The Houston Astros were maestros in the art of cheating. They devised spreadsheets, algorithms, video monitors and relay systems to convey to their hitters what pitch was coming.
But they’re stumblebums in the art of apology.
Remember the Brandon Taubman debacle? Taubman was their assistant GM, who, in the midst of the team’s pennant-winning clubhouse celebration, screamed at three female reporters, “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so f—ing glad we got Osuna!”
The reference was to the relief pitcher Roberto Osuna, who had served a 75-game suspension for violating MLB’s domestic-violence policy before the Astros traded for him. When one of the women wrote about the incident for Sports Illustrated, the Astros’ response was not contrition, but rather to call the report “misleading and completely irresponsible” and accuse SI of trying to “fabricate a story where one does not exist.”
Taubman eventually issued a tepid apology for his language but said his comments were misinterpreted. When the uproar didn’t die down, indeed accelerated, the Astros finally fired Taubman during the World Series, and — begrudgingly, it appeared — apologized for the incident.
Flash forward four months, and once again the Astros were in the spotlight Thursday with a news conference to issue an apology, this time for their massive cheating scandal. Amazingly, with even more riding on the outcome, and sufficient time to prepare, it was botched again, lacking the sincerity and scope that might have helped evoke just a modicum of sympathy.
As one observer tweeted, you have to wonder who is giving them PR advice — Enron? Colleges will one day teach a course on the Astros as an example of how not to conduct crisis management.
Where does one begin? With the hostage-video demeanor of Alex Bregman, who blankly read a brief prepared statement, as did Jose Altuve? A better place would be with the owner, Jim Crane, who stepped in it big time when he laughingly said he didn’t think Houston’s sign stealing impacted the games in the Astros’ run to a World Series title in 2017.
Seriously? Try talking to the pitchers around baseball who are getting increasingly militant in conveying their disgust over the sign stealing, and the Astros’ lack of accountability.
“I hope they feel like sh–,” Andrew Heaney said in Angels camp. “They sure as sh — need to do more than what they already did. That was terrible.” And in A’s camp, Sean Manaea said: “They skated by; they didn’t own up to anything.”
If sign stealing didn’t impact games, then what have all these months of revelations, consternation and repercussions been about? Certainly not cheating, according to Crane, who refused to use that word to describe what the Astros did, and why he ended up firing his manager and general manager. Asked what exactly he was apologizing for, if not cheating, Crane replied:
“We broke the rules. You can phrase that any way you want.”
OK, here’s how I’ll phrase it: Tone deaf.
If the Astros thought Thursday’s trash-can and pony show in Florida was going to put to rest, for good, their scandal, well, they’re going to find out that it’s barely begun.
For that, you can blame the Astros themselves, certainly. But you have to give an equal measure of blame to commissioner Rob Manfred, who apparently learned nothing from the way MLB handled the steroids scandal.
Every step of the way, Manfred has been reactive rather than proactive. The media has been far more vigilant in revealing the truths of this operation than Manfred. The very essence of Manfred’s initial report, that the cheating was player-driven, was torn asunder by The Wall Street Journal report of the efforts by Houston’s baseball operations department to aid the sign stealing through the development of applications that became known internally as “Codebreaker” and “the dark arts.”
Crane conveniently seemed to blame it all on the atmosphere fostered by two departed former employees, GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch. It’s the time-honored “empty chair” defense in legal parlance, even though two underlings who were integral in Codebreaker’s development and deployment are still employed in Houston’s baseball ops.
“This is a great group (of players) who didn’t receive the proper guidance from their leaders,’’ Crane said.
That might fly if we were talking about a Little League team, but not a group of major league baseball players in their 20s and 30s (or 40s, in the case of Carlos Beltran, cast in yet another bombshell report as the intimidating ringleader of the operation, who carried such gravitas that no one, including Hinch, dared stand up to him).
There are still so many unanswered questions, starting with when exactly all this started and when exactly it ended. And what about the allegations that Astros hitters were wired with a buzzer or some other sort of wearable device? The Astros continue to insist it never happened — and many on the outside will continue to believe that it did.
Hinch didn’t exactly give a ringing denial of buzzer use during his recent interview with Tom Verducci on MLB Network, in which he hemmed and hawed without ever saying, “No, it didn’t happen.” Hinch has since attempted to clarify that remark with a more specific denial that he was “not aware” of any buzzer use by the Astros or any other team.
The problem for all of them now is that the Astros have lost the presumption of innocence in the public consciousness. That’s one reason why this agony — and that’s an accurate word to describe what the entire organization appeared to be experiencing on Thursday, save perhaps for new manager Dusty Baker — won’t go away.
The Astros will be scrutinized all season. They will have to put up with wiseguys in the stands mockingly banging trash cans and hurling taunts. They will have to answer more uncomfortable questions all year, and face the wrath of opponents who believe (rightly) that the Astros’ cheating negatively impacted their careers, and their teams’ championship aspirations.
And they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.
After the news conference, the Astros clubhouse was opened and players made available for questions. Stripped of the prepared statements and antiseptic podium environment, many of them finally revealed some genuine emotions and sincere regret. Carlos Correa, in particular, came across as truly tortured by what he and the team had done.
It was nice to see. Finally.