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Mike Rizzo tries for avoidance before opting for defiance when discussing Astros

Mike Rizzo tries for avoidance before opting for defiance when discussing Astros

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Two things stirred Mike Rizzo on Friday when sitting on the patio adjacent to the Nationals’ side of their shared spring training facility.

The first came when asked for a highlight of winning the World Series. Was there a moment among all the rallies and unlikeliness which stood out? Something singular?

“The one moment -- there were a lot of moments -- but the one moment if I had to choose one, after we won, calling my dad and, you know, talking to him,” Rizzo said.

His answer was curtailed by a catch in his voice and blink of his eyes behind black sunglasses. His father, Phil, died Feb. 1 at age 90. He taught Mike how to scout, how to act, how to judge and treat others. He lived long enough to see him build a championship team, rising from stalled minor-league player to scout to team president, with several stops in between.

A pause followed before yet another question about the Astros popped. Most of Rizzo’s 28-minute discussion with local and national reporters centered on the team still trying to save face on the other side of the facility. When first asked about Houston, Rizzo stepped in lightly.

“I’m not the morality police, so they apologize the way they do,” Rizzo said.

His first option to stop came at that moment. A day earlier, Max Scherzer successfully moved around the issue, deferring much of what was asked about the Astros to the Astros themselves. Scherzer told reporters they could just walk down the hall to seek answers. His personal feelings, stirring at whatever level these months later, were largely kept within. Scherzer said it’s clear the Astros “crossed the line” and essentially left it at that. Rizzo did not.

“My takeaway from it is, we’re the 2019 World Series champions,” Rizzo said. “I couldn’t be more proud of this group. We did it with character, dignity and did it the right way. So, we feel good about that. The thing that pains me the most is it puts a black cloud over the sport that I love and that’s not right. The commissioner did an investigation and found that they cheated in 2017 and 2018.”

Here’s another chance. Rizzo could stop. He lauded his group, noted the league found the other team guilty of cheating. It’s a chance to let the air out of the balloon and allow it to fizzle to the ground, whistling and spent. Nope.

"Somebody has got to say the word over there, cheated, that’s important to me,” Rizzo said. “And for the sport to move on which is what I’m most concerned about is we have to make sure that all the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed on this investigation before we end it.”

Asked if he had proof the Astros were cheating in 2019, Rizzo said he had no proof, but assumed they were. He deferred to the league’s effort to curb sign-stealing when asked for fixes. Then went back to the Astros without saying the team name.

“It’s contingent on leadership to guide franchises, and I know for a fact that could not and would not happen with the Washington Nationals because I would not allow it to happen with the Washington Nationals,” Rizzo said. “We certainly take pride in that, the way we conduct our business and our process, we try to do things the right way for the good of the game and its entirety.”

What hasn’t been, arguably, good for the game is the boost in headlines it so desperately wanted was spawned by scandal. The no-such-thing-as-bad-press argument is being tested by half-apologies and handed-out talking points. A chunk of media understandably posted on the Houston side of the complex Day 1 made its way to the Nationals side on Day 2. The visual was not lost on Rizzo.

“One of the problems I have with it, it’s [the first spring training day] 2020, and there are 50 media outlets here and 47 of them are for the Astros who cheated to win the World Series and there’s three here with the current reigning World Series champions,” Rizzo said. “And that’s not right.”

So, does that make the title all the sweeter? Beating a team that cheated and is viewed through the lens of doubt for what they did in 2019?

“I don’t know so much about that,” Rizzo said. “I’ve got a lot of congratulations. I had literally thousands of text messages and emails of congratulations from all sorts of people. But I think it was telling that when we won the National League championship and we knew we were playing the Houston Astros, we got a lot of volunteer phone calls on how to beat them and how to play them.”

For a final time, Rizzo couldn’t help himself. And it’s not surprising. He’s motivated by competition the way Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg is. Much of his job entails uncomfortable conversations, so saying stern words is not foreign. The cheaters reside just on the other side of the complex in front of a large, orange ‘H’ with “2017 World Series champions” under it. The reigning champions are trying to move to 2020, but it’s hard, even for Rizzo, to just cut the past free, and he chose not to Friday.

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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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