HOUSTON — Jim Crane, with the Houston Astros 2017 World Series championship trophy displayed in front of him, looked outside his office window Wednesday, saw the sheets of rain pounding against the glass and once again felt overwhelmed by contempt and scorn outside his office walls.
The Astros didn’t have anyone throw 96-mph fastballs over anyone’s head in a game this week. They didn’t have a player suspended eight games by Major League Baseball. Really, they were on their best behavior in the two-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Yet, the moment MLB announced that Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly would be suspended for his actions, precipitating a benches-clearing incident, COVID-19 style, the anger and hostility from the outside world surged forward again.
Crane said he didn’t receive any death threats like he did earlier this year, but he and his team was savaged on the airwaves and social media.
How can the Astros engineer one of the greatest cheating scandals in baseball history, with their players being granted immunity so none of them was punished, and then a Dodgers player get punished for trying to police their game if no one else was going to do it for them?
Six months have passed since the Astros’ cheating scandal was exposed, costing general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch their jobs, and the team a $5 million fine and the loss of their first two draft picks in 2020 and ’21, but it’s not enough.
The public, even in the middle of a pandemic, and a country fighting for social justice, refuses to forget.
“People are aggravated the players didn’t get suspended,’’ Crane said, “but I didn’t have anything to do with that. That was (Commissioner) Rob (Manfred’s) call. Listen, it’s always going to be whatever you want to call it. A black mark. An asterisk. It happened. It’s not good for anybody. It’s not good for the game.
“We broke the rules. We got penalized. We were punished. There’s no doubt it weighs on all of us every single day.
“But I don’t know what else they want us to do. I mean, you couldn’t do a lot more. We took a big penalty. Rob (Manfred) sent a message. We accepted the message, and went above and beyond.
“We’re sorry. We apologized. But no matter what happened, it wasn’t going to be enough. People wanted me out of baseball. They wanted players to be suspended. They wanted everything.’’
Crane, 66, discussed a wide range of topics with USA TODAY Sports, his first expansive interview since the cheating scandal became public.
He profusely apologized for the organization’s cheating scandal in 2017 and part of 2018. He spoke about the the firings, settlements and grievances involving Hinch, Luhnow and assistant GM Brandon Taubman. He talked about the risk and backlash in trading for Roberto Osuna, who was suspended for violating MLB’s domestic violence abuse policy while on the Toronto Blue Jays in 2018. He discussed ace Justin Verlander’s arm injury. He defended the team’s culture.
And he expressed remorse for that disastrous February press conference which only inflamed the anger from the public and players around the game.
The infamous press conference
It was the Feb. 13 press conference, in front of the Astros’ spring-training complex in Florida, in which Crane uttered that the sign stealing “didn’t alter the game,’’ and Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve unemotionally read brief prepared statements, provoking resentment in every clubhouse in baseball.
“We didn’t come off like I wanted to,’’ Crane said Wednesday. “If I had to do it over again, I’d do it differently. The press conference didn’t go well at all. I didn’t handle it as well as I should have.
“I said (the sign stealing) didn’t affect the game. What I should have said is that I can’t impact the decision Rob (Manfred) made not to change history. He was not going to alter the game. He wasn’t going to take away the World Series trophy.
“I’m not stupid enough to think it couldn’t have altered the game. How it altered the game, no one is ever going to know. Did it have an effect on the game? That’s certainly a reasonable assessment.’’
CHEATING SCANDAL: Astros issues start at the top, and will persist
Crane paused during lunch, took a bite of the salmon on his plate, and said, “If we had to re-run it, we would have had tried to do a better job of apologizing and tried to be more sincere. But you’re under the gun. You try to answer the same question 18 times. It’s not a spot I ever want to be in again.’’
‘A bigger problem than everybody realized’
Crane may be villain to most, but he has done some good during the pandemic.The Astros are one of the few teams that didn’t layoff or furlough any staff members, and they are paying minor leaguers for a season not played. And the team’s foundation has increased giving under Crane, spending more than $50 million over the past nine years around the community.
But Crane said he is not seeking sympathy.
Sure, he wishes people would remember that the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees were punished for cheating during the 2017 season. The Red Sox also were penalized in May for sign stealing in 2018, losing a second-round draft pick while video replay operator J.T. Watkins was banned through the postseason. And the Yankees are in a court battle to prevent a letter from Manfred from being unsealed, detailing his findings of the 2017 investigation.
“I think (MLB) had a bigger problem than everybody realized,’’ Crane says. “Two other teams (the Yankees and Red Sox) were doing things and got caught, but we’re the ones who took the bullet. That’s the way it works. I’m not trying to blame anyone else. It was our problem. We dealt with it.”
The Red Sox fired manager Alex Cora before MLB disclosed its findings, but not for his actions in Boston. He was fired for his role in the Astros’ scandal as Hinch’s bench coach. Carlos Beltran was also dismissed as the New York Mets manager for being one of the architects of the scheme in Houston.
“It didn’t surprise me one bit,” Crane said said. “The other teams had to do the same thing.
“I don’t know if this whole thing is over. I think after this year it will calm down. But it will always be out there.”
The Astros had the option of retaining Luhnow and Hinch, bringing them back after their one-year suspensions, but Crane said he had no choice but to abruptly fire them on the same day of MLB’s report. Hinch had a contract through 2022 and Luhnow through 2023.
The Astros and Hinch negotiated a settlement on the remainder of his contract. Luhnow and the Astros never agreed on a buyout, Crane said, leaving the Astros to argue he was fired with “just cause,’’ in a case that could lead to a grievance and decided by the courts.
“You hate to see what happened to those guys,’’ Crane said, “because they didn’t instigate this thing. It started at the bottom, but they both knew about it. So, I had to do what I thought was best for the franchise. What if I left them in there. How much (stuff) would I get? It was the only choice. We had to move forward.”
“I hope these guys get back in the business, but as this thing plays out, it could be more difficult.”
Crane said he also sympathizes with Taubman, the former assistant GM who was fired after the Astros won the American League Championship Series. Taubman yelled “Thank God we got Osuna” and expletive towards a group of female reporters in the clubhouse.
“Brandon Taubman didn’t commit domestic violence,’’ Crane said. “He just made a comment. It’s nothing you can defend. He had a few cocktails. He was happy. There were people constantly coming at him over (Osuna), and he overreacted. Did he do the right thing? No. Everybody makes mistakes. But is he a good, genuine decent person and smart kid? Absolutely.
“I hated to see him lose his job, but we had no choice.”
The Astros, of course, did have the choice not to trade for Osuna, a deal that was made two years ago Thursday. Osuna was completing his suspension for allegedly hitting the mother of his young son while pitching for the Blue Jays, and the Astros believed he deserved a second chance.
Besides, they badly needed a closer.
“We didn’t anticipate the Osuna thing would catch that much heat,’’ said Crane, whose organization donated $200,000 last year to domestic violence education and awareness. “But when it did, the players were concerned. I told the guys on our team, ‘Listen, we made the decision. He paid his price. We think he deserves a second chance. If he screws up, he’s out of here. You don’t have to worry about it.’
“After that, it was fine. That’s with the players. Not so much with the public. It was just a lightning rod of a subject.’’
MLB’s investigative report on the Astros’ cheating scandal specifically mentioned that the organization had an “insular culture’’ problem.
“No one can dispute that Luhnow’s baseball operations department is an industry leader in its analytics,” Manfred wrote in his report, “(but) it is very clear to me that the culture of the baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relations with other clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic.”
The characterization chafed Crane when the report was released, and six months later, it still does.
“People say we had a culture problem,’’ he said. “We didn’t have a culture problem. They’re isolated incidents that are unrelated.
“Even the sign-stealing thing, I just think everybody was paranoid that everybody was doing it. The technology was right in front of you. We already know two others teams were doing it and got caught.
“But the way we were doing it, that was pretty (stupid). I mean, banging on trash cans? You could have found a better way to do it.’’
Crane, a two-time All-American pitcher at Missouri Central, said he believes his team didn’t need to cheat to win in 2017. The roster was talented and deep. The Astros won 101 games, and improved on that in each of the next two seasons, including 107 wins in 2019.
Last year’s team lost to the Washington Nationals in the World Series. Can you imagine the outcry if the Astros had won the World Series for the second time in three years?
“I sure would have liked to have won because it would have kind of cleaned up things for us,’’ Crane said. “People say we were still doing things in ’18 and ’19. We weren’t doing anything in ’19.’’
Maybe the baseball world will be more accepting if the Astros take the World Series this year, showing they can win fair and square.
Then again, maybe the hatred is so deep that folks outside Houston never want to see the Astros back in the postseason, which could happen with Verlander’s forearm strain sidelining him indefinitely.
The Astros hope he can return in a month but also are bracing for the possibility of Verlander needing Tommy John surgery and possibly being out until 2022.
“We need to get the pitching shored up a little bit. It would sure help to get Verlander back,” Crane said. “He’s hopeful, so we’ll see. But you never know with these elbows. It could be a slight tear. It could be a strain. But if he had to have Tommy John, and I don’t think that’s anywhere near clear yet, he wouldn’t be back until 2022.
“But if anybody can come back and do this, it’s him.’’
No going back: ‘We didn’t tank’
No matter what transpires this year, playoffs or no playoffs, Crane said, there will be no going back.
There are no plans to rebuild again. Those 111-loss seasons are over. And, as much acclaim as they received for being the smartest team in baseball for taking a dreadful team to the mountaintop, they really had no choice.
“People say we tanked,’’ Crane said. “We didn’t tank. When I bought the team, the revenue was way down. It was losing a lot of money, and the players we had under contract weren’t any good. So what do you do? You can’t throw more money at it and fix it.
“We did what we had to do to get to the next stage, and it worked out. I mean, was it genius? I think some of it were smart moves. Some of it was necessitated because finances were so bad. Our TV deal went bankrupt.
“But as the team started getting better, we started getting people in the ballpark. Our revenues went up, so we could afford to spend more. It just makes sense. You can’t spend more than you’re making or you’re going to run into problems. Look at the Mets.’’
The Mets are up for sale, and one of the bidders have reached out to Crane for advice. Yep, Alex Rodriguez.
If A-Rod can buy a Major League Baseball team, completing the greatest 180-degree image makeover in sports’ history after being banned the entire 2014 season for using performance-enhancing drugs, perhaps forgiveness can be around the corner for Crane and the Astros, too.
“We’re sorry,’’ Crane said. “We apologize. I guarantee you it will never happen again.
“Just give us another chance.’’
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