“Spectacular in its horridness”

This was not what I was talking about when I said

Fellas, you owe it to the fans.  We may not forgive you and get over it right away even if you mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa all over the place, but I can promise you that a hell of a lot of us will never get over it if you don’t even try.

What happened today in West Palm Beach is much closer to “don’t even try” than to a real, honest explanation or apology.

After months of investigation by the Office of the Commissioner, Major League Baseball released a report last month finding the Houston Astros guilty of cheating for using technology to steal signs from their opponents in 2017 and 2018.  Astros owner Jim Crane fired the manager and general manager for not stopping the player-driven scheme, and a week later he ran interference for his players—who at that point hadn’t yet said anything—by saying they would all talk when they got to together in spring training and then offer a public apology.  That meeting happened last night, and the big apology came in a news conference this morning.  Here, courtesy of KPRC-TV in Houston, is the entire pathetic performance.

No doubt the Astros in-house public relations folks consulted with outside experts in crisis management to come up with a plan; Crane needs to be asking for his money back from all of them.  Putting the owner front and center speaking on behalf of his team seems the start of the right response, but the script they gave him to read was, as the kids say, an epic fail.  Over the course of about half an hour Crane (1) repeatedly made the point that he personally was not responsible at all, even though (2) he hired the general manager and the manager who were assigned blame in the commissioner’s report because (irony alert) they did not properly supervise their subordinates, (3) acknowledged that his players broke the rules but refused to say they “cheated,” at one point (4, in answer to a question that starts at 8:04 into the clip) said his team’s rule-breaking actions did not impact any games, and then (5, two questions later, starting at 9:39) denied that he had said what we all heard him say.  Over and over, his answer to every question that tried to start getting some into specifics became a variant of “the report says what it says, and that is what is right, and we will say no more than that.”  He looked stupid.  As an Astros fan, I am embarrassed by his ignorant performance.

Consensus of the crisis management pros consulted by the Houston Chronicle today was that this event made things worse:

“The core of the problem is that the team’s owner and players tried to declare the crisis over before it’s really over,” [Gene] Grabowski [of crisis communications firm kglobal]  said. “They sounded arrogant when they said they are moving on. That’s for the fans and sports writers to say — not guilty players and owners.”

(snip)

Mike Androvett, who owns a public relations, marketing and advertising firm that works with attorneys in Dallas and Houston, said the news conference failed to put the past to rest and, instead, “reinforced that the 2017 World Series win will likely be forever tainted.”

“I felt like the apologies by Mr. Crane and the two ballplayers seemed a little begrudging and lacking in specificity,” Androvett said. “If the intent was to nip this controversy in the bud, I think it will have the opposite effect.”

Crane, he said, “was not willing to share specific details, and he seemed only too ready to defer back to the commissioner’s report.”

Androvett said [Alex] Bregman and [Jose] Altuve, each of whom spoke for less than a minute at the news conference before giving more detailed answers in the clubhouse, “were placed in an unwinnable position, and as a result, their apologies rang a little hollow.”

(snip)

Marjorie Ingall with the website sorrywatch.com, which tracks and rates messages of public contrition, said the Astros news conference “was spectacular in its horridness. It’s the way not to apologize. It’s every example of terrible corporate policy.”

Among Crane’s failures during his news conference, Ingall said, was refusing to acknowledge the damage the Astros inflicted on their opponents.

“You have to apologize to the people you’ve harmed,” she said. “If you’re not doing that, you’re not really apologizing.”

You can see Bregman and Altuve at 2:56 and 3:45 of the news conference: they said little, but did seem taken with the seriousness of the moment if not truly sorry for what they did to cause it.  They did a bit better later in the morning inside the clubhouse, when they and a few teammates—Carlos Correa, George Springer, Justin Verlander, Josh Reddick and Lance McCullers—seem to really start to express some contrition for this illegal plan:

As I’ve put the pieces together, the story is that a team intern showed up with an Excel-based program (“Codebreaker”) that helped the front office decode a catcher’s signs, but that effort was denounced as pedestrian by Carlos Beltran when he was signed as a free agent before the 2017 season.  (The original story from The Athletic is here, a version out from under a paywall is on Sports Illustrated here.)  Beltran and bench coach Alex Cora, both now “ousted” as managers of the Mets and Red Sox, respectively, because of this affair, reportedly got the scheme rolling to route a center field camera video feed to the clubhouse/dugout area so the catcher’s signs could be deciphered and a short message—sent via bangs on a trash can in the tunnel behind the dugout—could be sent to tell the Astro-at-bat what kind of pitch was coming.  And, we are given to believe, many of the Astros players and coaches opposed this scheme but “felt powerless” to stop it.

Clubhouse dynamics came into play, and Beltrán, a 20-year veteran, reportedly didn’t take too well to players approaching him about the operation. Players described him to The Athletic as “El Jefe, the Godfather, the king, the alpha male in the building.”

A half-dozen former Astros players spoke with The Athletic on the condition of anonymity and said some players were afraid to approach Beltrán and express their disdain for the cheating scheme. At one point, veteran catcher Brian McCann approached Beltrán and asked him to end the operation.

“He disregarded it and steamrolled everybody,” one of the team members said. “Where do you go if you’re a young, impressionable player with the Astros and this guy says, ‘We’re doing this’? What do you do?”

(Beltran retired after the 2017 season; the Astros players reportedly stopped using the system to steal signs sometime in the 2018 season because they felt it was not productive.)

To this point, I have not heard a single Astros player, coach, executive or team official try to make a case that the charges are false, that the Astros are innocent.  (We’re starting to hear rumblings that there are plenty of other teams that are guilty, too, but that’s irrelevant to whether or not the Astros cheated; no one is saying the Astros didn’t do it.)  Nobody I’ve heard has tried to pardon any of the players individually, make us believe that this guy didn’t participate in the cheating.  They are publicly accepting the accusation that they violated the rules of the game, that they cheated in a way that effected the outcome of games.

Today Jim Crane and his players spent a lot of time reminding us us that they are have said they are sorry, that they have expressed remorse, as if that is all they need to say for us to be honor-bound to start to forget the whole sorry affair and rightfully turn attention to who will be the fourth and fifth starters this year, and whether or not Myles Straw can adequately replace Jake Marisnick as the designated late inning pinch runner.

What the Astros haven’t conveyed so far, at least not to me yet, is that they really “know why they’re supposed to be sorry” about this.

The players and owner Jim Crane held a team meeting on Wednesday to plan a course of action for the next day of camp. On Thursday, they severely underwhelmed. Astros hitters Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman provided roughly two minutes of insincere, vague remarks, while Crane issued a strange denial that the team’s cheating actually affected the outcome of the games.

“I am really sorry about the choices that were made by my team, by the organization, and by me,” Bregman said, squeezing as much out of the passive voice as he could.

(snip)

The Astros’ talking points all had heavy overlap. The players said most of them didn’t speak out earlier because they wanted to get together and address it as a team. (Or maybe they wanted to get their stories straight and not admit any more than what was in MLB’s investigation.) They were sorry that they didn’t do more to stop it. They hoped to move on and be better in the future. They also didn’t specify what exactly they were supposed to be sorry for.

One more thing: it occurs to me that there is a way that the Astros could still make this even more annoying.  If—despite all we’ve learned so far about the Astros cheating and whatever may still come out—if the team and the players come out tomorrow, and the next day, and next week and next month, and for however long it is that people in and out of the game are still pissed off and/or disappointed about this sorry episode…if they now take the attitude that they have done all the apologizing that is necessary and have nothing more to say on the matter…if one of them looks down his nose at a reporter and huffs that he has “already addressed that issue” and refuses to say another word…

And if the reporters let them get away with that?  If they don’t “chase them ‘round the moons of Nibia and ‘round the Antares maelstrom, and ‘round perdition’s flame” to get a honest answer to a legitimate question…well, that’s a whole ‘nuther blog post.

The times, they really are a-changin’

This is big.  This is big, even though it sorta feels right now like this isn’t causing a big stir except in all the places that are writing stories about it because it’s the first: a player in one of the major American team sports has come out publicly as homosexual. Veteran basketball player Jason Collins writes a first-person essay in the Jason Collinsupcoming issue of Sports Illustrated; you can read it here

Among my initial reactions: 

  • it’s none of my business, or it shouldn’t be…and Collins agrees 
  • I don’t care that he’s gay…and Collins hopes we all think that
  • this couldn’t possibly have happened before now, and now I don’t think it will much matter…and it shouldn’t
    Americans’ attitudes about sexuality are changing so fast you can almost hear the thought balloons popping up over the heads of one person after another as they realize they don’t care about someone else’s private life (with the exceptions of any Kardashian, of course), that they want to be the kind of person who is tolerant of differences among people and who wants to treat others fairly.

Collins is a veteran of six teams over 12 seasons in the NBA, so he’s not a kid and he’s not a superstar.  He’s also a free agent, and whether he now gets signed by another team—and which team—will be interesting things to watch for.  And I like that he made this announcement after his team’s season was over, so it can’t distract his teammates from the job they have to do.  Loyalty to the team, and putting the team ahead of his personal wants, is an attribute that should win him a lot of respect around the league.

I applaud Collins for his bravery: despite the changing attitudes about homosexuality all across this country, making this announcement and putting himself at risk for discrimination took guts.  But the more announcements like this there are, the less risk there will be.  He says openness is a good place to start in disarming prejudice; that’s clearly true.  As more people have come out of the closet, from your everyday schmoes to tee-wee stars, more of the rest of us have found out that someone we know and like and respect is gay.  The American military trashed it’s policy that forced homosexuals in the services to lie about who they are, and we’ve seen that our armed forces have not disintegrated into a morass of low morale.  More people are translating their feelings into action at the voting booth, registering their support for the American ideals of fairness and tolerance.

Collins says, “The most you can do is stand up for what you believe in. I’m much happier since coming out to my friends and family. Being genuine and honest makes me happy.”  Stand up for what you believe in: solid advice.

Yep, this is big news, big big big…I mean, what else could possibly have been important enough to be the lead sports story on the day that Tim Tebow was released by the Jets?  This is amazing stuff indeed!

(photo Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Joe didn’t do anything wrong? Oh yeah, he did

The fact that he is who he is, and that he did what he did, makes it even worse than it already is.

For most of us who are not in western Pennsylvania, this came out of the blue last week: a grand jury indicted a former Penn State University football coach on accusations he sexually assaulted young boys.  When I first saw the story in the paper last weekend, and read that head coach Joe Paterno had been told by an eyewitness that Jerry Sandusky assaulted a young boy in the shower and Paterno had relayed the information to his immediate superior but done nothing else about it, I felt like he should have done more.  But then I turned the page, because I don’t care about college football or Penn State, and because I didn’t want to really think about what was actually going on here.  Shame on me.

By Wednesday, the winningest coach in major college football history had been fired by his university, but he was not the only person in Happy Valley shamed by the incident.  Far from it.  More’s the pity.

Sandusky, the long-time Penn State assistant coach who gets a lot of the credit for the team’s history of turning out great defensive players—especially linebackers—stands accused of being a serial pedophile, of sexually assaulting at least eight boys over a 15 year period.  He also founded a charitable organization called The Second Mile in 1997, which provided services to children in need.

One of the saddest ironies of the sexual abuse charges against Sandusky that stunned and sickened the nation last weekend is that if the allegations that he assaulted eight boys over a 15-year period are true, he may have been allowed to prey on those children in large part because no one at Penn State would go that second mile for his victims.

Sports Illustrated’s Phil Taylor is one of many who’ve made the point: where the hell were all the adults at Penn State who should have done something about this?  I’ll tell you where—they were all busy protecting a wealthy university and its vaunted football program and its reputation, for surely those things were more important than the lives, and the futures, of pre-teenaged children whose parents had turned to Penn State for help.  What is Sandusky accused of doing?  McClatchy summarizes the timeline here, and it shows just how many people at Penn State didn’t stand up for these kids.

Sandusky was cashed out as the team’s defensive coordinator after admitting to having showered with a 10 year old boy, but the school and the coach only took his job away—Sandusky was allowed to keep using university facilities for his charity’s activities.

In 2000 a janitor saw Sandusky having sex with a young boy in a campus football building and told his supervisor, but neither of them called the police.

In 2002 a graduate assistant (a former player; a grown man) saw Sandusky having sex with a young boy and did not do anything to stop the assault that was going on right in front of his eyes; he did not call the police, not even the university police; he went home and called his own father and asked what he should do; and it wasn’t until the next day that he told Paterno what he’d seen.  Paterno told the athletic director, and left it at that.  About this time, school officials told Sandusky not to bring children to the campus any more, although he himself still used the facilities.

Paterno made a lot of his reputation for insisting that Penn State was different from other big college football programs, that Penn State did things the right way—it followed the rules, it graduated its student athletes, and it was successful on the field.  Bull.  Despite the high graduation rate and the championships and the bowl games, we now know that Penn State was just as sleazy as any other program.  Maybe more so.  Ohio State’s in trouble for its players selling equipment to get discounts on their tattoos; Miami is in trouble (again) over impermissible benefits given to players by a booster.  But no one else is in the news for making the conscious decision to protect their own ass by turning a blind eye to the alleged child rapist in their midst.  For years.

Where was the “Hey, you can’t do that” reaction the first time someone saw this man naked with a child?  Where was the unconscious and visceral “stop that” response?  Where was the call to the cops?  Where is the humanity?

Yesterday, Penn State played its first football game in the post-Paterno era.  It lost the game.  But the university community may have taken the first baby steps to recognizing what’s important in life, certainly more important than a university’s bruised ego or loss of financial support.

"It felt like we all banded together. And it wasn’t just about football," said Melissa Basinger, a 2005 Penn State grad who made the trip from Charlotte, N.C. "It was about coming together as a school, and showing the country, world or whatever that this does not define who we are."

We’ll see.