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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

‘Cheater! Cheater!’ Correa still hears boos, taunts from Astros cheating scandal

PHOENIX — Carlos Correa takes pride in never giving less than his best during a game, in competing his hardest no matter the score or situation. So even he had to grant grudging respect for the few dozen Seattle fans who, in the ninth inning of a dreary Mariners shutout loss Wednesday, hung around to vociferously boo him one last time.

“They stayed to the end,” noted Correa, who struck out to exaggerated cheers. “That’s pretty good.”

Two and a half years after the most serious sign-stealing scandal in baseball history erupted, Correa has discovered that changing teams, swapping an Astros jersey for a Twins one, has not caused baseball fans to forget, and certainly not forgive, his role.

In Fenway Park in April, the boos began during batting practice, and there were brief chants of “Cheat-er! Cheat-er!” during his at-bats in the series finale. In Seattle last week — facing a team that Correa’s Astros played 19 times per season during the time they were stealing signs via television cameras and relaying them via trash cans — the boos for the Twins’ shortstop were perhaps the loudest they’ve been this season.

“I wish it hadn’t happened, and it will never happen under my watch ever again with any team.”
Carlos Correa

But the jeers have been evident to some extent in every road ballpark the Twins have visited in the season’s first nine weeks. And they’ve even crept in occasionally at … Target Field?

“Yeah, when the Yankees or Dodgers come to town,” Correa said. “Twins fans are terrific. They’ve been terrific to me and my family. But it’s not all Twins fans [who are] there.”

Here’s the thing about the boos, though: Correa has discovered that familiarity breeds not contempt, but futility. If those booing so loudly hope to break his determination or inflict some psychic punishment, he said, they’re likely going to be disappointed.

For one thing, he’s batting .304 into this weekend, has an OPS of .829, and owns an OPS+ — a production-in-context statistic he says he values above most others — of 141, second-highest of his career. He’s earning $35.1 million this summer, the most ever by a Twin. His manager, Rocco Baldelli, spoke of him last week as an obvious choice to represent the Twins in the All-Star Game.

And the booing itself?

“It’s become just another part of my game now. It’s fun,” Correa said. “I embrace it. It’s my everyday reality on the road anymore, so when they don’t boo, it doesn’t feel right. If I go to a ballpark and they don’t boo, I don’t feel sexy at the plate.”

Wearing a label
Correa is widely regarded as a villain in the scandal because once it was revealed in November 2019, he didn’t deny that it had happened or claim to be unaware. He confessed to taking part, admitted that he shouldn’t have, and pledged to change his ways. Like all Astros players, Correa received no punishment.

But he also insisted that the Astros’ 2017 World Series championship against the Dodgers was not won, not even a little, by banging on trash cans.

Even now, Correa doesn’t duck questions about the scandal, and always answers with some version of what he said in March when he signed his Twins contract:

“I wish it hadn’t happened, and it will never happen under my watch ever again with any team,” Correa said at the time. “My focus moving forward is to do things the right way, and to go out and win a championship with the Twins.”

Correa said he understood when the scandal broke that owning up to his part might come with a backlash. “I knew when I was being honest, this would happen, or this might happen. And I always want to be honest,” he said. “So in a weird way, [the booing] kind of makes me happy. I’ve grown accustomed to it so much, it feels good, sort of. Like, I’m a kid that came from Puerto Rico, a small town, and now I’m living my dream every day, playing baseball. And these people know who I am. That’s amazing, you know?”

What’s amazing, his fellow Twins say, is how little the role of scoundrel damages his game.

Marwin Gonzalez, also a member of the 2017-18 Astros, rarely addressed the scandal while a Twin and almost never faced any backlash. It’s much more pronounced for Correa, but “it doesn’t seem to affect him in any way,” Baldelli said. “He’s a very focused guy, a guy that can simply avoid distraction. It’s impressive how he shrugs it off and is able to just go out there and do his job. He stays positive, very positive, and he’s able to do things in what I would say is the right manner.”

Emilio Pagan pitched for the Mariners in 2017 and the Athletics in 2018, and once gave up a home run to Correa at Minute Maid Park. Pagan said he discussed the scandal, both the sign-stealing and the backlash since it was revealed, with his now-teammate, “and it was a very positive conversation. He’s very open and articulate. He’s a leader, and taking [responsibility] is what a leader does.”

‘He handles it well’
The booing, Pagan believes, once weighed on Correa. “But like most great players, you find a way to use whatever you can as motivation. And he’s proven, along with the rest of those guys, that they’re going to continue to be great players,” Pagan said, noting that the Astros led MLB in runs scored last season, even while dealing with anger from fans and opponents all season. “He handles it very well. He’s a professional. You can tell he’s thought about it, about how to respond. And he has responded as a professional.”

“It’s my everyday reality on the road anymore, so when they don’t boo, it doesn’t feel right. If I go to a ballpark and they don’t boo, I don’t feel sexy at the plate.”
Carlos Correa

Even with some of the worst offenders. Fans threw trash cans on the field during Astros games last year, and Correa hints that he has heard some out-of-bounds comments, some irrational anger, from the stands. He even got into an on-field dispute with Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly in 2020 that caused benches to clear.

But “I never take it personal. I don’t think the fans cross the line. I’ve seen [players] get fans kicked out for a lot less, get them thrown out of the ballpark, and I’ve never done that,” Correa said. “I’ve always lived my life focused on what my family and teammates think about me. The rest of it, it never bothered me.”

It bothers his former manager, though. A.J. Hinch, fired as Astros manager in the wake of the scandal and now, after serving a one-year suspension, the Tigers’ manager, said last summer that he was troubled when Detroit fans booed his former players.

“I know the people that they are. I know the work they put in,” Hinch said. “I’ve been in the trenches with them. So yeah, it’s uncomfortable.”

Speaking of uncomfortable, a two-game series in Dodger Stadium looms in August (and perhaps an All-Star appearance for Correa there in July), and the Twins visit Yankee Stadium during Labor Day week in September, so there are plenty more boos ahead. Does Correa expect that background noise to eventually fade away, or is it now the permanent soundtrack of his career?

“I don’t know. But honestly, I don’t worry about it. I’m used to it, and it doesn’t bother me,” Correa said. “Getting better every single year, being a Hall of Fame teammate — for me, that’s what wakes me up every morning. I want to have a Hall of Fame career. I think about how I can become one of the best shortstops to play the game. That’s what’s important.”

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