The Houston Astros players had lots of time to think about how they would address their sign-stealing, trash can–banging scandal before spring training opened, even if they weren’t all in the same place until this week. The players and owner Jim Crane held a team meeting on Wednesday to plan a course of action for the next day of camp. On Thursday, they severely underwhelmed. Astros hitters Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman provided roughly two minutes of insincere, vague remarks, while Crane issued a strange denial that the team’s cheating actually affected the outcome of the games.
“I am really sorry about the choices that were made by my team, by the organization, and by me,” Bregman said, squeezing as much out of the passive voice as he could.
“The whole Astros organization and team feels bad for what happened in 2017,” Altuve said, referring to the cheating that occurred during the season that Houston won the World Series.
Crane vowed that something like the banging scheme “will never happen again on my watch.” The owner claimed he was ignorant to the sign-stealing operation because he wasn’t in the locker room often, and did his best to shift blame toward general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, who were both fired after Major League Baseball’s investigation concluded. While Crane admitted that the Astros broke the rules, he believed that the team didn’t have a competitive advantage, even when he was pressed on it by ESPN reporter Marly Rivera. That doesn’t seem like a distinction to make.
Afterward, a few other players spoke with media in the locker room: Josh Reddick, George Springer, Lance McCullers Jr., and Justin Verlander, who in the past has incessantly complained about maintaining the integrity of the game by cracking down on performance-enhancing drugs as well as sign stealing. According to the Washington Post’s Sam Fortier, on Thursday Verlander was asked directly how this was different from his strong opinions on Dee Gordon, who tested positive for PEDs, and he replied that “I guess my only answer would be that was individual and this was a team.” So for Verlander, if Altuve had been the only player banging on a trash can, he should’ve been banned. But since the whole team participated, who can really say?
The Astros’ talking points all had heavy overlap. The players said most of them didn’t speak out earlier because they wanted to get together and address it as a team. (Or maybe they wanted to get their stories straight and not admit any more than what was in MLB’s investigation.) They were sorry that they didn’t do more to stop it. They hoped to move on and be better in the future. They also didn’t specify what exactly they were supposed to be sorry for.
Was this exercise supposed to convince anyone but themselves? The Astros aren’t being asked to get on their knees and throw themselves at the mercy of the public—well, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers fans might find such demands fair—but there was no sincerity to be found. Bregman and Altuve’s statements of contrition had a veneer of bullshit, since they both rejected responsibility in January when interviewed at the Astros’ FanFest.
There was a clear difference in mea culpas from current and former Astros. Thursday’s apologies were fine-tuned and repetitive. Compare them to those of Dallas Keuchel, now with the Chicago White Sox, who at least made an effort to discuss the sign stealing, or with comments from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Joe Musgrove, who said of his 2017 team’s accomplishments, “I don’t want to say it’s tainted, but I think it is.” It makes sense that former pitchers would be more willing to talk about the scandal, since they didn’t benefit as much from pilfered signs. Right-hander Mike Fiers, now on the Oakland A’s, was the first player to speak on the record last November about the scheme, and the reason why MLB began its investigation. To be fair, Minnesota Twins position player Marwin Gonzalez and Angels catcher Max Stassi both apologized this week before the Astros chose to acknowledge their wrongdoing Thursday.
It would have been in the Astros’ best interest to craft a meaningful apology not just for fans, but for opponents still incensed over how the cheating affected the outcomes, as well as their jobs. Former Toronto Blue Jays reliever Mike Bolsinger filed a civil suit on Monday alleging the team ruined his major league career. On Aug. 4, 2017, Bolsinger allowed three walks, four hits, and four earned runs in a third of an inning against Houston’s lineup, as Toronto lost, 16–7. That game fell within the timeline of when the Astros were cheating, and Bolsinger hasn’t pitched in the majors since.
Furious players on competing rosters won’t need the legal system to dispense their own kind of justice. As Jason Turbow chronicled in his book The Baseball Codes, pitchers will take months or even years to settle scores, and usually those scores are settled with a fastball to the ribs or butt. Angels pitcher Andrew Heaney, whose team will play a four-game series against the Astros to begin the regular season, fumed about his divisional rivals’ lack of contrition. “I just think everybody wants accountability,” said Angels reliever Taylor Cole, a former teammate of Bolsinger’s. The Yankees—who are still stewing about losing to the Astros in the 2017 ALCS as well as last year’s defeat in the same round—will get to play them on May 15–17. There will surely be more aggrieved parties waiting for their chances to plunk Altuve, Bregman, or someone else in the lineup. Regardless of the Astros’ success on the field this year, it’s going to be a long season for their hitters.