OAKLAND — Baseball’s biggest controversy centered on the Houston Astros last November when news broke of their sign-stealing ways. Well into spring, concern kept spinning: Would offended opposing pitchers take aim? How might righteous fans channel their anger?
The heat tempered a bit when the coronavirus pandemic delayed baseball — the magnitude of a cheating scandal was dwarfed by matters of life and death. But when baseball returned, Joe Kelly’s flying fastballs made it clear players’ contempt for the Astros lingered.
How could fans make themselves heard in a time when fans are banished from ballparks?
With the Astros set to visit Oakland this weekend, A’s fans left outside of the Coliseum are doing what they can to make it known they haven’t forgotten what the Astros did on their way to a World Series win in 2017 and deep playoff runs since.
“As long as those players are on the Astros, the shame will never end,” Bryan Johansen, a longtime A’s fan, said to me over the phone.
The shame will begin from thousands of feet above the Coliseum in the hours before Friday night’s game. After raising enough funds through a GoFundMe titled “Aerial Banner to protest Houston Astros,” A’s fan Jon Wilson booked a plane with a banner reading “Houston Asterisks” to fly over the ballpark for two hours ahead of first pitch.
There will be more messages, too. Enhancing the fan experience at the Oakland Coliseum is Johansen’s specialty — maybe you’ve seen some of his banners hanging all down the bleacher fences. No pandemic could stop him from getting his message to the Astros, who watched live video feeds and banged on trash cans in their team hallway to relay opposing pitchers’ signs to their hitters.
Despite fine print in the A’s cardboard cutout program that prohibits “offensive or negative references to any MLB team,” Johansen’s submission of Astros mascot “Orbit” sitting in a trash can a la Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch has been sandwiched between two Ramón Laureano cutouts in left-center field all season.
Johansen hopes his contributions to the desolate ballpark can accurately portray his frustrations that American League West foes that have blocked the A’s postseason path of late cheated to succeed.
“Angry, I feel angry,” Johansen, who’s been a fan since 1986, said. “It pisses me off that I can’t be out there to boo them and tell them how we feel. It’s something that fans are invested in like crazy. A’s fans, we don’t have the attendance like other stadiums — and a long history of that. But the ones that are there, we’re more creative, crazy than any fans in the MLB. And the fact we can’t personally express that creativity and shaming toward the Astros pisses me off so much.”
Johansen hoped his banners, specially crafted for the Astros’ visit to Oakland, would be swapped in for the series this weekend. And, he made sure they were bold enough for the Astros hitters to see from 400 feet out: One has a classic MLB logo with a trash can emblazoned next to the bat. Another depicts Orbit the Grouch, and one with a “Houston Asterisks” replacing the words in the Houston Astros logo. The A’s, despite their ground rules against negative depictions, aren’t expecting to switch the banners out.
Soooooo…can the @Athletics hang our banners up since we can’t physically be at games? I mean, at least for the #BattleOfTheBang series. pic.twitter.com/A6lakdbmGv
— Bryan 👑📌 (@SandLot408) May 18, 2020
It’s all Johansen and the diehard A’s fans could do to make their frustrations known. Truth is, the A’s bleacher creatures — in groups separated by right field, left-center and left field — had plans in the works since the moment news of the Astros’ cheating scandal broke.
First, they made T-shirts, with all proceeds going to an array of charities supported by the Oakland A’s. The shirts are emblazoned with slogans such as “Houston Asterisks,” “Battle of the Bangs” and “Buzz Off.” The “Battle of the Bangs” shirt sold well in the Bay Area, a reference to the Astros’ trash can drumming. The rest are selling well in Los Angeles and New York — home of the Dodgers and Yankees, two teams that fell in the Astros’ trail of fire during the postseasons in which MLB found they stole pitchers’ signs and relayed them to hitters.
Johansen was ready to print up and pass out to A’s fans in the Coliseum halls and bleachers thousands of cheer cards that read “Hey Astros, steal THIS sign.”
Alas, A’s fans can’t express their dismay in person. But, they’ll do anything to get their message across.