Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 19, 2020

Time For Astros Players To Come Clean

In this age of severely truncated attention spans, most stories, even those of the scandalous variety, run their course within a few days. Knowing that, it would have been reasonable to assume that baseball’s sign-stealing mess, which had been lurking in a corner like an unwelcome houseguest since shortly after the Washington Nationals closed out last fall’s World Series before exploding onto the front page with the issuance of commissioner Rob Manfred’s report on Monday, hit its peak on Thursday. That was the day Carlos Beltran, the third and presumably last manager to lose his job because of the scandal, was fired by the New York Mets.

But Beltran’s dismissal wasn’t that day’s only story related to the scheme by the Houston Astros to steal opposing team’s signs using a live video feed and communicate the pilfered information to teammates in what might under better circumstances be characterized as an innovative if very low-tech way. Rather the firing of a manager who had yet to manage was merely that day’s only scandal-based event tethered to reality. Thursday also saw social media overrun by rumors, assertions, and frame-by-frame “analysis” of various videos, all about increasingly exotic claims of high-tech cheating by the Astros. As if that weren’t enough to satiate the baying mob, the nuttiness spread like an infection to include claims of PEDS use by Angels superstar Mike Trout and various off-the-wall charges in posts by players relatives both real (the son of Scott Brosius) and imaginary (a supposed niece of Beltran). Still by day’s end the logical conclusion was that the sign-stealing scandal entering the Twilight Zone was a sure indication that the matter had about run its course.

Instead it looks like Thursday was just a brief detour into the land of tinfoil hats, and that real issues about Houston’s cheating remain unresolved. Foremost among these is the culpability of individual players. On that score Manfred’s report cast a wide net, stating “Most of the position players on the 2017 team either received sign information from the banging scheme or participated in the scheme by helping to decode signs or bang on the trash can. Many of the players who were interviewed admitted that they knew the scheme was wrong because it crossed the line from what the player believed was fair competition and/or violated MLB rules.” But the commissioner declined to punish individual players, stating that he had notified clubs in September 2017 that GMs and managers would be held accountable for this type of wrongdoing, and that it was impractical to do so anyway, given the large number of players involved and the fact that many now are with other franchises.

What Manfred did not say was that a decision to assess individual fines or suspensions against players would have kicked off a protracted grievance process by the union, with the only sure result being to keep the Astros scandal in the news for months to come. But the commissioner’s caution did not sit well with many fans, lots of pundits, and more than a few of the Astros fellow members in the Major League Baseball Players Association. A growing number from all three categories have taken to social media to question Manfred’s grant of absolution. There was even a suggestion, perhaps not made entirely in jest, that MLB might need a special rule for how many Houston batters could be plunked in games this year before home plate umpires would be compelled to issue warnings to opposing pitchers.

Then on Saturday the Astros held their annual winter festival, an offseason event like ones organized by many teams. It’s a chance for fans to interact with players (and of course buy some team merchandise). In Houston’s case, the only two prominent Astros to show were Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve. Inevitably both were asked about the cheating scandal, and neither handled it well. Bregman repeated, in a hostage-tape monotone, a non-answer that MLB had done its investigation and issued its report.

Still, the infielder’s unwillingness to say anything of substance was a better course than that chosen by Altuve, who looked right past the current mess and guaranteed Houston would be back in the World Series next autumn. If Bregman’s wooden evasiveness was laughable, Altuve’s arrogance was utterly tone deaf. It was the kind of response that instead of quieting calls for players to face some form of discipline will ignite already inflamed passions. There are plenty of athletes who feed on playing the bad guy, sports stars who relish quieting the boos. But being disliked for one’s success is to be the object of jealousy; being scorned as a cheater is to be the target of a very different form of acrimony.

In less than a week Houston has gone from being a franchise admired for its success, one many other teams wanted to emulate, to a club that numerous commentators believe should be stripped of its title. The point of such action, typically seen at the college level, isn’t clear. The games can’t be unplayed, as much as the Dodgers or Yankees or other teams might wish for the timeline to be altered. But that the suggestion is still being made is further proof that this scandal hasn’t yet become old news, and of course the issue will once again be front and center is the pending investigation of the Boston Red Sox finds that Minute Maid Park wasn’t the only place where the home team was cheating.

Moving on requires some evidence of contrition on the part of those who wronged not just opposing pitchers and other teams, but the Great Game as a whole. An acknowledgement of a bad act, a request for forgiveness, a pledge to do better, can all be hard for anyone filled with pride for their ability and their accomplishments. But they are not signs of weakness, nor are they career-ending admissions. Second chances abound in our society, in our sports, and in baseball. Two villains of the Great Game’s Steroids Era are proof of that. After year’s in the wilderness Mark McGwire was welcomed when he returned to coaching, and Alex Rodriguez scarcely missed a beat between his final game in uniform and his first as a respected broadcast analyst. But all too often, as Elton John told us more than forty years ago, sorry seems to be the hardest word.

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