WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. >> They avoided suspensions, and no one is coming for their championship rings or bank accounts. The Houston Astros got away with electronic sign-stealing in 2017, and escaped with just this punishment: an hour of apologies in their clubhouse before their first workout at spring training today.
“What we did in 2017 was terrible,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “We all know it and we feel really bad about it.”
Astros’ owner Jim Crane said weeks ago that his players would apologize in spring training, and they did. But first Crane held a clunky news conference in which he tried to absolve them of blame for the scandal that has roiled the sport and tainted the club’s only World Series title.
“Our players should not be punished for these actions,” Crane said, echoing last month’s explosive report from Commissioner Rob Manfred. “These are a great group of guys who did not receive proper guidance from their leaders.”
Crane fired those leaders — general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch — after Manfred had suspended them for a year. But his players are his product and their title is his crowning achievement. He would not condemn them or apologize for the championship — or even admit that the cheating had helped them win it.
“Our opinion is that this didn’t impact the game,” Crane said. “We had a good team. We won the World Series and we’ll leave it at that.”
The Astros prepared for this day of reckoning with an hourlong team meeting on Wednesday night, and center fielder George Springer — the 2017 World Series Most Valuable Player — called it productive. “It was obvious to everyone who was here — the remorse, the regret,” he said. Crane said the players were emotional.
But the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers — the last two teams the Astros beat on their way to the title — should not expect any sorrowful calls. The Astros’ apologies were more general than specific today, and they do not believe they took something from their opponents.
“We don’t feel the need to have to reach out to those guys, or anybody for that matter,” right fielder Josh Reddick said. “It is what it is. We’ve got to ask for forgiveness again and just keep saying how bad we feel, because this team does feel very sorry and very bad for what has happened, and that we didn’t take more of a role in preventing it.”
Apologizing to fellow players would be awkward, Reddick acknowledged, but that was almost beside the point.
“I think it just goes back to it not being a tainted championship,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of, we’re still a good team and it wasn’t a necessary point of us winning. We still went out there and won ballgames on the road as well.”
Added starter Lance McCullers, who won Game 3 of the World Series in Houston: “I believe that championship was earned, 100%.”
McCullers said he knew some people would refuse to accept that opinion.
The Astros did win Game 7 of the World Series in Los Angeles, but otherwise they were 2-6 on the road and 8-1 at home in the 2017 postseason. They did try to use their scheme in October — decoding the catcher’s signal off a video feed, then relaying it by banging on a trash can — but Correa said they did not have the signs then.
“The regular season is when we used it the most,” Correa said. “I remember going to Dodger Stadium and we used multiple signs over there, and when they came to our house they used multiple signs as well, so there’s no way to relay signs out there.”
He added: “When it comes to the playoffs, it’s loud, and people are using multiple signs because of rumors or whatever was going on at the time. When I look back at the playoffs and I look at the games, it was not effective like in the regular season. The trash can was there if you had a chance, but I remember them coming in using multiple signs, and it’s impossible to decode all those signs.”
No other Astros were as willing as Correa was to discuss details, and second baseman Jose Altuve declined a chance to parse out blame. Evidence suggests that he used stolen signs far less than his teammates, but Altuve shared the responsibility.
“I want to take this as a team,” he said. “I think we’re all on the same level right now of feeling the way we’re feeling about doing what we did. I’m not here to say ‘you and you’ more than ‘you and you.’ We’re a team. If we are something, we all are something.”
Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman gave brief and contrite statements at the news conference, and also spoke to reporters in the clubhouse soon after. Bregman said he had thought about the scandal “nonstop” for the last four months, but demurred when asked if he knew, at the time, that the scheme was wrong.
“The choices we made were bad,” he said. “I think everybody here today is apologizing for that.”
When the Astros first started the sign stealing, Correa said, they rationalized it as a natural byproduct of a game saturated in video. (“Everybody was using technology,” he said.) But they did know it was wrong, Correa added, and disputed a report that players were too intimidated by veteran Carlos Beltran to stop it.
Beltran, a designated hitter for the 2017 Astros, was fired last month from his new job as New York Mets manager for his central role in the scandal.
“We didn’t feel scared of Beltran; we didn’t feel intimidated,” Correa said. “He was the nicest guy we could ever have. He was the best teammate we could ever have. Beltran was obviously a leader of the clubhouse, but we all had a say in everything we were doing in there.”
Starter Justin Verlander did not join the Astros until the end of August in 2017, but said he regretted not speaking up. He said he hoped opposing pitchers would not target Astros’ hitters this season in retaliation.
“Look, when we step away from the field, we have families,” he said. “I have a little girl, Jose has kids. It’s different when you bring health into the equation. I think the commissioner’s been very clear in the past that’s not an appropriate form of retribution, and I would hope that stands to reason with this as well.”
Verlander said definitively that the Astros had used no buzzers or other kinds of wearable technology to relay signals last postseason, and Crane said players had assured him they did not.
Even so, the perception that the Astros still win by cheating is likely to stick to them. They expect to be heckled on the road, and are preparing for life as baseball’s villain. They know they have it coming.
“We’ve got to be responsible for what we did, and we’ve got to just go on the road and see what happens,” Correa said. “It’s not going to be a fun season, obviously, on the road.”
Would the players be so contrite if they had never been caught? Surely not, but Dusty Baker, their new manager, said it was not his place to judge the ethical standards of his players. He must guide them through a season of scorn and skepticism, with no promise of redemption.
“We always talk about forgiveness, but nobody wants to forgive,” Baker said. “The only way to achieve forgiveness is to apologize for what you’ve done wrong, and we’ve apologized for what we’ve done wrong.”