Astros’ fumbling apology tour was no accident

Alex Bregman and José Altuve
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A day after setting up a security presence and barring access from reporters at spring training on Wednesday, Astros owner Jim Crane, third baseman Alex Bregman, and second baseman José Altuve spoke publicly on Thursday to apologize for its illicit sign-stealing operation that resulted in a 2017 championship.

Crane, Altuve, and Bregman didn’t give what many would consider to be satisfactory apologies. Crane, unsurprisingly exonerated by MLB’s investigation, nullified any remorse he might have claimed to have shown by saying, “I don’t think I should be held accountable.” Altuve said the organization “feels bad” but did not use the word “sorry” or “apologize.” Bregman came the closest to an actual apology, but deferred to passive voice, saying, “I am really sorry about the choices that were made by my team, by the organization, and by me.”

This is not the first time the Astros have been monumentally terrible at apologizing. After defeating the Yankees in the ALCS, then-assistant GM Brandon Taubman taunted three female journalists, yelling, “Thank god we got [Roberto] Osuna! I’m so [expletive] glad we got Osuna!” Osuna, the team’s closer, was suspended in 2018 when he was with the Blue Jays after being arrested on a domestic violence charge. One of the reporters on the receiving end of Taubman’s rant, Stephanie Apstein, reported on the incident for Sports Illustrated. The Astros immediately responded by accusing Apstein’s report of being “misleading and completely irresponsible,” despite being backed up by other reporters. Taubman, who lost his job with the Astros, even admitted that the story was true.

Nearly an entire week passed until Crane retracted the Astros’ statement and publicly apologized to Apstein and Sports Illustrated. Crane said, “I assure you that the Houston Astros will learn from this experience.”

The Astros aren’t accidentally bad at apologizing. Rather, it’s quite intentional, and they’re not alone. Acting antisocially and showing no remorse for it is the American zeitgeist. Former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow used to work for McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm that has been involved in a multitude of scandals, including Enron, supporting authoritarian regimes, insider trading, and racketeering. Luhnow brought in McKinsey consultants to work with the Astros’ front office. The culture Luhnow created was described in Major League Baseball’s investigation into their sign-stealing operation as “very problematic.” Commissioner Rob Manfred wrote, “At least in my view, the baseball operations department’s insular culture — one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led, at least in part, to the Brandon Taubman incident, the club’s admittedly inappropriate and inaccurate response to that incident, and finally, to an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.”

For as scathing as that may have read, the Astros got off easy. The league suspended Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch for one year, fined the organization $5 million (the maximum allowable fine), and rescinded the club’s top two draft picks in both 2020 and ’21. Notably, the club’s international spending was left untouched and Crane was exonerated in the report. That’s to be expected, of course, as Manfred works for the owners.

The Astros got to keep their 2017 championship. The players and staff got to keep their postseason shares — nearly $439,000 as opposed to roughly $260,000 for winning the pennant. The Astros got to keep all of the profits gained from increased advertising, ticket, merchandise, and concession sales, and from generally having an improved brand and reputation.

The Astros are a microcosm of our society. We do not create stiff enough penalties to discourage wrongdoing. The calculus always comes out in favor of acting immorally. If you don’t care about things like “healthy relationships” and “respect,” then you should always choose to cheat, to step on your opponents, to stab your allies in the back. The Astros are as cold and as calculating an organization as we have ever seen in the sport, perhaps in all of organized sports. Their fumbling apology tour today was no accident. They are not sorry, have never been sorry, and will never be sorry. If given the opportunity to redo how they handled things over the past few years, they would change nothing and act exactly the same all over again. But it’s not the Astros organization that needs to change. It’s us.