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Are the Astros’ penalties for sign-stealing a deterrent or blip?

Are the Astros’ penalties for sign-stealing a deterrent or blip?

A former Nationals player was asked over the weekend about the sign-stealing brouhaha enveloping the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox. He said he wasn’t paying too much attention to the specifics, but suggested what he considered a universal truth about bending baseball rules.

“Just don’t get caught."

The Astros have been caught. A November report in The Athletic was bolstered by social media sleuths before ultimately resulting in a damning report from Major League Baseball on Monday. Houston cheated throughout the 2017 season on the way to a World Series title, when it used technology to decode and deliver information about pitch signs. In essence, the Astros found a way to significantly boost the chance of doing the most difficult thing in sports: hit a baseball.

Who knew? The league says Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow -- once a beacon of his profession and suddenly unemployed following a tone-deaf and ignorant World Series capped by a cheating scandal -- as well as manager A.J. Hinch were culpable in their lack of action as opposed to hatching the scheme. Bench coach Alex Cora and players like Carlos Beltrán, the new Mets manager, were directly involved in the process. Owner Jim Crane was not.

Crane held a press conference Monday afternoon. His themes: my organization did this wrong and will suffer the consequences. He fired Hinch and Luhnow, who had been suspended a year each by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. Houston continues to look at the possible participation of lower-level employees. Most of the onus was pushed onto Cora and players for the development of a system which stole and relayed signs using a center field camera as the prime source of information. When asked where this was among the tough days he’s had as the Astros’ owner, Crane confirmed the emotions: “It’s a tough day.” His voice broke a tad and he went with a universal tactic of grabbing a quick drink to stall the tears, as if consuming liquid would keep the leaking water around his eyes from getting out.

The league also stripped Houston of its 2020 and 2021 first- and second-round picks. A $5 million fine, the largest allowed under the Major League Constitution, rounded out the punishment.

The discipline handed down leads to an unanswerable question: Will any of it matter?

In the moment, Houston has devolved from a model franchise, defining the reboot-and-build era with well-educated staffers in key management positions, to a stained organization, though Crane said, “absolutely not” when asked if this taints the 2017 title. Of course it does. His response was one of his few missteps of the day and reminded of the hubris which helped lead Houston here in the first place.

Those around the league who thought Houston was cheating in the unaccepted way -- distinctly different than the wink-and-nod approach used forever -- are currently texting with smiles born of affirmation. The Astros received a flood of headlines and best-selling book because of their process. Monday rattles their foundation, provides the non-Ivy League graduates around baseball a chance to gloat, and generally knocks a league heavy from its perch.

Further effects will come. How will MLB’s investigation into the Red Sox end? What will happen for Cora in Boston? Will the Mets move forward with Beltran, who was just hired Nov. 1, 2019? Does this put Baltimore general manager Mike Elias, hired in November of 2018, under a cloud?

Sign stealing is a tradition. Alongside the “don’t get caught” mantra is a sentiment that if you do have your sign sequences stolen, it’s incumbent on you, not the thief, to act accordingly. Washington knew of Houston’s heightened reputation for obtaining information -- one way or the other -- when the World Series began. It changed all of its signs to combat the Astros’ watchful eyes.

So, across baseball, from the World Series to the Winter Meetings, Houston was known for this. Other teams were irritated with, though not aghast at, the Astros’ mechanisms. There was even some acceptance. The penalty and fallout carried wonder much more than if the Astros went too far.

Manfred hammered Houston on Monday. Crane followed-up with firings. Mid-February will have a fresh aura in West Palm Beach when the Astros and Nationals arrive at their shared spring training facility. In February of 2019, Houston defined the modern organization. Meanwhile, Davey Martinez’s job status was in question after a middling first season in Washington.

Now, the Nationals enter as the defending champions. Houston will likely start with an interim manager, interim general manager and endless questions about why it cheated.

But, is such an in-your-face, irrefutable, heavily penalized scandal enough to stop future shortcuts in sign-stealing? Probably not.

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Astros wade through first boo-filled night of many to come

Astros wade through first boo-filled night of many to come

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The only agreed upon factor of Saturday night’s spring training opener was affinity for Dusty Baker. 

Baker, alone at home plate to receive a ceremonial first pitch, raised his hand to the crowd when announced. Both sides cheered. Those in red stood, some shouted his name. Others on the Houston side could unabashedly applaud Baker. He represented what’s next, not what was.

But the past chased the Astros from the second the ballpark opened. Any Houston highlights were followed by hefty boos. “FOR THE H” flashed on the right-center field video board during the evening on what was supposed to be an Astros “home” game. However, there was nothing warm and fuzzy about the location for the Astros, an experience sure to track them outside of Houston throughout the season.

The Astros were booed en masse since Baker did not play any of his regulars. Myles Straw, Jeremy Pena and Taylor Jones began the game against Max Scherzer. It’s difficult to let Nos. 3, 89 and 79, respectively, have it on the first night of spring training. But, those on the team in 2017 remained safely in the dugout, prompting an expansion of targets.

Before Scherzer began his night, the Astros’ mascot, Orbit, ran across the face of the Washington dugout with an oversized Houston flag. He, too, was booed -- with fervor. Anything representing the Astros was in play since their main facets were not on the field.

Two signs carried by Nationals fans were taken by a ballpark employee. Some Washington fans banged on their seats during the game to mimic the Astros’ prior method for stealing signs. Scherzer thought something colorful had a chance to leak into the setting.

“I figured something like that was going to happen,” Scherzer said. “I got a good taste of what it’s like [when] facing [Bryce Harper] last year when we had our whole crowd going. I thought our fans would boo. I didn’t realize it was going to be that loud when I face Harp. That was a playoff atmosphere. Everything gets turned up a notch when the fans get into it.”

Scherzer threw 22 pitches, 13 for strikes in two innings. He allowed a single and struck out two batters he’s unlikely to ever face again. Otherwise, he was nonplussed to face the Astros in a game rain forced to pause, then stop, after two innings and a head-scratching delay.

“We won the World Series,” Scherzer said. “It wasn’t like I have a vendetta to hold. So, for me, over here we’re just trying to move forward and get ready for our season.”

Baker thought the reception went as expected.

“There were a lot of Nationals fans here,” Baker said. “We had a lot of fans here, too. You could tell who was for us and who was against us. All in all, it wasn’t too bad. You kind of expect to get some. But they weren’t too bad, though.”

So, the night ultimately served as the expected start. Scherzer pitched well. The Astros were booed.

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Astros booed, fans' signs taken in spring training opener against Nationals

Astros booed, fans' signs taken in spring training opener against Nationals

As if this week hadn’t already been bad enough for the Houston Astros, it got a bit worse on Saturday afternoon when they faced the Washington Nationals in the spring training opener. 

The Astros took the field at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and were welcomed by the fans with an eruption of boos. The two teams share the facility, but it was Houston's home game. 

Since 2017 Washington and Houston have shared their spring training facility in West Palm Beach and made it a tradition to kick off their respective Grapefruit League schedules against each other. They will play six times this spring - though Saturday's opener was postponed by rain after a scoreless two innings. 

One courageous fan really got into the act, holding up a sign reading "Houston *'s" that was eventually confiscated by ballpark personnel, according to the Associated Press.

If this start is any indication of what they will face throughout this season, it's going to be a long 2020 for the Astros. 

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