On the Astros and Their Apologies
The 2019-2020 baseball off-season has been dominated by the scandal surrounding the Houston Astros and their illegal sign stealing practices. This week, baseball fans were treated to the spectacle of Astros owner Jim Crane and stars Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman apologizing for the team's sign stealing scandal. I use the term 'apologizing' loosely here. It was a PR move if anything and I felt little in the way of sincerity from any of the parties. Bregman and Altuve have both been mocked mercilessly for the bad acting and the "we are sorry for the choices that were made" lines. Crane gave us the gem of "it didn't affect the game" as a way of minimizing the fact that the organization from top to bottom engaged in cheating mechanisms since late 2016.
If the whole sorry spectacle reinforced anything, it is that the Astros organization has learned little from precious PR gaffes. You may recall the disgraceful utterance of "I'm ******* glad we got Osuna" by assistant GM Brandon Taubman towards a female reporter during the playoffs this year and the pathetic attempt at covering it up afterwards. (Blue Jays fans are familiar with the domestic violence case that led to Roberto Osuna being traded away in 2018.) You may also recall manager A.J. Hinch dismissing questions around the Yankees' allegations of sign stealing in the 2019 ALCS with a smarmy arrogance that would make a university professor or a senior bureaucrat blush.
This organization seems to have a serious problem with crisis management and at this point, they have thrown away virtually all the good will from 2017. What had been a heart warming story of a city and its team rallying around the slogan "Houston Strong" in the wake of the destruction from hurricane Harvey is now irredeemably tainted. Nobody escapes without reputational damage here. Carlos Beltran was considered by many as a sure fire hall of famer. In light of his involvement in this, who knows how the writers will vote once he becomes eligible. The lofty achievements of the teams stars, Bregman, Altuve, Springer, Correa etc. immediately come into question, as well they should. Their heroic status among fans, is now likely gone for good. And these players do themselves no favors by regurgitating tired platitudes about 'moving forward' and 'being remorseful for the choices made'. If anything, they did their holes a little deeper as they continue to lose the respect of their peers and of the fans. For his part, manager A.J. Hinch and his coaching staff were either had dubious leadership ability (Hinch's own insinuation in his sit-down with Tom Verducci) or were more amenable to the sign stealing than Hinch wants to let on. Which was it?
The sign stealing scandal however has consequences reaching beyond the Astros and their players. The 2018 World Series champion Red Sox are under investigation for illegal sign stealing practices themselves. Many fans, myself included, have also asked the question: "What other teams are engaging in these types of practices?". This has the potential to grow into a scandal akin to the steroid fiasco of a decade and change ago, and it probably will. The league's punishment of Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow (one year bans for both) has been roundly criticized as insufficient. Many also argue that the Astros 2017 title is tainted and should therefore be stripped. Commissioner Rob Manfred is already under fire for his proposed rule changes around pace of play, the proposed new playoff format and the poor marketing of baseball stars relative to stars in other sports. He was soundly excoriated by Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer for this in a video just this week and having watched the video, I concur with a lot of Bauer's points. Manfred's tenure as commissioner will likely be defined by his response to the Astros' scandal more than anything else and frankly, as of now, I question if we would like his legacy in the wake of all this.
In the end, the game will emerge from this like it did from the seven White Sox players conspiring to throw the World Series a hundred years ago. Before it does though, it will leave many tarnished reputations and many disillusioned fans. Player and fan reaction has shown perfunctory one year bans for Hinch and Luhnow won't quell the outrage. A statement needs to be made to the players who benefited from the cheating and to other teams who may engage or may already be engaging in using technology to cheat.