WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The contrast was impossible to ignore.
On one side of FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, more than 50 reporters and photographers listened to Astros owner Jim Crane and players Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve apologize for the sign-stealing scandal that has engulfed baseball since it was revealed three months ago. It was not, by all accounts, well received.
On the other side of this sprawling complex, a grand total of seven media members (four writers, one print photographer, two videographers) watched as the World Series champion Nationals held their first “Circle of Trust” meeting of the spring as one of their 2019 anthems, “Calma,” could be heard in the background.
For one organization, this might have been the worst first day of spring training in franchise history. For the other, this was the best.
“My focus and my control is on the Washington Nationals and our players,” manager Davey Martinez said later when asked about his counterparts and complex co-residents. “We had a great day. First day (for) pitchers and catchers. I loved it.”
What wasn’t to love, at least on the south side of the facility? Everybody on the Nationals roster is healthy and participated in the first workout of the spring. Max Scherzer threw 56 pitches during a 23-minute bullpen session that lasted far longer than anyone else’s and included a few token curse words after a poorly executed pitch. Players laughed and enjoyed themselves.
But the topic was inescapable, for a host of reasons. Because the Astros share this complex. Because the Nats just beat them in the World Series in October. Because the manager Crane hired to try to clean up the mess is Dusty Baker, who three years ago was managing the Nationals right here.
So even though this day should’ve been entirely about the defending champs, it very much also was about the Astros, something Nationals players understood and accepted.
“We’re proud of what we accomplished last year, and that patch looks pretty cool on our sleeve,” closer Sean Doolittle said. “Like I said, we’re really proud of that, and we talked a lot last year about the chemistry in this clubhouse, and it feels so good to be back together again. That’s definitely the focus for us internally. So it is unfortunate that we have to answer questions about that, but there’s also questions like this being answered in every clubhouse around baseball. So we’re not the only ones getting it just because we share a complex with them.”
The reaction from this side of the building could be condensed down to a few overarching thoughts: What the Astros did was wrong, and they deserved to be punished for it; their illegal actions had major negative ramifications across the entire sport; and their players (despite being granted immunity by commissioner Rob Manfred in exchange for their honest testimony) have a whole lot of explaining to do.
Though Nationals players had only seen or read a few snippets from the Astros’ press conference and clubhouse interviews by the time their workout ended, they were acutely aware that today’s words and actions were not enough to close the book on this subject.
“They crossed the moral line and cheated, but they’ve got to answer to it,” Scherzer said. “It’s not really for us to speak for them. They need to speak for themselves. They need to talk to the fans of baseball and explain what happened.”
Because Major League Baseball’s investigation was focused on the 2017 season, and because the Nationals won the 2019 World Series, there hasn’t been any reason for anyone to worry about the validity of this most recent championship result. Given what might have been had they not rallied to win Game 7, the Nats are especially grateful right now.
“It would’ve hurt, for sure, a little more,” left-hander Patrick Corbin. “But thank god we don’t have to deal with that and we got the job done.”
The Nationals can claim to be focused only on themselves and not worry about what’s happening 1,000 feet away, but they can’t ignore the connections they do have to the Astros. Like the new reliever who donned a curly W cap today but spent the last five seasons wearing the block H on his head.
Will Harris owns a 2017 championship ring. So even though he now pitches for the Nationals, the veteran reliever couldn’t avoid addressing the Astros scandal today. Like other now-former Houston players, Harris said he wishes he had spoken up at the time about the cheating and tried to help put an end to it. Though he didn’t benefit from the sign stealing the way position players did, he wouldn’t hang them out to dry.
“We were a team, so I’m not going to separate myself from everybody who was involved,” Harris said. “I was on that team. I take responsibility for it just like every other man that was in there.”
More than anything, players are bothered that the Astros’ actions didn’t simply benefit themselves but also hurt countless opponents whose careers could have been altered by them.
Doolittle, who pitched for the Athletics during the first half of the 2017 season and gave up homers in two outings versus Houston (one of them a blown save), pointed out that those blemishes could have affected his trade value that summer. He was one of the lucky ones, though, ultimately traded to a contender that would win the World Series two years later. Others may have been demoted to the minors after a rough outing versus the Astros and never got another chance.
Point is, the ramifications of this scandal spread far and wide. And though it may not dominate the news again like it did today, it’s still going to be on everyone’s minds for a long time.
“One day of having to answer questions is not going to make this go away,” Doolittle said. “This is going to be something that they’re going to have to work really hard at to show baseball, to show other players, to show fans that they are remorseful and they do want to move on from this.
“I think in the long run, some of their actions will speak louder than words. And being sorry that you got caught and being sorry for what you did are two different things. It’s not going to go away in one day. This is going to be an ongoing process, unfortunately. This is something that all of baseball has to reckon with, and we’re all still trying to come to grips with it and process it. So it might take a bit.”