WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Expressing regret and contrition while clearly hoping to put the sign-stealing scandal that has dominated the offseason in the rearview mirror, Astros players issued long-awaited apologies for their roles in the scandal on Thursday -- the first day of workouts at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
Astros owner Jim Crane was joined by new manager Dusty Baker in a press conference Thursday morning that included brief statements of apology from stars José Altuve and Alex Bregman, before the clubhouse doors swung open. Dozens of reporters in separate scrums surrounded most of the 10 remaining players from the 2017 club, a team which an MLB report released last month said illegally used electronics to steal opposing players’ signs to decode pitches.
In the wake of the Jan. 13 report, manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended one year before being dismissed by Crane, who issued an apology at the time. The players had remained silent -- or had shied away from apologies -- until Thursday, when they addressed the scandal for the first time.
“I am really sorry about the choices that were made by my team, by the organization and by me,” Bregman’s statement read. “I’ve learned from this and I hope to regain the trust of baseball fans. I would also like to thank the Astros fans for all of their support. We, as a team, are totally focused on moving forward to the 2020 season.”
The Astros crafted their response in a team meeting Wednesday night that included the 10 members of the 2017 team who are still on the roster. Crane was in the meeting, with Baker sitting in the background and taking it all in.
“We had a great team meeting last night,” Altuve’s statement read. “I want to say that the whole Astros organization and the team feel bad about what happened in 2017. We especially feel remorse for the impact on our fans and the game of baseball. Our team is determined to move forward, to play with intensity and to bring back a championship to Houston in 2020.”
Crane, who was cleared of having any knowledge of the scheme in the report, said he wasn’t sure how much the sign-stealing impacted the Astros on the field in ‘17. He promised to put in a system of checks to make sure it wouldn’t happen again under his watch and hinted more personnel changes could be coming in the front office.
“We don’t endorse the actions that took place,” he said. “We’ve apologized. It’s been tough on the team, tough on the city and tough on the nation. I don’t disagree with that. The only thing we can do is sit here and say, ‘We’re sorry.’ We’re going to move forward in a positive way. You can count on us to be a positive force in delivering that message.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred was en route to Kansas City for Thursday’s announcement regarding the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and had not yet watched the press conference, but he felt that the Astros organization offering apologies was a step in the right direction.
“I think it’s important for the front office, the players to take responsibility for what happened and express remorse about it to the fans, the other teams and people who are really invested in our great game,” he said.
The sign-stealing scandal has rocked baseball and stretched beyond the Astros. The Red Sox parted ways with manager Alex Cora, who was implicated as one of the masterminds of the sign-stealing scheme in the report when he was Astros bench coach. Carlos Beltrán, the only player mentioned in the report, lost his job with the Mets before managing a game.
“We have an obligation as a league to be as transparent as possible,” Manfred said, “to get the facts out there so that our fans understand what happened. I think they need to make a judgment as to how those facts impacted the outcome of the games."
No team has been in the crosshairs as much as the Astros, whose 2017 championship is being scrutinized following the report the team cheated throughout the season and into 2018.
"With activity of that type, most players agree that it provides an advantage,” Manfred said. “And that's why it's prohibited under our rules."
The players wouldn’t say how much the sign-stealing system -- which included someone banging on a trash can near the dugout after viewing a live feed from a camera set up in center field to decode the catcher’s signs -- benefited them but stopped short of saying the title was tainted in their eyes.
“We were a good baseball team and we still are a good team,” outfielder Josh Reddick said. “It was one of those unfortunate things we didn’t make the best judgment call. It’s a thing we have to deal with right now. We take full responsibility for it. We feel bad. We’re sorry for it. We have to move forward. We move forward, we win, and that will be the best thing for us.”
In the clubhouse, Altuve was asked if the team knew what it was doing was wrong.
"Yeah, kind of. That's why we feel bad. I'm not gonna say to you it was good," Altuve said. "It was wrong. We feel bad. We feel remorse. Like I said -- the impact on the fans, the impact on the game. We feel bad."
Carlos Correa and other players firmly denied reports, though, that they wore electronic buzzers to help signal the pitches at any point during 2017 or subsequent years. MLB cleared the Astros of wearing any electronic devices.
“The story should be killed,” Correa said.
Correa said the sign-stealing scheme was limited to mostly the regular season in 2017. He said it was hard to accomplish during the playoffs, including the World Series, because of crowd noise and the paranoia over sign-stealing going on around the league.
“When it comes to the playoffs, it’s loud,” Correa said. “People were using multiple signs going into the stadium because of rumors or whatever that were going on at the time. When I look back at the playoffs and look at the games, it was not affected like the regular season.”
When asked if the system was used at some point in the playoffs, Correa said: “The trash can was there, yeah. If we had a chance, but I remember them using multiple signs and it’s impossible to decode all those signs.”
Justin Verlander, who was traded from the Tigers to the Astros in August 2017, said that once he arrived in Houston and saw what was going on, he should have done more to stop it.
“I can’t go back,” he said. “I can’t reverse my decision. I wish I had said more and I didn’t, and for that I’m sorry. … We crossed a boundary. We broke the rules and we’re sorry.”
The MLB report said the scheme was “player-driven” and Hinch twice smashed a monitor set up near the dugout to protest what was happening. The players didn’t get the message, though, and didn’t stop the operation until some point in the 2018 season.
“There’s no excuse for that,” Correa said. “We were wrong for everything we did in 2017. That’s not what we stand for. It’s not what we want to portray as an organization and we’re definitely wrong about all that and we feel really sorry. We know we affected careers, we affected the game in some way. Looking back at it, it was just bad. I wish we would have stopped it at the time and we didn’t, and for that we’re paying the price. We’re deeply sorry.”
As the Astros try to put the scandal behind them, they’re turning their focus to 2020. The club hired Baker, 70, to help guide it through the turmoil of what should be a difficult season. Opposing players and fans have expressed ire toward the team, and that anger won’t go away when the regular season starts. The players are ready for what’s ahead.
“The road is going to be hostile,” pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. said. “That’s everybody’s right to feel that way.”
When asked about the Yankees and Dodgers -- the two teams the Astros beat to win the American League pennant and the World Series in 2017 -- the players weren’t as sympathetic to the assertions they had to cheat to win those series. The Astros are standing by their accomplishments in the midst of a swarm of doubt.
“Time will tell and say what a special group we have here,” Correa said. “But that doesn’t take away the fact we feel bad for what we did and we don’t want to be remembered as the team that cheated to get a championship. Obviously, we feel terrible about that. It’s not what we want. That’s why we want to focus on this year and be able to gain the confidence from our fans again and be able to bring a championship to the city so people can see we’re just really good players with talent.”