Anger, apologies, incompetence and the chaos surrounding the Houston Astros

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It’s hard to keep track of the silliness and drama surrounding the Astros these days, but since it’s virtually the only story of note so far this spring training, let us get ourselves up to speed, shall we?

In case you missed it over the weekend, round 27 of “are the Astros’ apologies sincere?” took place. There was nothing terribly new in all of this. A lot of people have become armchair public relations experts as it relates to the Astros, but my personal view is that the Astros’ public statements are not lacking because they’re tone deaf or because they have bad P.R. It’s simply because they’re not sorry.

It’s pretty simple, really. Athletes are lauded and mythologized for being willing to do anything to win. A century and a half of pro sports has shown us, time and again, that that anything often includes cheating. And that with few exceptions, the reward is worth the risk. It’s also worth the fallout in the instances in which they are caught. The Astros won a title. They got glory and fame and in some cases money and no one can make them give any of that back (and Rob Manfred reiterated last night that he won’t do that). There is really nothing that can be done. And, on some level, the Astros know this. To the extent they feel bad it’s because they got caught and because they are being scrutinized now. It is not because they feel genuine sorrow that, dang it, they simply cannot properly express.

These kinds of dilemmas usually cause people to search for solutions. If we did THIS or if we do THAT the problem will be addressed. Sorry, nope. This is just a thing that has happened. It may be put in the past for the most part, but it won’t be atoned for in a meaningful way. This is one of those basic things that anyone who is into high level sports just has to make peace with somehow. Or, even, if they can’t, it’s something they need to stop assuming is a stain on some pure thing. Baseball is not pure, nor are the men who play it. A lot of us know that, but we also need to accept the flip side of it: forgiveness or absolution is in no way guaranteed and the Houston Astros and their fans are gonna have to get cool with that. “What do you want from them? They can’t win?!” is a refrain you’re hearing more and more of. Well, yeah, maybe they can’t.

The fans are a whole other thing.

I realize that the social media sentiment one sees from a fan base is not necessarily representative of a fan base, but it’s worth noting that a LOT of that sentiment has Astros fans, and some radio personality types, vacillating between “see, they apologized!” and “they have no reason to apologize because everyone else was cheating and no one else is talking about that, are they?!”

This last bit is what’s most fascinating to me, because it involves two levels of cognitive dissonance on the part of those who hold the opinion.

First off, I’m struck by the notion that for seven years the Astros and their fans have insisted that the Astros do everything better, earlier, faster, and more efficiently than the rest of the league. Then, the moment they get busted for something that their better and faster front office innovated — Codebreaker — they insist that they were merely doing what everyone else was doing across the league. I guess the Astros are only at the cutting edge of exploiting competitive inefficiencies in non-rule-breaking ways. Pretty convenient!

Second off, a lot of people are telling me that the Astros are being singled out, and that no one is reporting on all of the other teams who were doing it. While I’ve slammed Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball for apparently ignoring allegations that several other teams have cheated in this manner, I have to take issue with the idea out there that “no one is reporting on this.”

Folks, I know a lot of reporters, and I can assure you that almost every one of them with sources who are former players for the teams they cover have reached out to said sources to try to get a scoop like the one Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic got on the Astros.  The media has every incentive in the world to break the story of the A’s or the Rangers or the Braves or the Cubs or whoever doing it and they have no incentive to bury it. That no one has broke it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but it does not mean that there is a massive conspiracy to single out the Astros.

Finally, even if the Astros are being singled out, it does not absolve them. I would hope that’s not a difficult concept to grok — “I may have been copying Billy’s test but Billy was copying from Suzy” hasn’t washed as an excuse, basically ever — but you’d be amazed at how many Astros fans I’ve encountered who are arguing, basically that. Down with whataboutism, folks. It’s simply crap logic.

Now on to Rob Manfred.

Last Wednesday I emptied both barrels on Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball for what is, quite obviously, their massive mishandling of the sign-stealing scandal. In that column I wrote that Manfred was “obligated, for the sake of his legitimacy as Commissioner of Baseball and for the sake of the game itself, to answer publicly for why he let it get to this state in the first place.”

Manfred tried to do that yesterday afternoon and it went miserably. You can read Bill’s whole writeup of it here, but the most telling part is when he made a snide and dismissive remark about Wall Street Journal reporter Jared Diamond’s story which revealed (a) how much more sophisticated and front office-led the sign-stealing was; and (b) how Manfred apparently buried all of that in his January report on the matter. Manfred:

“You know, congratulations. You got a private letter that, you know, I sent to a club official. Nice reporting on your part.”

How immature. How peevish. In this Manfred comes off like a whining child. Like someone so out of his depth in the job of commissioner that the echo sounder can’t gauge it.

I mentioned before that there are a lot of reporters who would love to break another team’s sign-stealing, and that’s true, but on the flip side there are very, very few reporters who are super critical of the league or Manfred from an editorial perspective. The reason for this is simple: a substantial part of the baseball press corps is employed by MLB itself or work for MLB rights holders like ESPN, RSNs or radio outlets which broadcast games. That Manfred can’t handle even the very small amount of heat he gets from the press — that a simple factual support inspires an ad hominem attack on the reporter who, via basic reporting, revealed Manfred’s own incompetence — is simply sad.

Anyway, it’s a whole new week now. Maybe now people will begin to accept that not all apologies are required to be accepted. Maybe they’ll begin to accept that not all bad behavior has a defense. Maybe they’ll begin to accept that Major League Baseball cares far less about getting to the bottom of issues that reflect poorly on the league than it does about burying said issues in the bottom of a quarry someplace. Maybe they’ll move on to baseball. To the parts about it that aren’t ridiculous and pathetic.

OK, maybe they won’t.

Swanson, Olson go deep vs Scherzer, Braves take NL East lead

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ATLANTA — Dansby Swanson and Matt Olson homered off Max Scherzer, lifting the Atlanta Braves to a crucial 4-2 victory Saturday night over the New York Mets and a one-game lead in the NL East.

The defending World Series champions beat aces Jacob deGrom and Scherzer on consecutive nights to take their biggest lead of the season in the division. New York, which held a 10 1/2-game cushion on June 1, faces its biggest deficit of the year with four games remaining.

Atlanta will try for a three-game sweep Sunday night, with the winner earning the season-series tiebreaker between the teams. Even though both teams are headed to the postseason, that’s important because the NL East champion gets a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Swanson’s 24th homer, a go-ahead, two-run shot in the fifth inning, touched off a frenzy among the sold-out crowd at Truist Park, the ball sailing a few rows up into the seats in left-center to make it 3-2. Olson hit his 32nd homer in the sixth, a solo shot into Chop House seats in right to put Atlanta up 4-2.

Austin Riley led off the fourth with a double and scored on Olson’s single to make it 1-all.

Kyle Wright (21-5) gave up two runs and seven hits with one walk and three strikeouts in five innings as he won his eighth straight decision. The Braves have won 16 of his last 17 starts.

New York went up 2-1 in the fifth when Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil hit consecutive two-out singles.

The Mets led 1-0 in the first when Brandon Nimmo singled, advanced on a walk and a single and scored on Eduardo Escobar‘s groundout. Wright, who threw 30 pitches in the first, stranded two runners in scoring position to prevent further damage.

Scherzer (11-5) allowed a first-inning single to Riley and a third-inning infield single to Ronald Acuna Jr., who advanced to third on a fielding error by Lindor at shortstop but was stranded when Michael Harris II lined out to center. Scherzer patted his glove and pumped his fist as he walked off the mound.

Scherzer was charged with nine hits and four runs with no walks and four strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings as the Mets were knocked out of first place for only the third day all season.

The Braves have won five of the last six against New York to tie the season series 9-all, outscoring the Mets 37-16 over that stretch.

Atlanta’s bullpen, which posted a 1.70 ERA in September, got a perfect inning from Dylan Lee in the sixth. Jesse Chavez faced four batters in the seventh, Raisel Iglesias faced the minimum in the eighth and closer Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for his NL-leading 39th save in 46 chances.

Since the Braves were a season low-tying four games under .500 at 23-27 after play on May 31, they have gone 76-32, tying the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in the majors over that span. They were a season-worst 10 1/2 games behind the first-place Mets on June 1.

Wright, the only 20-game winner in baseball this season, hasn’t officially become the first Braves pitcher to lead the league in wins outright since Russ Ortiz had 21 in 2003, but the Dodgers’ Julio Urias has 17 and can’t reach 20 before the regular season ends.

Wright will become the first Braves pitcher since Hall of Famer Tom Glavine in 2000 to lead the majors in wins. Houston ace Justin Verlander also has 17.

Wright began the game 1-4 with a 6.75 ERA in six career starts and one relief appearance against the Mets.

The Braves, who got homers from Riley, Olson and Swanson off deGrom on Friday, lead the NL with 240 homers.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets: All-Star RF Starling Marte (right middle finger fracture) has yet to begin swinging or throwing. Manager Buck Showalter said Marte is experiencing less pain but not enough to take the next step in his recovery. Marte has been sidelined since Sept. 7.

Braves: RHP Spencer Strider still has not thrown as he gets treatment on a sore left oblique. Manager Brian Snitker said there is no timetable for the rookie’s return. Strider has been sidelined since Sept. 21.

NICE GLOVE

Harris ran back and jumped to catch Nimmo’s fly against the wall in center field for the first out of the third.

UP NEXT

Mets RHP Chris Bassitt (15-8, 3.27 ERA) will face RHP Charlie Morton (9-6, 4.29) as the teams conclude a three-game series.