Yankees fans finally get long-awaited Astros grudge match

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Twenty percent capacity, 100 percent gusto.

Give the Yankees fans credit for impressively long memories. As the Astros took batting practice Tuesday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, the holdovers from their 2017 championship club — including Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa — received a “You’re a cheater!!!” greeting. And when Yankees starting pitcher Domingo German headed to the bullpen about a half-hour before first pitch, the Bleacher Creatures saluted the right-hander as if he had just defeated the Germans in World War II.

And when Altuve took the field shortly before first pitch, getting in some sprints and stretches, you would’ve been forgiven for believing the Stadium was near-full, so boisterous was the booing — which escalated again when public-address announcer Paul Olden introduced the Houston starting lineup.

A for effort. Yet as the Yankees and Astros prepared to finally play each other for the first time since Game 6 of the 2019 American League Championship Series, you couldn’t help but ponder the weirdness of the whole thing. How it took so long just to get this grudge match. How much better it would have played out — how much more fun and intense — a year ago, in front of full houses.

“There’s no question that the last year has had an effect and changed things a lot, surely,” Aaron Boone said. “But I don’t really think it’s my place to give much consideration or dwell on that or focus on that. I guess after we see how the series unfolds, maybe you can ask me that question.”

On Jan. 13, 2020, Rob Manfred announced his official findings that the Astros illegally stole signs for the entirety of 2017, including the postseason, and part of 2018. Immediately, Yankees fans turned to the schedule to see that their team visited Houston May 15-17 and hosted the Astros in The Bronx Sept. 21-24. They would be must-see TV, the latter set perhaps serving as a preview of another October battle.

Shoot, Yankees enthusiasts suddenly found solidarity with 28 other fan bases, surveying the Astros’ slate like an attack plan: Their first road series would be in Oakland, employer of whistleblower and home to some of the most unhinged baseball rowdies you’ll ever encounter.

Even the laid-back folks in California’s Orange County, spurred on by Mike Trout’s uncharacteristically explicit anger, appeared armed (with vigor) and ready to be heard. I got to cover the Astros’ Grapefruit League opener Feb. 22 of last year, and the scene was unforgettable, fans of the opponent Nationals overtaking the place even though not a single player from the ‘17 Astros participated.

That drumbeat, that organic outrage, hit the pause button with the novel coronavirus shutting down all professional sports, and when things stabilized enough to hold a mini-season, the Yankees and Astros never so much as entered the same time zone, the pandemic convincing Major League Baseball to regionalize its schedule, until the AL Division Series, when the Yankees fell short to the Rays in San Diego while the Astros ousted the Athletics in Los Angeles. The Astros, under new manager Dusty Baker, played in front of a total of zero fans for the 2020 season, punting on their penance.

Some payback has arrived this year with ballparks slowly filling up again. The beloved Baker, who succeeded the fired A.J. Hinch, has publicly expressed hope that people eventually move on from this scandal.

The good news for the Astros is that many of their opponents appear to have done just that, after last year saw skirmishes with the Dodgers and A’s. In the buildup for this series, most Yankees, including Boone, preferred to emphasize the challenge the dangerous Astros presented rather than talk of revenge. Out West, Trout, so angry last year, exchanged pleasantries with Correa before an Angels-Astros game. Time heals some wounds.

The fan energy elevates considerably this from standard regular-season fare. We’ll never know the heights it could’ve reached, though, which is a weird thing and certainly not a good one.

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