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What to make of Houston Astros owner Jim Crane’s public (non-)apology

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Houston Astros owner Jim Crane’s latest attempt at damage control blew up in spectacular fashion Thursday. In the span of 27 minutes at a news conference, he claimed his team’s routine cheating during its 2017 championship season didn’t impact the game, declared he shouldn’t be held accountable for the organization he runs, used commissioner Rob Manfred’s report on the Astros’ malfeasance as a binky and so often repeated talking points that the Apology.exe program he tried to install in his head looked like it was glitching. The entire charade devolved into a glorious conflagration, Crane’s mouth a veritable fountain of lighter fluid.

It didn’t have to go this way. It wouldn’t with most other organizations. But these are the Astros, and they make Everests out of molehills. Their fall is so spectacular because their pride was always outsized, and the latest example unfolded at their spring training complex on a day that should have been more about healing than hubris.

Crane cannot help himself. He hired a crisis PR firm, according to sources, but seemed to forget the PR part. Amid his attempts at apologizing were clear signals that his contrition went only as far as his ability to absolve himself of wrongdoing. And the more Crane spoke, the more his words served as a spade, digging a hole from which he couldn’t rescue himself.

It’s best to begin with the most absurd moment of the day, in which Crane — endeavoring to explain away the Astros’ illicit use of a center-field camera to decode catchers’ signs that were then relayed via banging on a trash can to alert hitters as to the pitch type about to be thrown — said with a straight face: “Our opinion is that this didn’t impact the game.”

When pressed on what exactly he meant by that, Crane said: “I didn’t say it didn’t impact the game.” He had, of course — 67 seconds earlier, for those curious about the capacity of Crane’s short-term memory. And it did, clearly, as his team’s shortstop, Carlos Correa, would later admit.

“It was definitely an advantage,” Correa said, one of many honest decrees offered by Astros players to reporters after Crane spoke. Outfielder Josh Reddick, when asked about remorse, copped to not feeling it until The Athletic’s November story that laid bare the Astros’ scheme — a real sort of admission that follows the logical path of this scandal: the Astros thought nothing of their cheating until they were caught. Redemption starts with an honest self-assessment of damage done by one’s actions, and Astros players are not irredeemable people. They cheated at a game. It is wrong, and it is disappointing, and it is unfortunate. It is a transgression with clear casualties — those whose careers were ended, livelihoods altered and lives changed. It will chase them, and rightfully so. But it is no mortal sin.

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Doug Glanville argues that the Astros’ response on Thursday to the sign-stealing scandal wasn’t enough and begs the question on how much they will actually reveal.

What’s indefensible is asking for forgiveness while not abiding by its path. Crane zigzagged around his Thursday. His ruminations on accountability were particularly rich. He mused that Major League Baseball’s suspension and his firing of general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch served as satisfactory pounds of flesh because, though neither was responsible for implementing the scheme, both were responsible for overseeing the team’s baseball operations. Never mind that Crane, as the team’s owner, was responsible for overseeing Luhnow and Hinch.

“No,” Crane said, “I don’t think I should be held accountable.”

Such a bastion of accountability then suggested he was the one to keep the Astros on the straight and narrow going forward. Seven times he said: “This will never happen again.” When asked why someone who wasn’t taking responsibility for it happening on his watch the first time deserved the benefit of the doubt, Crane didn’t outline a plan or offer the sort of transparent answer such a benefit demands. He did what the Astros always do, which is speak in platitudes, generalities, opacity.

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“I’ll make sure I have someone that’s accountable moving forward and will be checking constantly,” he said. “We’ll have controls in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And again, if I’d have known about it, I’d have done something about it. But I’m not in the locker room. I’m not down in the dugout. So it was very difficult, and I didn’t know about it until November, just like you guys.”

I happened to be one of those guys, and I knew about it long before November. I first heard players accuse the Astros of cheating in mid-2017. For the next year, I tried to find someone who would speak about it on the record. Nobody would. The code of silence in baseball buries countless secrets.

Then came the 2018 postseason. During the American League Division Series, a man named Kyle McLaughlin, whom Crane brought into the Astros organization, was caught pointing a cell phone toward the Cleveland Indians‘ dugout from an on-field camera well. He was removed from the area. The Indians warned the Astros’ AL Championship Series opponent, the Boston Red Sox, about McLaughlin, and during Game 1 of the ALCS, he was again removed from a camera well next to the dugout.

I wrote a story about the McLaughlin incidents, and in it, I reported that the Oakland A’s had accused the Astros of relaying pitch types to batters during an August series. Further, I reported, two major league players had said they witnessed the Astros hitting a trash can in the dugout as a way to alert hitters.

Again: This was in 2018, more than a year before Crane claims he learned of the issue. The day after the story ran, Crane told another reporter to leave McLaughlin’s name out of his story. Clearly Crane knew that a story about McLaughlin had been written. Either he learned of the story’s details or avoided them altogether. The former would make him a liar. The latter would make him an owner who ignores potentially injurious information about his billion-dollar business.

For someone with such a commitment to doing things right going forward, Crane’s lack of curiosity is quite curious. When asked when the Astros’ cheating stopped, he said: “I didn’t do the investigation.” When asked about the culpability of Carlos Beltran, the player who alongside former Astros bench coach Alex Cora implemented the trash-can-banging scheme, he said: “Again, I didn’t do the investigation.” If Crane can’t be bothered during the worst cheating scandal in a century to look beyond Manfred’s report — which he referenced nine times, as if it were some sacred scripture — how, exactly, does he expect to fix the institutional rot in his organization? Crane, after all, still denies there’s a problem with the Astros’ culture. Perhaps his mirror is just broken.

The gap between words and actions is cavernous, and the Astros’ history is big on offering the former and skimping on the latter. They said they had a zero-tolerance policy on domestic violence. Then they traded for closer Roberto Osuna as he was serving a suspension for a domestic incident. They tried to smear a Sports Illustrated reporter who wrote that their assistant GM, Brandon Taubman, had punctuated a pennant-winning celebration by yelling toward a group of female reporters: “I’m so f—ing glad we got Osuna!” Then they doubled down on it before realizing what was obvious from the beginning: The report was accurate.

And here they are now, desperately clinging to this notion that they aren’t a dysfunctional mess, that Crane is indeed the person to shepherd the Astros through a period that even for the most stable organization would prove trying. He sat at a table out in the Florida sun and said that because Manfred offered players who participated in the scheme immunity from punishment by the league in exchange for the truth, they were, in his mind, absolved of wrongdoing. Those same players, minutes after Crane finished talking, conceded just how wrong they were.

“I think I’ve done just about everything I can,” Crane said.

On a day of damning words, of self-owns, of the Houston Astros doing what the Houston Astros do, this was perhaps the gravest admission of all. The burning, raging mess around him is indeed everything Jim Crane can do.

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Fans heckling Astros spring opener get signs confiscated

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Fans hoping to heckle the sign-stealing Houston Astros at their spring opener were met with quite the coincidence.

They got their signs taken.

In the Astros’ first spring training game since their sign-stealing scandal rocked baseball, some fans brought signs jeering Houston, and ballpark personnel confiscated them before the Grapefruit League opener against the World Series champion Washington Nationals on Saturday night.

In a Series rematch, the Nats got hearty cheers, while everyone in an Astros jersey — including the mascot, Orbit — was booed. Houston did not use any players implicated in MLB’s probe.

Two men in Nationals gear sitting behind the Astros dugout briefly held up crudely drawn signs just before first pitch. One read: “You see my hate?” in large block letters. And another said: “Houston” with an asterisk below it, suggesting the Astros’ 2017 World Series title should be permanently blemished because of the cheating.

The men didn’t get to show off their signs for long. A woman who worked for the ballpark quickly approached to take the signs. The men didn’t argue with the woman, but they did look confused as she walked away with the signs folded in her arms.

The Astros and Nationals share a spring training complex. Houston was designated the home team Saturday.

Matthew Silliman, who held one of the signs, said he didn’t know they were forbidden. He drove to the game from Tampa Bay and said he has been waiting to let the Astros know what he thinks of them.

“I’m a big Nats fan and it’s wrong,” he said. “They’re cheaters.”

Commissioner Rob Manfred concluded last month the Astros violated rules by using a television camera to steal catchers’ signs during their run to the 2017 World Series title and again in the 2018 season. Manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for one season and then fired by the team, but players were not disciplined.

Fans booed loudly every time the public address announcer said “Astros,” and fans behind Houston’s dugout heckled Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers Jr. as they stood on the dugout steps before the game. A few fans banged on their metal seats, attempting to mimic the banging on a trash can the Astros used to relay stolen signs to hitters.

One fan in a Nationals jersey yelled: “Hey Altuve, are you scared to play tonight?” Others screamed “You suck!” and “Cheaters!”

About a half-dozen fans wore shirts that read “bang foul poles, not trash cans” in reference to Howie Kendrick‘s decisive home run for Washington in Game 7 of last year’s World Series.

First-year Houston manager Dusty Baker said he didn’t think the reception was “too bad” and said his team will have to get used to it.

“You’ll probably get the same reception most places you go, especially the first go-round,” he said. “So, you’ve just got to put your big-boy pants on and then just try to shut it out and just play baseball and realize this too shall pass.”

Washington ace Max Scherzer, who started Game 7 to help the Nationals to their first title, also started Saturday and pitched two scoreless innings. He was asked if he thought Saturday night’s game would be more dramatic considering what’s going on with the Astros.

“Maybe, I don’t know,” he said. “We won the World Series, so it wasn’t like I have a vendetta to hold. So, for me over here we’re just trying to move forward and get ready for our season.”

Scherzer was a bit disappointed that none of Houston’s starters played Saturday when he allowed one hit and struck out two.

“You want to face the best,” Scherzer said. “They’re a great lineup, but I get it, it’s early in the spring, you’re not going to see them.”

And while Silliman didn’t get to keep his signs, he said it wouldn’t stop him from heckling the Astros with his voice.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “They’re going to get it all.”

He didn’t have long. The game was delayed because of rain after two innings and canceled about 90 minutes later when rain continued.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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Fans heckling Astros spring opener get signs stolen

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Fans hoping to heckle the sign-stealing Houston Astros at their spring opener were met with quite the coincidence.

They got their signs stolen.

In the Astros’ first spring training game since their sign-stealing scandal rocked baseball, some fans brought signs jeering Houston, and ballpark personnel confiscated them before the exhibition opener against the World Series champion Washington Nationals on Saturday night.

In a Series rematch, the Nats got hearty cheers, while everyone in an Astros jersey — including the mascot, Orbit — was booed. Houston did not use any players implicated in MLB’s probe.

Two men in Nationals gear sitting behind the Astros dugout briefly held up crudely drawn signs just before first pitch. One read: “You see my hate?” in large block letters. And another said: “Houston” with an asterisk below it, suggesting the Astros’ 2017 World Series title should be permanently blemished because of the cheating.

The men didn’t get to show off their signs for long. A woman who worked for the ballpark quickly approached to take the signs. They didn’t argue with the woman, but they did look confused as she walked away with them folded in her arms.

The Astros and Nationals share a spring training complex. Houston was designated the home team Saturday.

Matthew Silliman, who held one of the signs, said he didn’t know they were forbidden. He drove to the game from Tampa Bay and said he’s been waiting to let the Astros know what he thinks of them.

“I’m a big Nats fan and it’s wrong,” he said. “They’re cheaters.”

Commissioner Rob Manfred concluded last month the Astros violated rules by using a television camera to steal catchers’ signs during their run to the 2017 World Series title and again in the 2018 season. Manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for one season and then fired by the team, but players were not disciplined.

Fans booed loudly every time the public address announcer said “Astros,” and fans behind Houston’s dugout heckled Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers Jr. as they stood on the dugout steps before the game. A few fans banged on their metal seats, attempting to mimic the banging on a trash can the Astros used to relay stolen signs to hitters.

One fan in a Nationals jersey yelled: “Hey Altuve, are you scared to play tonight?” Others screamed “you suck!” and “cheaters!”

About a half-dozen fans wore shirts that read “bang foul poles, not trash cans” in reference to Howie Kendrick‘s decisive home run for Washington in Game 7 of last year’s World Series.

First-year Houston manager Dusty Baker said he didn’t think the reception was “too bad” and said his team will have to get used to it.

“You’ll probably get the same reception most places you go, especially the first go-round,” he said. “So, you’ve just got to put your big-boy pants on and then just try to shut it out and just play baseball and realize this too shall pass.”

Washington ace Max Scherzer, who started Game 7 to help the Nationals to their first title, also started Saturday and pitched two scoreless innings. He was asked if he thought Saturday night’s game would be more dramatic considering what’s going on with the Astros.

“Maybe, I don’t know,” he said. “We won the World Series, so it wasn’t like I have a vendetta to hold. So, for me over here we’re just trying to move forward and get ready for our season.”

Scherzer was a bit disappointed that none of Houston’s starters played Saturday when he allowed one hit and struck out two.

“You want to face the best,” Scherzer said. “They’re a great lineup but I get it, it’s early in the spring you’re not going to see them.”

And while Silliman didn’t get to keep his signs, he said it wouldn’t stop him from heckling the Astros with his voice.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “They’re going to get it all.”

He didn’t have long. The game was delayed because of rain after two innings and canceled about 90 minutes later when rain continued.



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Jack Flaherty named Cardinals’ opening day starter

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JUPITER, Fla. — Jack Flaherty is getting the ball on opening day for the St. Louis Cardinals.

St. Louis manager Mike Shildt said Saturday the 24-year-old Flaherty will start the season opener March 26 at Cincinnati. It will be the right-hander’s first opening day start and comes after he finished fourth in NL Cy Young Award voting with a closing surge last season.

“It’s one of of those things you work for and you want it,” Flaherty said.

The nod comes one season after Flaherty pitched the home opener for the Cardinals.

“It’s cool,” Flaherty said. “Just happy I get the ball first, get the first chance to go out and kind of set the tone for the season.”

Shildt gave Flaherty the news on Friday, not a surprise after Flaherty went 11-8 with a 2.75 ERA last season. Seven of those wins came after the All-Star break, when he posted a 0.91 ERA.

He also started three games in the postseason, allowing four earned runs in 13 innings.

Flaherty started three games against the Reds last season, allowing only one run in 16 1/3 innings while earning two wins.

“It’s a nice accomplishment and it’s a well earned one,” Shildt said. “He was excited, but he took it in stride.”

Shortly after Shildt made his opening day announcement, Flaherty took the mound for the Cardinals’ Grapefruit League opener, a 2-0 victory over New York Mets in which he was awarded the win.

Working his scheduled two innings, Flaherty surrendered two hits and struck out three. He threw 20 of his 32 pitches for strikes. His fastball hit 95 mph on the stadium’s radar gun.

“Everything felt good,” Flaherty said. “It felt comfortable. I felt strong.”

Saturday also marked the Grapefruit League debut of left-handed Korean import Kwang-Hyun Kim, known to his teammates as “KK”. The offseason signee walked one and struck out two in a scoreless inning.

“I felt KK was good,” Shildt said. “Good slider. Located his fastball. Showed a little changeup. Nice outing for him.”

Kim is among the handful of pitchers vying for a spot in the Cardinals rotation. Adam Wainwright and Dakota Hudson will join Flaherty as starters. Miles Mikolas would have broken camp in the rotation, but a flexor tendon issue will force him to miss the opening weeks of the season.

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