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Astros say they are sorry but draw a line when it comes to questioning 2017 World Series title

“I think we had a great team,” third baseman Alex Bregman said about whether stealing signs tainted the Astros' 2017 World Series title. “I’m going to leave it at that.” (Michael Reaves/AFP/Getty Images)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — On the day they came to apologize for their past actions, the 10 holdover members of the 2017 Houston Astros each drove past a giant, three-dimensional Astros logo on a grassy berm outside their stadium, below which were the words, “2017 World Champions.” They walked through hallways decorated with framed, three-foot-high photos of their most glorious moments: greeting each other at home plate after a homer, sprinting to the mound for a post-clinch scrum, lifting the World Series trophy over their heads.

And when the moment came to stand in front of reporters and put their remorse on display, the Astros did so in tones that veered from scripted and mechanical to heartfelt and honest. Without ever saying the words “scheme” or “sign-stealing” or “cheated,” they copped to the basics: They had made bad choices. They had broken Major League Baseball’s rules. They were sorry.

“The reality is we are remorseful,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “We feel sorry. I don’t even want to think about what happened back then, because it was straight-up wrong.”

But if the Astros’ one-day apology tour, held Thursday at their spring training complex at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, felt unsatisfying to an outsider, it was in part because of the invisible line the Astros refused to cross. They would admit what they did — stealing signs from opposing catchers using a center field camera and a video monitor — was wrong. Some would even acknowledge they gained an advantage through it.

But they would accept no insinuation that their 2017 championship was in any way tainted.

“Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, and in my opinion it’s not,” outfielder Josh Reddick said. “[The title] is here in Houston to stay.”

The world just learned of the Astros’ cheating. Inside baseball, it was an open secret.

Astros owner Jim Crane, in a brief news conference that preceded the player availability in the clubhouse, set the tone for this stance. It was Crane who, in the wake of MLB’s Jan. 13 investigative report into the electronic sign-stealing scheme the Astros were found to have used in 2017 and 2018, took MLB’s one-year suspensions of manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow one giant step further by firing both.

On Thursday, Crane took a defensive stance when questions turned to the legitimacy of the Astros’ title.

“Our opinion,” Crane said, “is that this didn’t impact the game. We had a good team. We won the World Series, and we’ll leave it at that.” Asked whether what the Astros did amounted to cheating, Crane said: “We broke the rules. You can phrase that any way you want.”

Crane also defended the system of discipline, as meted out both by MLB and Crane himself, that fell squarely on the team’s brain trust but no one else. Asked whether he should have been held accountable himself as the team’s top official, Crane said: “No, I don’t think I should be held accountable. I’m here to correct it. And I’m here to take this team forward.”

Then, when asked whether players should have been disciplined for their roles: “Our players should not be punished. There are a great group of guys who did not receive proper guidance from their leaders.”

Crane’s absolution of everyone except those who already have paid for the Astros’ sins underscored the glaring limits of the apologies offered Thursday. The lack of specifics and the lack of introspection made it sometimes seem as if the Astros were reading from a list of talking points.

“Today,” third baseman Alex Bregman said, “was about apologizing and saying I’m sorry and moving forward as a team and as an organization.”

They would apologize, but they couldn’t say specifically what for. They said they were remorseful, but they couldn’t say whether they felt remorse as the scheme itself was occurring.

“Everyone learned a lot from this,” Bregman said. But what did he learn, he was asked? Bregman stammered, then offered a vague word salad. It gave the distinct impression the Astros were not remorseful so much for the cheating they perpetrated but rather that they had been caught.

Asked whether the players knew what they were doing was wrong at the time, second baseman José Altuve said: “Yeah, kind of. That’s why we feel bad.”

The Astros diverged somewhat over the question of how much of an advantage they gained through the sign-stealing scheme. Reddick would not admit that it gave him an edge — “I can’t really say it did [or] it didn’t,” he said — and said he felt no need to reach out to opponents the Astros beat along the way to the 2017 World Series title.

Why not? “I think it goes back to it not being a tainted championship. We were still a good team,” Reddick said. "[The scheme] wasn’t the necessary point of us winning. We still won on the road as well.”

Correa, by contrast, owned up to the advantage that individual Astros hitters gained through the scheme.

“It’s an advantage. I’m not going to lie to you,” he said. “If you know what’s coming, you get a slight edge. And that’s why people got suspended and people got fired because it’s not right. It’s not right to do that. It was an advantage. But . . . it’s not going to happen moving forward.

Correa said when he sees players on other teams who may have been victimized by the Astros’ scheme, he will apologize in the same way he did to reporters Thursday. “We affected careers. It was bad,” he said.

“There are things in this game we can all hang our hat on. And the respect of your peers is one of the biggest,” outfielder George Springer said. “For the guys who are obviously upset, I understand.”

The Astros’ group apology came on the day pitchers and catchers conducted their first workout of spring training. Manager Dusty Baker and General Manager James Click, both freshly hired from outside the organization, took far more questions about a scandal they had nothing to do with than about the 26-man roster they are charged with constructing for 2020.

“They’ve learned their lesson,” Baker said of his new players. ” … The only way to achieve forgiveness is to apologize for what you’ve done wrong, and we’ve apologized for what we’ve done wrong.”

The 10 Astros remaining from the 2017 team — some of whom, as position players, weren’t required to report to camp until next week — all converged Wednesday night at the stadium for a meeting with Crane and other team officials. It was the first time they had all been together since the story broke in the Athletic in mid-November, less than two weeks after the Astros lost the 2019 World Series to the Washington Nationals. Every player was given a chance to speak.

“The energy in that room was great,” Bregman said. “Everyone was remorseful. People voiced their opinions.”

What is sign-stealing? Making sense of Major League Baseball’s latest scandal.

Judging from the players’ answers to reporters’ questions, it wasn’t difficult to figure out the talking points the players were given. They refused to discuss details of their scheme. They repeated certain words and phrases: I’m sorry. Remorseful. Learned from this. Moving forward.

They also uniformly denied that the scheme continued into 2019 or that it at any time included the use of wearable devices — or buzzers — to tip off batters as to which pitch was coming, as has been alleged.

But occasionally a player would be tripped up by an unexpected and artfully phrased question — such as when Reddick, in a small group of reporters, was asked whether the scheme had been worth it.

“Was it worth breaking the rules? I don’t think so,” he said. “I think it’s a matter of, number one, we were a good team. It’s hard to say whether it was worth it or not, because you did break the rules and here we are talking about it. So it’s definitely something that we’re probably going to regret for the rest of our careers.”

Then an Astros public relations official broke up the scrum, and Reddick returned to his locker, now and forever a World Series champion.

Sam Fortier contributed to this report.

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