WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The most interesting thing that Houston Astros owner Jim Crane said on Thursday morning at the team’s apology news conference is that the sign-stealing scheme they engaged in during their championship 2017 season “didn’t impact the game.”
It was notable because just minutes later he claimed he didn’t say that — despite the dozen television cameras and several dozen reporters’ tape recorders that caught him in the act — and because it was all but demonstrably false. The Astros cheated because they thought it would help them win, and they did win. The fact that it’s impossible to quantify exactly how much of an advantage it gave them — and thus why it would be futile to try to rewrite or reassign the championship from that year — is part of what makes this all so frustrating. They spoiled the game, at least for a season, in a way that can’t be rectified with sanctions or suspensions or press conferences to tell you how sorry they are.
The moment stood out because it was laughably egregious and self-serving — just like the entire codebreaking, trash can-banging scheme itself — in a sea of seemingly pre-written soundbites. In that way the lie seemed genuine.
The apology was always going to be a matter of semantics. In announcing that his players would provide contrite comment in spring training, once they had a chance to meet with the PR staff, Crane telegraphed two very important things: First, that the Astros understood it was important to seem sorry for having cheated once they got caught. And second, that the owner of the team wasn’t confident they actually could or would seem sufficiently — but also non-specifically so as not to further incriminate themselves— sorry without first getting their story straight.
The latter is pretty damning in terms of how we interpret any Astros’ apology. A statement several weeks (at least) in the making, and announced as such, is tough to sell as sincere. Contrition loses a little bit of its integrity when you have to prep people to express it.
Crane was reacting, at least in part, to comments made by Alex Bregman and José Altuve at an Astros FanFest shortly after their manager and GM were fired for their role in what the commissioner’s office called a “player-driven” scheme. At the time, the two pillars of the franchise, key figures on the team that won a now-tainted World Series title, seemed if not defiant then at least annoyed at the persistent line of questioning (buckle up boys, that was just the beginning). They seemed unapologetic.
Don’t worry, Crane told the media, they’ll be better by spring training.
So what did they say? Bregman and Altuve both read statements as part of the televised press conference that took place on a patch of grass next to a turf field on the morning after the entire team was sequestered in a series of meetings to gameplan for exactly this event. Each spoke for less than a minute, reading prepared remarks and taking a gratuitous number of seemingly practiced pauses.
“I am really sorry about the choices that were made by my team, by the organization, and by me,” Bregman said.
“I especially feel remorse for the impact on our fans and the game of baseball,” Altuve said.
New manager Dusty Baker, who has nothing to do the sins of the 2017 team, spoke next. “I want to ask the world, the baseball world, to forgive them for the mistakes they made,” he said.
And then Bregman and Altuve went back into the clubhouse to await the swarm of reporters with the rest of their team. And Baker sat idly by while Crane deflected, apologized, repeatedly deferred to the report released by the commissioner, and claimed he was not going to hide behind the report released by the commissioner.
Did they seem sorry? Twitter had a field day with Crane’s comments at the podium. Each quote from the clubhouse scrums released to the public was parsed for hypocrisy or hidden culpability. Their demeanors ranged, if that matters. Bregman seemed sullen, frankly, and like a poor stage actor. Carlos Correa wracked with at least a little genuine guilt. Justin Verlander defensive when he could be. They stopped short of apologizing to Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Yankeees directly because of what that would imply. They refused to discredit their own championship when pressed past implication. They categorically denied the use of buzzers to relay stolen signs.
Sometimes, they walked into the trap.
Josh Reddick, when did you realize this was wrong?
“Ooff. Umm. That’s really tough to say. You look at it and I don’t have a set date but I’m sure sometime in ‘17 it crossed my mind that it was wrong.”
And when did you start to feel remorseful?
[Full 10-second pause]
“Well I mean, that’s also a very tough one to say too, cause I don’t have a specific date on that. I guess that’s kind of a ‘when it comes out’ sort of thing, maybe.”
The Astros PR staff has come under a deserved amount of heat for how they’ve handled an evolving number of unflattering stories about the team, but frankly, the logistics of Thursday’s many mea culpas seemed savvy enough. Crane took questions publicly. All the players who are still with the team from 2017 made themselves available in the clubhouse.
The problem is that there can be no sincerity without transparency. The whole thing would have been a lot more satisfying with the addition of truth serum. It’s fun to call Crane out on his obvious bullsh-t. It would be more effective to know at what point he actually became aware of the sign stealing.
In the months since the first bombshell about the Astros cheating was published in The Athletic, we’ve all been waiting for this day when the Astros would have to answer for themselves. They’d insulted their opponents and the baseball world at large with their smug disregard for the rules, and now they would have to pay the penance of public humility. But we also hoped they would literally have to answer all the questions that story inspired, questions which have only multiplied over the course of further reporting.
Ultimately, an apology is uniquely un-revelatory. It’s the end of a conversation, which was always going to be unsatisfying in contrast to how complicated the overall story has become. The Astros said they were sorry on Thursday; they just said it too much. No matter what they were asked, all they offered was an apology. Maybe it was the truth and they really are sorry, but it certainly wasn’t the whole truth.
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