme to steal signs by having someone bang on trash cans in an area out of sight and near the dugout.

It was a scheme that cost three people managerial jobs either permanently or temporarily.

Carlos Beltran was named Mets manager Nov. 1, 2019 and by Jan. 16, 2020 he was replaced by Luis Rojas for his role in the scandal that was revealed by Mike Fiers.

AJ Hinch was fired and then suspended for all of last season before resurfacing to manage the Detroit Tigers. Alex Cora was suspended for all of last season as the Boston Red Sox stumbled to last place and then returned to the Red Sox, who currently lead the AL East.

Even with those moves, three key players remained for the Astros from the 2017 team with Altuve and Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa. So, it was no surprise that they bore the brunt of heckling, though perhaps it was really noticeable how the limited capacity crowd made it sound like an October sellout.

For three days they peppered Altuve with a clear chant that contained a four-letter expletive, doing so every time his name was mentioned or every time he stepped in the batter’s box. There was a profane chant for Bregman when he homered and more profane chants for Correa.

And when they weren’t heckling the Astros with a variety of chants, including “We don’t know you” towards Kyle Tucker, there was other noise such as the sound Giancarlo Stanton’s bat produced when he homered in each game, had eight hits and drove in nine runs.

“That was playoff energy, even though we’re not at full capacity,” Stanton said Tuesday. “That was fun. They brought the noise.”

“The energy that was created, we haven’t seen that since 2019,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said.

By Thursday afternoon it was Altuve’s 31st birthday and the unrelenting heckling and jeers featured a new wrinkle a profane version of “Happy Birthday”. Ultimately Altuve got to celebrate by hitting a high fastball from Chad Green into the left field seats for a go-ahead homer that prevented the fans from seeing a Yankee sweep in a series that sounded normal with its high volume even if the capacity is limited.

“I’ve said it before and people were mad at me — we were here in ’17 in the playoffs and I pitched here in Game 5, and it’s probably because it’s not full capacity, but I promise you it was just as bad or maybe even worse,” Houston starter Lance McCullers Jr. said. “They’re passionate fans who are going to let you know. But we’re OK. We knew what to expect. We’re all grown men here and we know what we have to do.”

“That was on time. He couldn’t have scripted it any better,” Houston manager Dusty Baker said. “We got some big hits today, period. But none bigger than his. That was huge. And it quieted the fans for a little while. I can’t tell you how happy everybody in the dugout was for Jose because he’s one of the best guys you’ll ever meet in this game.”

There’s no telling what might have unfolded differently if the Astros were not involved in the scheme in 2017. Perhaps they still beat the Yankees and win the World Series or perhaps the Yankees win the World Series and retain Joe Girardi since it would be tough to justify parting ways with a manager after a championship.

Those what-ifs are in the not so distant past but for three days a limited capacity crowd reminded us of other things from the past, normalcy from the cacophony of loud noises from a large crowd at a ballgame.

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