Astros Crank Up the Volume on Backlash with Shockingly Tone-Deaf Apologies

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistFebruary 13, 2020

WEST PALM BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 13:  Alex Bregman #2 and Jose Altuve #27 of the Houston Astros look on as owner Jim Crane reads a prepared statement during a press conference at FITTEAM Ballpark of The Palm Beaches on February 13, 2020 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — This is what the getaway car looks like after the tires squeal, the loot is stashed, the road ahead is wide open and the motor is screaming like an eagle at 90 mph.

Were the Houston Astros going to offer apologies to livid players around the league who were cheated in one of the worst scandals in baseball history? No.

"Today was about us apologizing," slugger Alex Bregman said as the club lobbed out general, broad apologies Thursday as casually as if it were tossing free T-shirts into the stands between innings. "We as a team are trying to show remorse and move forward. We're not going to comment on other players."

WEST PALM BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 13:  Alex Bregman #2 of the Houston Astros speaks during a press conference at FITTEAM Ballpark of The Palm Beaches on February 13, 2020 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Were the Astros going to admit that their 2017 World Series title was tainted? No.

"I firmly believe we earned that championship," pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. said. "I believe that championship was earned 100 percent, and I believe we're going to earn another one."

Were the Astros going to discuss their part in a current society in which truths routinely are distorted, lying is rewarded and children learn that cheating too often has no consequences? Not much.

"We're human beings. I know a lot of kids look up to us," All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve said. "We're here to say that we feel really bad."

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Vrooooom! Clean getaway. There go the Astros, '17 World Series trophy still gleaming, the corpses of former general manager Jeff Luhnow and field manager A.J. Hinch in the trunk, the players not even nicked with shrapnel.

There they go, speeding into 2020.

If there is such a thing as a textbook definition of a hollow apology, the Astros expertly laid it out on a hot, muggy morning here that didn't even cause them to break a sweat.

They carefully avoided the word "cheating" the way you step around a steaming pile of dog poop in the middle of the summer sidewalk. They admitted they "broke the rules" (owner Jim Crane) and copped to being "really sorry" about "the choices that were made" (Bregman). They want the world to know that "the organization and team feels bad about what happened" in 2017 and 2018 (Altuve).

The apologies were exceptionally well-rehearsed. A team meeting held Wednesday night was said to have lasted about an hour. Surely, 59 of those minutes were spent memorizing lines. Many robocalls show more emotion. These guys were more disciplined in sticking to the same three or four talking points—"I don't want to get into specifics" (Justin Verlander)—than most politicians.

Across the game, it's hard to see it all flying. And as "Astros" was the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter and "Altuve" ranked fourth a couple of hours after their media briefings, it wasn't.

In Oakland's camp, pitcher Sean Manaea became the latest player to trash the Astros, telling the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser, "They skated by."

Not that the other 29 teams are squeaky clean—there's a reason batteries change signs against teams other than Houston—but the Astros, through their "Codebreaker" program, took it to another level. They got caught.

Yet as Houston's spring camp opened, Crane continued to protect his players by steadfastly refusing to blame any of them for what was a carefully planned, long-term and pervasive cheating campaign that covered parts of at least two seasons.

"They are a great group of guys who did not receive the proper guidance from their leaders," Crane said, as if the players were a bunch of kindergartners with zero free will.

He also said the Astros went "above and beyond" the punishment doled out by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred by firing Luhnow and Hinch. And he continued to duck personal responsibility by saying he learned of the scandal when "everyone else" found out last November via The Athletic's Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal. Which means he either has been out to lunch or willfully ignorant, because Houston's cheating has been a source of heavy industry speculation since at least, yes, 2017.

In fact, as B/R reported in October, 2018, rival industry sources believed Houston's devious behavior cut so deep that the Astros may not have been calibrating their TrackMan (a ball-tracking system) properly throughout the organization, particularly at the minor league levels. Misrepresenting a pitcher's spin rate as too high or too low, for example, could be used to either put an artificially high or low value on prospects during trade talks. At least one club had serious concerns over this matter when completing a deal with Houston in 2018, according to B/R sources.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Crane promised that nothing like this will happen again on his watch, yet clearly there is still rot within the organization. The Wall Street Journal detailed last week the beginnings of "Codebreaker," reporting that among those creating the system in the front office and active with it even after Manfred sent a September 2017 memo warning clubs that "any use of electronic equipment to steal signs would be dealt with … severely", were Tom Koch-Weser, director of advance information and Derek Vigoa, director of team operations.

Both remain employed by the Astros. So, too, does hitting coach Alex Cintron, also tabbed as heavily involved by the Journal in a subsequent report this week.

Yet Thursday, Crane said "I don't totally 100 percent agree" with the part of the commissioner's report that cited the "culture of the baseball operations department" has been "very problematic."

Seriously?

Already, several owners were furious that Crane escaped this scandal with little more than a slap on the wrist from MLB, one highly placed industry source tells B/R. It's hard to see Thursday's events mitigating that anytime soon.

Is an apology due the Yankees, who were beaten in Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS?

"As the commissioner said, he's not going to go backward," Crane said. "It's hard to say if it impacted the game. That's how we're going to leave it."

Oh?

What about the '17 Dodgers, and the sign-swiping Astros' part in helping to push Clayton Kershaw's postseason reputation off a cliff?

"I don't think we feel a need to reach out to those guys, or to anybody else," outfielder Josh Reddick said.

So sure, the Astros absolutely checked the "apology" box as camp opened Thursday.

But in refusing to admit that the players themselves did anything wrong, and with answers like these, checking the "move forward" box will be an entirely different animal.

Eventually, even getaway cars run out of gas.

          

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball. 

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