WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — They finally came clean, kind of, and for that, the Houston Astros should be commended. Baseball’s worst cheating scandal of this century burned all winter and devoured an $11 billion industry forged on hope and the concept of fair play. And so Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer, Yuli Gurriel and Josh Reddick owning up to their actions provided some relief.
Yet, this unprecedented first morning of spring training felt like anything but closure. It will provide little satisfaction for fans of the teams the Astros defeated on their way to the 2017 World Series title, and likely will inspire further rage from the major league pitchers victimized by their electronic sign-stealing.
And above all, it seemed to reinforce a general distaste fans hold for the barons who run Major League Baseball, and a general distrust in the men who run the game at its highest level.
The greatest takeaways from this Astros scandal as its embers burn, with the potential for flames to ignite once again?
– Never admit to anything more than they have on you.
– If you don’t like what you’re going to see under the hood, don’t pop it open.
– Find a scapegoat and shirk as much responsibility as you can.
“No, I don’t think I should be held accountable,” Astros owner Jim Crane stated as the club’s act of contrition began Thursday morning, and for those of you who tuned in for a buck-stops-here mea culpa from the franchise kingpin, well, rest assured that manure still flows downhill.
Crane staggered through a press conference, waffling at one point whether illegally stealing signs is helpful or not to batters. He insisted that scalps he claimed – fired GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch – would surely rid the club of its toxicity, while his words and actions seemed to guarantee it would linger.
He called his players “a great group of guys who did not receive proper guidance from their leaders,” as if they are Peanuts characters whose parents only talk in unintelligible tones.
DAY OF RECKONING: Astros apologize to both everybody and nobody
SIGN-STEALING: Houston players admit scheme gave them an edge
At this point, it is instructive to note the degree to which Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred bent over backward to insist that Crane knew nothing of the schemes carried out by his underlings.
Before pillorying Luhnow, Hinch, Carlos Beltran and Alex Cora in his eight-page report on the scandal, Manfred noted, “At the outset, I also can say our investigation revealed absolutely no evidence that Jim Crane, the owner of the Astros, was aware of any of the conduct described in this report. Crane is extraordinarily troubled and upset by the conduct of members of his organization, fully supported my investigation, and provided unfettered access to any and all information requested.”
Fair enough. Billionaires are busy guys with lots of business interests, and the day-to-day doings of his baseball squad, on paper, do not fall within Crane’s purview.
Yet as details continue emerging about the scandal, we are getting a greater picture of how incomplete either MLB’s investigation, report or both really were.
The Wall Street Journal obtained a letter from Manfred to the Astros detailing key findings in their investigation, most notably the work of Director of Advance Information Tom Koch-Weser and team operations director Derek Vigoa in constructing a sign-stealing system they called “Codebreaker.”
These men were deemed too “low level” for Manfred to include in his report. Their actions were not considered nefarious enough for Crane to fire them; in fact, Koch-Weser was seen driving his car into the Astros’ lot on Wednesday as pitchers and catchers reported.
If Manfred and Crane truly wanted to clean up the Astros’ culture that undeniably led to the sign-stealing debacle, Manfred would have named them in his report. Crane could have quietly let them go and no one would have noticed.
Instead, it was determined that all the blame would fall on Hinch and Luhnow.
Never mind that Crane famously handed Luhnow a blank piece of paper as a symbol of the blank check he had to remake the Astros in his image. Now, he wants to pin everything on him, even as he was responsible for having the latitude to behave as, arguably, the most rogue GM in baseball.
As for the future?
“The leader of that department has been fired,” Crane said Thursday. “There will be some changes there. We are reviewing the baseball operations.
“We don’t endorse the actions that took place.”
Mind you, it’s been one month since MLB suspended Hinch and Luhnow for a year and Crane fired them. It’s been more than five weeks since Manfred reported his findings to the Astros, including details on “Codebreaker.”
When Crane says he’s “reviewing baseball operations,” what he’s really saying is for you all to please leave him alone, as MLB did.
And that’s the grimmest element of this drama. The ballplayers themselves are world-class athletes. The most generous manner to frame their actions is to suggest that in a sport where seeking edges on the margins will always be a part of it, they got caught up in the organizational culture that said cutting corners was OK.
“We have to make sure it’s not going to ever happen again, walk a straight line,” says Correa. “This will never happen again in this organization. And we’re very sorry for what happened in 2017.”
You want to believe him.
“Our opinion is, you know, that this didn’t impact the game. We had a good team. We won the World Series, and we’ll leave it at that.”
Hinch is gone. Luhnow is gone. MLB – going on four years in this effort – may very well close the loopholes that allowed the Astros and, presumably others, to cheat electronically.
Yet it’s very hard to consider that what ails the Astros has been eradicated. Not when it all seems to start at the top.