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‘Astros’ being ditched by Little Leagues because MLB team did ‘not play by the rules’

Little Leagues across the country are dropping the Astros nickname after cheating scandal.

The Astros apologized for their sign-stealing scheme, but fallout from the scandal continues. (Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle)

Major League Baseball may have hoped that the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal would recede into history as a new season began, but outrage over the team’s behavior continues to reverberate from spring training clubhouses to the lowest levels of the sport.

Little Leagues in California, New York and Pennsylvania — the latter not far from the home of the Little League World Series in Williamsport — have decreed that their teams will not be nicknamed the “Astros” this season because, as one administrator put it, wearing that name would send the wrong message to kids.

“Our Little League pledge says ‘I will play fair and strive to win and win or lose I will always do my best,’" Bob Bertoni, who heads up Pennsylvania’s Little League District 16/31 and recommended that teams refrain from calling themselves the Astros, said in a phone interview. “We have so many teams take major league teams as their nicknames that this would not be right for us to promote someone who does not play by the rules.”

What MLB players are saying about the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal and apology

Earlier this month, California Little Leagues in Long Beach and East Fullerton banned the Astros nickname. Fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost to the Astros in the 2017 World Series, have been among the most outraged over Houston’s illicit scheme and the team’s sometimes disjointed response.

“Parents are disgusted,” Long Beach Little League President Steve Klaus told the Orange County Register. “They are disgusted with the Astros and their lack of ownership and accountability. We know there’s more to this scandal. What’s coming tomorrow? With the Astros, you’ve got premeditated cheating.”

Bertoni, a retired teacher who coaches the Hazelton Area High School softball team and has been involved with Little League for more than 40 years, said his district had been considering whether to take action when the Southern California leagues make national headlines with their decision.

“I reached out to our staff and got some feedback from a couple of them and talked to a couple of league presidents and got feedback from them, and I thought, ‘You know what? This is the right thing to do.’" Bertoni said. “We recommended to our leagues that we not idolize a team that decides to not play by the rules. It’s been met with a lot of positive feedback. Of course, some of the Astros fans don’t like it, but for the most part, it’s the right thing to do.”

The Astros fired general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch after Major League Baseball suspended both for a year. Commissioner Rob Manfred fined the team $5 million and took away its top two draft picks in both 2020 and 2021, but the team’s first title was not taken away, and players and owner Jim Crane have insisted that their championship was not tainted.

“Our opinion,” Crane said this month, “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.”

But MLB players and other sports stars have called out what they see as inadequate punishment, particularly for the players who implemented the cheating system, who were given immunity in exchange for testifying about the scheme. “Astros” may not be a widely used nickname in Bertoni’s district, he said, but this was still an opportunity for the organization to educate its players.

“We’re pretty much using it as a learning tool for our kids,” he said. “They’ve got to understand that there’s consequences for everyone’s actions. When you do something that’s not right, there has to be a consequence for that.

“Little League is part of an educational environment — little kids growing up and learning what is right and what is wrong. Besides teaching them the game of baseball, we want to teach them the game of life, too. I think that’s lacking in today’s society.”

The scandal also resonated with coaches in Western New York, where the Central Amherst Little League dropped the nickname.

“That’s just it: It’s playing fair. I think all kids inherently understand that, and the adults we have volunteering in the league encourage that,” the league treasurer, Scott Gretch, told local television station WIVB. “You know when you can lead off and when you can’t. You know when you can steal and when you can’t. You just have to live by those rules.”

For its part, Little League International has said it will not take a stance on use of the Astros nickname.

“Local Little League programs have long used Major League Baseball club names for their local teams,” it said in a statement, according to the Associated Press. “The volunteers operating those programs have the authority to name their teams, which often reflect the interests of their community and its baseball fans. This unfortunate situation has taught Little Leaguers an important lesson about playing by the rules.

Hate them all you want, but the Astros could be back in the World Series

“We value our relationship with Major League Baseball and its efforts to expand opportunities for youth baseball and softball, and the best thing that Little League International can do for MLB and the entire baseball community is to teach children how to play the sport by the rules and with a high-level of sportsmanship.”

The Astros’ scandal figures to be a topic of conversation during the Little League leaders’ East Region round table next month in Hartford, and other Little Leagues may yet follow suit.

“This is going to grow because it’s the right thing to do,” Bertoni said. “If the rest of the leagues really look at this and want to stand by what our motto says or what our pledge is, then I think a lot of the leagues will do the same thing.”

Keith Wing, the Central Amherst Little League general manager, would agree. Taking concrete action, he said, was important to his organization.

“As fans and the rest of us, there’s not a lot we can do when we see major leaguers cheat or something like that, but this is something we can do,” Wing told WIVB. “We can stand and say, hey, this is Little League. We’re not going to use the Astros. That’s the little step that we can take to show that we’re not okay with this.”

What to know about the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal

The Houston Astros engaged in an extensive sign-stealing scheme throughout the 2017 season, including during their World Series victory, and in the 2018 season, using cameras and video monitors. Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers revealed the scheme to The Athletic in November.

What is sign stealing? It’s a long-standing baseball practice in which one team tries to decode the signs of its opponent. It’s not illegal, but the way the Astros went about stealing signs is.

What’s happened since? The Astros fired manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow in January after MLB suspended both for their roles in the scheme. Dusty Baker and James Click were hired to replace them. Owner Jim Crane and several Houston players, including stars José Altuve and Alex Bregman, apologized at the start of spring training; Crane said players shouldn’t be punished.

• Read more: MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred defends his decision not to punish Astros players

How does the rest of baseball feel? Many around the league weren’t satisfied with the Astros’ apology, and some opponents have been outwardly angry, saying they’re ready to dole out justice of their own. Here’s what baseball’s stars are saying about the Astros.

Go deeper …

The Astros want to ‘move forward.’ The rest of baseball isn’t eager to let them.

This was the time for the Astros to own their cheating. Maybe they missed the sign.

Cheating ruins everything about sports. The Astros got what they deserved.

Baseball has a problem, and the Astros are only a symptom

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