WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Astros knew what was coming, and they still swung and missed.
They’ve had since Nov. 12, when The Athletic published its initial report that Houston stole signs illegally during its 2017 championship season, to prepare a response. Hell, they’ve had since May 2017, when they first asked a staffer to set up a monitor displaying the feed from the centerfield camera and began banging on a trash can to alert their teammates to the next pitch.
Shortstop Carlos Correa knew this day would come. It didn’t keep him up in 2017 the way it has since the story broke, but the pit in his stomach has told him for three years that the glory of his only World Series ring came with an expiration date.
“The truth comes out at some point,” he said on Thursday.
Correa spoke eloquently of the lesson he wants his future children to learn from his mistakes. He wrenched his cap backward in anguish and briefly approached tears. He did his best to redeem himself and his organization, to express what seemed like genuine remorse, but his comments came after a press conference by team owner Jim Crane that occasionally veered into absurdity.
“Our opinion is that this didn’t impact the game,” Crane said at one point.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan repeated his words back to him and asked him to clarify them.
“I didn’t say it didn’t impact the game,” Crane said.
That was the issue on Thursday: The Astros still haven’t decided what story they want to tell about what they did. They’re not even sure they want to use that phrasing.
“I’m really sorry about the choices that were made,” third baseman Alex Bregman said in a prepared statement.
Oh yeah? Who made those choices, Alex?
Not the players, Crane says. “The players should not be punished for the failure of our leadership,” he said. “The leaders enabled, condoned and did not stop those actions that happened. … [The players] are a great group of guys who did not receive proper guidance from their leaders.”
This nonsense is an insult to fans. It’s also an insult to the players he claims to be protecting. It’s infantilizing to suggest these high-functioning adults, among the best in the world at what they do, were too stupid to identify cheating. It was their idea in the first place, and they knew it was wrong when they did it. They acknowledged as much Thursday. It was also clear at the time: In September, White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar appeared to notice the banging. The Astros panicked, according to MLB’s investigation. They pulled the monitor off the wall and hid it in an office, then soon had it replaced with a portable monitor on a table that could be put away after games. You don’t hide evidence of behavior you believe to be legal.
On Thursday, several of the players took issue with a subsequent report in The Athletic that suggested veteran DH Carlos Beltrán, the only player named in the MLB report, intimidated the rest of the team into participating in the scheme.
“No one put a gun to our head,” first baseman Yuli Gurriel said.
“We are all responsible,” outfielder George Springer said.
“No one put us up to this,” said Bregman.
But none of them would go so far as to suggest that they should have been punished. Commissioner Rob Manfred offered them immunity in exchange for their honesty, but that was largely a logistical issue: It would have been impossible to determine who benefited to what degree and then penalize them accordingly. And he couldn’t just suspend everyone for a year; it’s not a great look for baseball if the Astros can’t field a team. Besides, the players union would surely have filed grievances, dragging this scandal on for months more. So he went after onlyn leadership. He suspended GM Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch for a year. Crane subsequently fired them both.
On Thursday, Crane rejected the suggestion that as the owner of the team, he could have punished the players himself. He elected not to explain why, other than to say he agreed with the commissioner’s ruling. “The leaders were held accountable,” he said. “And that’s where we’re going to leave it.”
The decision to absolve the players publicly left them in an uncomfortable spot when it came to expressing remorse. If you didn’t do anything wrong, why are you apologizing?
Despite an hour-long meeting on Wednesday to prepare, they struggled to explain why they had made the choice to cheat. They contented themselves with vague references to mistakes that had been made. “I’m not going to go into details” was the phrase of the day. This was three years ago, they said. They want to focus on 2020.
Bregman tried to assure fans that the players have grown from their mistakes. “We’ve learned from this,” he said over and over.
What have you learned, Alex?
“I’ve learned a lot of things,” he said. He declined to elaborate.