By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Prior to showing up for spring training following MLB’s investigation into their sign-stealing operation used during the 2017 World Series-winning season, the Houston Astros met as a team in order to get their stories straight. They wanted to make sure that when it came time to making their public apologies, they did it right.
On this, the Houston Astros swung. And the Houston Astros missed.
(If only they had someone standing off stage to tell them what to do.)
On the forefront of this “effort” was team owner Jim Crane. Last we saw Crane, he was sitting in front of a microphone announcing the firing of A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow, just moments after those two men had been suspended for a year by commissioner Rob Manfred. In that meeting with a stunned press corps, Crane was direct and clear.
This time around? The man did not do so great.
Crane said that MLB was correct in holding Hinch and Luhnow accountable. He said that his poor, helpless players were led astray by the men in charge, and thus the players deserve no punishment at all. And, worst of all, he said that the primitive system of banging a trash can to alert batters of what pitch is coming? Oh, that he said did not impact the game.
“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.”
Slightly shocked by such an assertion, an astute reporter followed up with Crane. The question was, essentially, did you really just say that telling batters what pitch is coming did not impact the game?
Despite having just said exactly that, Crane denied having said exactly that about 30 seconds later.
“I didn’t say it didn’t impact the game,” Crane said with a straight face. “Basically, you know, as the commissioner said in his report, he’s not going to go backwards. It’s hard to determine how it impacted the game, if it impacted the game, and that’s where we’re going to leave it.”
Unfortunately for Crane, some media members were present for the press conference. Some of them even had cameras. And those microphones were turned on.
"Our opinion is that this didn't impact the game." – Jim Crane
"I didn't say it didn't impact the game." – Jim Crane 55 seconds later pic.twitter.com/MnpPeeTUPL
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) February 13, 2020
Somehow this wasn’t Crane’s only gaffe of the press conference. Despite squarely pointing the finger at Hinch and Luhnow for being responsible as bad leaders for the players, Crane couldn’t quite point that finger at himself, the leader of the entire organization.
“Clearly the [Manfred] report states that I didn’t know about it. Had I known about it, I certainly would have done something about it,” Crane asserted. “No, I don‘t think I should be held accountable. I’m here to correct it. And I’m here to take this team forward. … As I said, it won’t happen again on my watch.”
Manfred’s report has had some significant chunks missing from it, as evidenced by recent rock-solid reporting from The Wall Street Journal. So hiding behind that bit of writing by Manfred doesn’t really save face for Crane here.
Plus, any time the owner and chairman of an organization can boldly step to a podium and declare himself not accountable for anything that happened on his watch while simultaneously guaranteeing that such a thing will never again happen on his watch? That’s just Leadership 101 in action.
And then there were the players. Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman stepped to the microphone and offered apologies that were pretty much right in line with the farcical fake apology issued by a BP executive on an episode of South Park.
“I want to say the whole Houston Astros organization and the team feel bad about what happened in 2017,” Altuve said. “We especially feel remorse for the impact on our fans and the game of baseball.”
“I am really sorry about the choices that were made by my team, by the organization, and by me,” Bregman said. “I have learned from this, and I hope to regain the trust from baseball fans.”
Neither player took questions from reporters. One relevant question might have been: What are you sorry for? Your owner just said it didn’t impact the game, and players were helplessly going along with a grand scheme devised by the manager and GM, and MLB has said the same, scapegoating Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran (who happened to be … a player during that time) while letting every single player off the hook, absolving every player of any and all responsibility for engaging in a cheating system, so WHAT on earth are you sorry for?
Bregman and Altuve, who looked like two men who had just been haunted by ghosts, probably wouldn’t have had great answers.
On a similar note, Crane said this: “I want to say again how sorry our team is for what happened.”
In framing the story this way, the Astros are clearly trying to say that Cora, Hinch, Luhnow and even Beltran — aka the only men punished for this matter — were responsible for the entirety of the sign-stealing system. After the sign-stealing operation “happened” (like a car accident, or a meteorite striking a building), the men responsible were shuttled out the door. With them, went the problem. EVERYTHING IS FINE AND NORMAL AND ON THE UP-AND-UP NOW, OK?!?!?!
Here’s some more from Crane. It’s just hogwash.
“MLB also acknowledged that the players should not be punished for the failure of our leadership. The leaders enabled, condoned and did not stop those actions that happened.”
“I also agree that our players should not be punished for these actions. These are a great group of guys who did not receive proper guidance from their leaders.“
They were a great group of guys! So what if they were professional athletes, adult men in their 20s and 30s? They received poor guidance from leadership (but not me, the top leader in the ogranization) and so they kind of had no choice but to bang on a trash can to signal off-speed pitchers to batters at the plate! You see?
This concept also goes against the narrative being pushed currently by The Athletic, which pinned Beltran as the “bully” who forced the system on the Astros. That story was also pushed by Manfred himself, as the commissioner noted that Hinch tried to express his disapproval of the system by smashing the monitor near the dugout. Even Hinch, though, was painted by The Athletic as a powerless figure in stopping Big, Bad Beltran from making everybody cheat.
That recent reporting from The Athletic literally said this: “Some Astros players, even manager A.J. Hinch, felt powerless to stop [Beltran].”
That story was generated from comments made by six anonymous players from the 2017 Astros. Even they, though, couldn’t seem to get their story straight.
(All of that ignores the likely reality, too, that the commissioner only opted to not punish players so as to avoid a lengthy battle with the players’ union, knowing that the CBA expires in 2021. But that’s neither here not there, now is it?)
Another thoughtful reporter asked Crane about the owner’s assertion that the players had little or nothing to do with the system, that the fault lied with Hinch and Luhnow, despite the commissioner describing the scheme as “player-driven and player-executed.” Crane’s answer included a whole lot of nothing.
“Where the commissioner came down, and I agreed with him, is that it could have been stopped and it wasn’t stopped and people had knowledge of it based upon the report,” Craned said. “So, we hold those two guys [Hinch and Luhnow] for what happened and not stopping that action.”
Crane also failed to a magnificent degree when a reporter asked point-blank: Is this cheating? Crane began with a non-answer, tried to escape a follow-up, and ultimately offered nothing.
Reporter: Was this cheating, and how does this reflect the feelings of the nation right now where we see rhetoric in this country where people seem to want to win at any cost, even if it includes cheating?
Crane: “Well listen, we don’t endorse the actions that took place. We apologized. You know, it’s been tough on the team and tough on the city and tough on the nation — I don’t disagree with that. But the only thing we can do is sit here and say we’re sorry and we’re going to move forward in a positive way, and you can count on us to be a positive force in delivering that message.”
Reporter: May I ask, is it cheating?
Crane: “Excuse me?”
Reporter: Do you use the word cheating? Was this cheating?
Crane: “We broke the rules. And you can phrase that any way you want.”
Yet another great exchange came when a reporter asked why Crane would not hold the players responsible for actions that those very players have apologized for and knew was wrong. Rather than provide any sort of answer, Crane simply stated several times what happened.
Reporter: Jim, we’ve heard from a few players … and they have apologized. And none of them have said, ‘I didn’t realize at the time it was wrong.’ They all knew it was wrong at the time. So I guess what I don’t totally understand is why you’re so willing to absolve them. I mean, of course, yes, the leadership didn’t stop it. But they didn’t stop a thing that players were doing that was already wrong, that they knew was wrong. So I guess I’m wondering why you feel that’s OK?
Crane: “Um, listen. Again, I’ll refer to the commissioner’s report. I think he’s taken a position, and I agree with it, that the players weren’t going to be held accountable. The leaders were held accountable. And that’s where we’re going to leave it.”
Reporter: Sure, but that’s a logistical issue from his standpoint, that you can’t punish the entire team from the commissioner’s office. The Astros have to be able to field a team this year. From your perspective, why don’t you want to do more yourself as the leader of this team?
Crane: “I think I’ve done just about everything I can. I mean, when the commissioner suspended the people, I fired ’em.”
Reporter: But again, that’s the leaders. I’m asking about the players.
Crane: “Well, you know, the commissioner has dealt with the players, and I stand by his decision. I’m not trying to hide behind the decision. I agree with the decision. So we’re not going to do anything to the players.”
Crane also expressed sympathy for Beltran, who lost his job as the new Mets manager despite “only” being one of those helpless players led astray by management in 2017, while also contradicting his own assertion that players weren’t responsible for the cheating/not-cheating/rule-breaking/call it what you will.
“Carlos is a great player and he had a great career and hopefully he’ll get past this. I feel sorry for him,” Crane said. “I think he’s made a statement in that regard. … He was named in the investigation, so you have to feel that that’s accurate. Carlos had a great career, I feel sorry for him, and hopefully he’ll learn from this.”
Crane, who promised that such an operation would never again happen on his watch, also said that he doesn’t really know when the sign-stealing scheme stopped or why it stopped. But he is positive that it did stop. He’s just not sure when. Or why. Or how. But fear not: It won’t happen again on his watch.
Later in the Q&A session, Crane got a little bit impatient with too many Q’s about the legitimacy of the 2017 World Series title. Specifically, Crane was asked why nobody looked into potential sign-stealing until November of 2019, considering all of the rumors and whispers around baseball.
Essentially, the reporter was asking Crane (the man claiming that such a thing will never again happen on his watch) why he didn’t look into the allegations that floated around baseball for years. Crane answered by … pointing the finger at Hinch and Luhnow.
“I’ll keep answering it the same way, because it’s the same answer,” Crane said, before shifting attention. “The manager was in the dugout, and he didn’t do anything about it. And the GM, according to the report, had knowledge of it. I did not have knowledge of it until November. I feel bad about that. Again, it won’t happen on my watch.”
It won’t happen on my watch. There’s no evidence in my past that would lead you to believe it, but I will say it again, and again, and again until you believe it.
On that exact note, a reporter asked Crane how he can state with so much confidence that it won’t happen “on his watch,” considering the previous instance of sign-stealing took place on his watch. In answering — whether intentionally or not — Crane continued to keep a level of separation between himself and the baseball operation, really absolving him of all past and future offenses.
“Listen, I don’t go down to the locker room very often. I’m not involved in that operation,” Crane said. “I’ll make sure that I have someone that’s accountable moving forward and we’ll be checking constantly. And we’ll have controls in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And again, if I’d have known about it, I’d have done something about it. I’m not in the locker room, I’m not down in the dugout. So it was very difficult. And I didn’t know about it until November, just like you guys. So that’s where we’ll leave it.”
We ought to include one more reporter-Crane exchange, the Q&A that ended this wonderful session.
Reporter: Jim, sign-stealing is a distinct advantage for the hitter. So, how is it that it doesn’t affect competition? So then … what are you guys apologizing for?
Crane: Um, we’re apologizing because we broke the rules.
Reporter: But isn’t sign-stealing a distinct advantage for the hitter? So doesn’t it automatically impact competition?
Crane: “It could possibly do that. It could possibly not.”
It could possibly. It could possibly not. Who’s to say?! We’re moving on!
The long story short is that four men thus far have been held accountable for the Astros’ rudimentary sign-stealing operation from 2017: Cora, Hinch, Luhnow and Beltran. It seems as though MLB is happy with pinning the entire operation on those four men. Likewise, the folks who got off scot-free appear intent on remaining in the clear, forever. Their hope is that vague apologies and a commitment to focus on the future will make everything go away.
— Brandi Smith (@BrandiKHOU) February 13, 2020
We’ve dealt with it. See?! We’ve said we’re sorry. What more do you want?! We’re moving forward. And you. Will. Too.
Again, this press conference came after a big team meeting that was called to ensure that they nailed this moment. Seems like it must have been a pretty bad meeting.
This was all pretty gross.