WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Glory and agony, nobility and ignominy, they all showed up for work Monday morning at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, where the World Series champions and the scorned runner-ups both gathered for their first full workouts.
On the south side: Your reigning World Series champion Washington Nationals, who beat the Houston Astros in seven games in October, a late-inning rally saving the sport from further shame.
On the north side: The Astros, baseball’s most notorious cheaters since either Pete Rose or Barry Bonds or Shoeless Joe Jackson or, really, whoever blows up your moral compass.
Their sign-stealing scandal roiled the industry all winter, and draped against the Nationals’ backdrop, only looks all the worse as they take a media pummeling while the Nationals figure out where, exactly, to fit all the championship signage on their side of the facility.
“It’s been a weird first week for baseball,” says Nationals closer Sean Doolittle. “But for us, it’s been a great first week.”
And with that, a glimpse inside two decidedly different first days of camp:
8:08 a.m.: Nationals coach Bob Henley strides to the board in the clubhouse that holds the day’s pitching plans and hitting groups. He tears down one lineup and puts up a new one.
Is a pitcher hurt, and a bullpen session delayed?
No. It is the club’s annual Cabbage Race, and there has been a change in the composition of Team Scherzer and Team Strasburg. This qualifies as eyebrow-raising material in the camp of champions.
8:18 a.m.: The club’s redoubtable 21-year-old star, Juan Soto, is sporting a fresh haircut as he strolls in for work, and can’t get five feet into the clubhouse without pitcher Anibal Sanchez accosting him.
“Ayyyyyyy!” Sanchez intones, going in for an embrace. “Mar-i-posa!” responds Soto, evoking the nickname attached to Sanchez’s unhittable off-speed pitch.
Sanchez appears quite intrigued with Soto’s coiffure, Soto with the shirtless Sanchez’s svelte midsection.
Minutes later, Soto and Eric Thames share the embrace of longtime teammates. On Oct. 1, Thames imperiled the Nationals’ playoff run with a two-run, first-inning home run off Max Scherzer in the wild card game; seven innings later, Soto saved them with a two-run, game-tying single with the go-ahead run scoring on a fortuitous hop.
Now, Thames is a crucial part of protecting Soto in the lineup. So it goes at baseball’s highest level.
9:09 a.m.: It’s been 48 hours since Carlos Correa’s scorching interview on MLB Network that defended teammate Jose Altuve and lashed out at critics. No matter – the network is keeping it in circulation and, at the moment, it is playing on a massive TV in the Astros clubhouse, followed by a repeat of Altuve’s probably-not-aided-by-a-buzzer home run to win the AL Championship Series.
Yeah, this will follow them everywhere for the foreseeable future.
9:11 a.m.: A shirtless Altuve enters the clubhouse, which in this winter of the weird qualifies as big news. The does he-or-doesn’t he have a tattoo online kerfuffle doesn’t quite match “Carlos Beltran’s imaginary niece says he used a buzzer,” but it’s close.
Perhaps to mess with the assembled news media throng, he is shirtless, save for a dry-fit shirt draped strategically over his neck and collarbone area.
Seconds later, he tosses the shirt in his locker and exits the clubhouse.
Yes, he definitely has a tattoo, with his daughter’s name and a heart near his collarbone.
9:13 a.m.: Carlos Correa announces that he is “done talking about last year.”
9:32 a.m.: Nationals GM Mike Rizzo intimated he just wants to hear the Astros say the word cheat. And was disturbed on the first workout for pitchers and catchers that the media ratio was roughly 50-4, in favor of the Astros.
Third baseman Alex Bregman did not meet Rizzo’s criteria of branding himself a cheater, but in dissecting the grim winter of scandal mixed with the distaste of losing a World Series Game 7, graciously tossed a bouquet to his spring training bunkmates.
“The Washington Nationals are an unbelievable team,” Bregman said. “They played extremely good baseball, they have an unbelievable pitching staff over there, an unbelievable offense they put together.
“It wasn’t easy to lose that Series. Howie Kendrick had an unbelievable swing off of a great pitch and you tip your hat to that. They’re good guys over there, they really are, and they deserve it.”
Bregman, unlike Correa, was not ready to return fire on Cody Bellinger, Kris Bryant and Mike Trout, who on Monday added to the chorus of superstars taking the rare step of breaking ranks and torching the Astros.
A fastball that mysteriously finds his backside, a barb from a peer – Bregman is prepared to wear it all.
“Everybody has a right to say whatever they want to say,” he says. “We put ourselves in that position. I think what we can do, moving forward, is learn, and work extremely hard to regain the trust of baseball fans. We know that won’t be easy, but we feel the responsibility to do that.”
9:36 a.m.: The Altuve at-bat is once again on the clubhouse big screen, and now a trio of Astros pitchers are perched on a couch, watching dispassionately and raptly all at once. The pitch-by-pitch sequence culminates with Altuve clubbing a wobbly slider from Aroldis Chapman into history. “Predictable. Right?” one of the pitchers offers, hopefully, regarding Chapman’s slider and that Altuve didn’t need a buzzer to know a slider was coming next. “He missed arm-side with two fastballs before that.”
As impassioned defenses go, it’s not quite on the level of Kevin Costner’s repeated “Back, and to the left” in Oliver Stone’s JFK. Then again, there already are more Altuve conspiracy theories than there are Grassy Knolls in Dallas.
9:36 a.m.: As the Astros are wondering how they might stem the public tide that they are cheaters, the Nationals are holding their first full pre-workout meeting outside.
It is known as the Circle of Trust.
9:51 a.m.: The Cabbage Race is on. The quirky tradition, in which a head of cabbage is passed down a line of players and smashed by the man in line, became something of a clubhouse staple in 2019, as the Nationals would destroy a head or three after big wins.
In a surprise to virtually no one, Team Scherzer sweeps the best-of-five event for the second consecutive year. (Would you want to explain to Coach Max why you fumbled the soggy slaw as it came down the line?)
“Everybody moves a little faster when Max is yelling in your face,” says Doolittle. “Max starts it out, makes the first pass and follows the cabbage down the line and yells at everybody. We start moving a little quicker.
“We’ve used that strategy twice and won twice.”
10:41 a.m.: The Astros have not yet emerged to stretch, but a large throng of fans await them, including, on this Presidents’ Day holiday, a gaggle of kids with “Spinger” and “Altuve” jerseys and shirseys on their back.
Patrick Farrell, a 9-year-old from Parkland, Fla., is one of them, sporting Springer’s No. 4 and eagerly awaiting autographs. When asked if what the Astros did bothers him he replies, “Not really.”
And if he learned more about what was right are wrong?
“At least we’re not the Yankees.”
At this point, his father, a Houston native, steps in and explains that yes, Patrick has been talked to about what was wrong about the Astros’ actions, and the right things to do in these situations and that Patrick knows far more about propriety than he’s letting on.
In the wake of this scandal, the old media trope of “What will you tell your children?” emerged as a sidelight to this scandal.
The kids, per usual, will be all right.
10:48 a.m.: Dusty Baker, manager for all of a month after A.J. Hinch was fired in the wake of MLB’s investigation, fields the most standard spring training question – “What did you tell the fellas in the first meeting?” – and gives the most standard reply: “I can’t tell you guys that.”
Dusty being Dusty, though, the 71-year-old managerial legend adds a twist.
“Because I can’t remember, really.”
11:17 a.m.: The Astros will face some embarrassing moments on the road this season, perhaps even some painful moments between the white lines if opponents exercise vigilante justice against them.
Here, surrounded by at least 100 loving fans, is not one of those moments.
Altuve and Bregman pause to sign autographs, and for a moment, trash cans and buzzers and commissioner’s reports and salty-tongued MVPs lashing out at them momentarily subside.
12:59 p.m.: Finally, answers.
When asked about the timing of his tattoo, Altuve has both a time and a place as his alibi.
“It was the middle of the season,” he said, “in San Francisco.”
The Astros visited Oakland three times between June and August, all of which fall well before his “don’t rip my jersey” ALCS walk-off. He did not provide receipts.
After baseball’s nuclear winter, on a day where scandal and celebration were purely location-based in this sprawling facility, that’s about as close as we’ll get to closure.