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Did sign stealing taint Astros World Series title? Their former manager says it’s a ‘fair question.’

A tainted trophy? AJ Hinch says it's possible. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Major League Baseball stopped short of stripping the Houston Astros of their 2017 World Series title because of the sign-stealing operation they ran that season, but that doesn’t mean the championship isn’t tainted. Just ask AJ Hinch, the team’s manager who was suspended for one season and fired over his failure to stop the scheme.

“It’s a fair question,” Hinch said when asked about the legitimacy of the Astros’ title in an interview with MLB Network’s Tom Verducci that will air at 6 p.m. Eastern on Friday. “I think everyone is going to have to draw their own conclusions [as to whether the championship is tainted]. I hope over time and the demonstration of the talent of this team and the players and the careers that are being had — we have some of the best players in the entire sport all together on the same team — I hope over time it’s proven that it wasn’t [tainted]. But I understand the question. … Unfortunately we opened that door as a group, and that question may never be answered. We may never know.

“We’re going to have to live and move forward and be better in this sport, but unfortunately no one can really answer that question. I can’t pinpoint what advantages or what happened or what exactly would have happened otherwise, but we did it to ourselves.”

Hank Aaron thinks sign-stealing Astros players should be banned from baseball

In the interview, Hinch took responsibility for his role in the team’s sign-stealing scandal and the events as a whole.

“There’s something different about doing it on camera and putting a face to an apology and saying I’m sorry to the league, to baseball, to the fans, to the players, to the coaches,” Hinch said. “I was the man out front. I felt like it’s my responsibility to put my voice out there and tell a little bit of the story to hopefully start the next step, which is getting past this and getting into the best part of baseball, which is the players and the game.

“It happened on my watch and I’m not proud of that,” Hinch said. “I’ll never be proud of it. I didn’t like it. But I have to own it because … the Commissioner’s Office made it very, very clear, the [general manager] and the manager were in position to make sure that nothing like this happened and we fell short.”

Hinch’s full interview aired Friday, the same day The Wall Street Journal reported that an Astros front office intern developed an algorithm in September of 2016 used to steal signs from opposing catchers throughout the 2017 season and for part of 2018. The report states that Houston’s now former general manager, Jeff Luhnow, “was aware of the existence and capabilities” of the application, referred to as “Codebreaker,” which “laid the groundwork for the team’s electronic sign-stealing schemes.”

In its investigation, MLB found that Hinch neither devised the scheme to steal catchers’ signs and relay them to Astros batters via banging on garbage cans, nor participated in it. However, he did little to stop the “player-driven” scheme apart from showing his displeasure with it and MLB — saying “there simply is no justification for Hinch’s failure to act” — suspended him for one season. The Astros fired him an hour after the report was released. No players were punished by MLB even though a number of them were named in the report. Carlos Beltrán, a player on the 2017 Astros whom the Mets hired earlier this offseason as their new manager, stepped down in mid-January before managing one game.

Hinch’s attempts to stop his players from using electronics to steal signs appears limited to destroying monitors with a baseball bat, which he confirmed to Verducci. He said in hindsight he should have called a meeting to address stealing signs with the use of electronics.

“I didn’t endorse it but I was the manager and I think there’s a responsibility when you’re in a position to end it,” Hinch said. “My mind-set at that point was to demonstrate that I didn’t like it.

“In hindsight I should have had a meeting and addressed it face forward and really ended it,” Hinch continued. “ … I tolerated too much … I should have done more. I should have addressed it more directly.”

There has also been some speculation as to whether Astros players wore electronic buzzers under their jerseys to aid in their at-bats. When asked about the buzzers, Hinch neither confirmed nor denied that they were employed, instead deferring to the Commissioner’s report.

Astros try to brush off sign-stealing talk, remain confident about 2020 season

During last year’s American League Championship Series against the Yankees, Hinch responded to accusations that his team was using a system of whistling to cheat against the Yankees. The skipper was enthusiastic in his defense of his club.

“When I get contacted about some questions about whistling, it made me laugh — because it’s ridiculous,” Hinch said before Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. “Had I known that it would take something like that to set off the Yankees or any other team, we would have practiced it in spring training. It apparently works, even when it doesn’t.”

Hinch told Verducci his response at the time was his way of defending his players and was in response to 2019 only.

“I know it looks bad,” he said, “because it kind of gets blurry in the entire organization over the course of a few years. But I believed in what we were doing in 2019.”

Commissioner Rob Manfred has resisted calls to vacate the Astros’ 2017 championship, saying he was honoring the “long tradition in baseball of not trying to change what happened.”

An Astros fan created computer programs that scanned each of the Astros’ 2017 home games and found that the sound of trash can banging was a near-constant presence starting in May, though it seemed to fall off abruptly after Sept. 21, the day Chicago White Sox reliever Danny Farquhar suspected foul play by the Astros and changed his signs midgame.

Despite his one-year suspension and tarnished reputation, Hinch hopes to manage again.

“I’ll take it seriously, the fact that I’ve been suspended based on the position that I was in and what went on under my watch,” Hinch said. “And I will come back stronger for it. And I will come back a better leader. And I will be willing to do whatever it is to help the game better.

“It’s going to be up to other people to determine whether or not I’m the right fit,” Hinch said. “I love managing. I love players. I love the competition.”

Read more on MLB:

Dusty Baker hired to manage Houston Astros

Former Astros ace becomes first player to apologize for team’s sign-stealing scandal

Los Angeles City Council calls on MLB to give Dodgers 2017 and 2018 World Series trophies

MLB pitchers cheat, too. They use pine tar instead of trash cans.

Carlos Beltrán out as Mets manager amid MLB sign-stealing scandal