In a sea of Astros criticism, some lines should never be crossed

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The 2017 Houston Astros were cheaters. They were selfish, unfair, wrong. Their actions influenced opponents’ careers. Their championship is tarnished.

And with all that being true, they do not deserve this.

Perhaps this was inevitable — that the fallout of the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal would include cowards protected by the anonymity of social media allegedly issuing death threats to players and wishing cancer upon their children — and here we are.

As much consternation and pearl-clutching as there has been about what the Astros’ cheating means, how it’s a reflection of modern society, let’s be honest: The response to the Astros, and to Mike Fiers, the whistleblower who unveiled the team’s misdeeds, is far more representative of life in 2020.

Certainly this runs the risk of sounding obvious, and those with consciences already are nodding their heads, but the Astros so deeply inflame emotions that this warrants not just attention but empathy. Don’t mistake that for lessening the egregiousness of what they did either. It’s simply another truth here, one worth remembering as the scandal’s tentacles reach into the principals’ personal lives: The Astros did something bad; they didn’t do something so bad that they should ever be in a position to say the following.

“I put a post on my kid rolling over for the first time and I gotta look down there and see: ‘I hope your kid gets cancer,'” Astros outfielder Josh Reddick said.

“They start talking about raping, talking about killing and all this stuff,” shortstop Carlos Correa said.

“I think ultimately the family safety is a big issue right now,” Reddick said.

“They are the ones that [are] exposed the most,” Correa said.

Cancer. Raping. Killing. Family.

It’s easy to hide underneath the cloak of invincibility offered by social media, which is high on impulsivity and low on accountability — easy to tap away at a phone or clack at a keyboard, reach down to the deepest, darkest place and emit a stream of pure, unmitigated hatred. And it’s not just the cheating scandal that propagated this. Correa said he received menacing messages after his costly error in the 2015 division series and following his game-winning home run in the 2019 American League Championship Series, too.

Reddick and Correa went public Friday following a three-hour meeting with the Major League Baseball Players Association, during which the players, Correa said, spent a significant amount of time discussing security efforts for the upcoming season. The Astros, sources said, will receive increased security, particularly when on the road. The details are of particular import to the team, which has weathered a volcano-force eruption of anger inside and outside the sport over the lack of suspensions players received for the scheme of their own doing.

The notion that Astros players haven’t been punished simply isn’t true. It manifests itself in ways relatable to all, even those most aggrieved. There are the deserved costs: the loss of respect from their peers, the permanent brand of “cheater,” the question of whether to strip their 2017 championship altogether. There are the ones that are fair but still warrant sympathy, even for those whose actions were patently unsympathetic. One Astros player this week admitted he sought therapy for depression over the winter. He didn’t want his name used because he feared the blowback would leave him a target for scrutiny by those who would accuse him of playing the world’s smallest violin. At the same time, he admitted, this is something of his own doing and he expects nobody to feel sorry for him.

Still, to deny that the human cost of this scandal reaches the Astros too is to lack the very same empathy the Astros did when they chose themselves and their goals over what was right. It’s hypocrisy personified.

And when the punishment extends so far beyond the pale, it’s worth stepping back and recalibrating. Yes, the vast, vast majority of those on social media stay within the bounds of decency, and it tends to be a small handful of trolls who breach decorum, vomit awfulness and hit send. Just as the Astros should be held accountable, so should they. The fecklessness of social-media platforms to police their darkest corners allowed this to happen, not just in sports but everywhere. That is a far truer shame than anything the Astros did or can do.

Everyone on social media has seen it. Someone once told me that he hopes I die in front of my kids on Christmas … because I wrote a column saying Kansas City fans should not have booed Robinson Cano at the Home Run Derby in 2012. Maybe it’s just a fact of life today. That’s a hard thing to accept, to believe the world is so black-and-white that whether it’s a difference of opinion or an error of great consequence or, in Fiers’ case, a service to the game he loves, someone — anyone — believes that it warrants the invocation of cancer or rape or death, of the truest horrors we know.

Selfish, unfair, wrong. Yeah. That sounds about right.

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