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Astros’ sign-stealing apology falls flat

Houston tried to put its scandal-filled offseason behind and look forward to 2020. It won’t be that easy, especially after Thursday.
Houston Astros' Alex Bregman, right, delivers a statement as Astros owner Jim Crane listens during a news conference before the start of the first official spring training practice for the team Thursday in West Palm Beach. [JEFF ROBERSON  |  AP]
Houston Astros' Alex Bregman, right, delivers a statement as Astros owner Jim Crane listens during a news conference before the start of the first official spring training practice for the team Thursday in West Palm Beach. [JEFF ROBERSON | AP]

WEST PALM BEACH — The lobby of the Astros’ spring training facility is splashed with scenes from better days, images of pitchers mound dogpiles, clubhouse champagne celebrations and downtown victory parades from the 2017 World Series championship season.

And on Thursday, the Astros — many of whom were suddenly silent as details of sign stealing that has rocked baseball emerged this offseason — were forced to defend the legitimacy of their accomplishments.

The opening act of the news conference featured Houston owner Jim Crane, who sloppily offered an apology by saying he didn’t believe the Astros’ use of technology to steal pitch signs and relay them to batters through code by banging on a trash can in the home dugout of Minute Maid Park affected games in the 2017 season.

MLB’s investigation centered on 2017, though Crane admitted Thursday it went on into the 2018 season, which suggests the Astros benefited from it enough to continue it.

Everyone within the organization insists it didn’t carry into 2019, when the Astros beat the Rays in the American League Division Series, winning all three games at home. In that five-game series, Houston’s team batting average was 76 points higher in three home games than the two games at Tropicana Field.

Related: Hey, Red Sox fans, welcome to Tampa Bay’s world

Houston came within eight outs of winning the World Series last season before the Nationals, a team that completely altered their signs under suspicion Houston was getting them, beat them in Game 7.

During their ALCS loss to the Astros, the Yankees accused the Astros of using whistling to relay stolen signs. Reports also surfaced that the Astros were wearing buzzers that indicated what pitches were coming. Altuve denied that ever happened, but the way he acted following his series-clinching walk-off homer over the Yankees in Game 6 of the ALDS, motioning to his teammates not to rip his jersey off as he approached home for a postgame celebration, was peculiar.

“When we first started doing it (in 2017), we felt like it was an advantage using technology, but it was definitely wrong and we should have stopped it at the time,” said shortstop Carlos Correa, who seemed to be the more remorseful and forthcoming of the Astros who spoke Thursday.

“It was wrong. ... It’s not going to happen again. We’re going to play baseball the right way. I don’t want my kids, I don’t want my brother, I don’t want my family members, people who follow me, to think that that was right, that to cheat to be successful is right.”

Correa said by the time the Astros reached the 2017 World Series, the Dodgers were on to them. In the series’ first game, the Dodgers began using multiple signs.

“Everyone was using variables, so what was mentioned in the report would not have worked during that postseason run,” said Houston pitcher Lance McCullers, a Jesuit High product. “We won a lot of games that year. We won a lot of games that postseason because of the way we threw the ball, and a lot of games were close, a lot of games were won late on the road. A lot of guys had impacts that season who had nothing to do with the commissioner’s report.”

Houston Astros infielder Jose Altuve puts on batting gloves during practice Thursday. [JEFF ROBERSON | AP]

Current Astros who were on that 2017 team met the previous night to discuss their plans for Thursday. The goal was to apologize and attempt to move on.

But the only way the Astros can prove they’re legit — whether we are talking about 2017 or 2019 — is by winning under the immense scrutiny this season will hold for them.

After general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch received one-year suspensions from the league for their part in the scandal, they were then fired by Crane. The owner continues to put the blame on their shoulders purely because Major League Baseball had, even though the league’s report said the scandal was player-driven.

“There are a great group of guys who did not receive proper guidance from their leaders,” said Crane, who later added, “I don’t think I should be held accountable."

Stars Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve then gave brief statements. Bregman offered an “I’m sorry.” Altuve did not.

The Astros will try to turn to the future. That won’ t be easy. They’ll be booed at every road stop, labeled as cheaters.

They have the affable and charismatic Dusty Baker as their new manager, which will help. Baker is respected throughout baseball.

Former Rays front office executive James Click, who was hired a week ago to be the Astros new general manager, inherits his own mess to clean up. As the slow drip of details continues about the origin of the scandal, names of officials still in the organization have been linked to the wrongdoing. It will be up to Click whether they remain.

Click was asked Thursday about what he thought in the beginning of Game 5 of the ALDS in Houston, when he watched Rays starter Tyler Glasnow get battered for four runs in the first inning.

Realizing who is now signing his checks, Click clearly wasn’t going to break code.

"We knew that some pitchers have the tendency to tip things ahead of time," Click said. "That's something that every team works on with their pitchers whether its glove position or three-pitch setup. ... Those are the things we knew the Astros were very good at picking up on. I think that kind of got us."

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Contact @EddieIntheYard.

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