Sounds of spring won’t let Astros forget cheating scandal

MLB

Houston Astros’ Jose Altuve carries a bat as he heads out to hit during spring training baseball practice Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — These are the new sounds of spring for the Houston Astros: a fan banging on a trash can, another calling José Altuve a cheater.

That’s what greeted the Astros during their first full-squad workout at camp Monday. And with so many around baseball not ready to forgive or forget their sign stealing, this won’t be the last time they hear it.

Meanwhile, the two-time AL champions say they are focused on ignoring the noise, and hope the official start of spring training can signal a step forward for their scandal-ridden team.

“I understand the severity of the situation, I truly do,” outfielder George Springer said. “But I think … the best thing for our game to try to do and especially for us is to try to put this behind us, however that’s possible.”

The Astros have been bombarded with questions about the sign-stealing scam since arriving in Florida. A news conference last week with owner Jim Crane, Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman featuring poorly worded apologies was roundly criticized and did little to quiet the furor around the league in the wake of the scandal.

The barbs continued Monday when fans were allowed to view Houston’s workout. A man banged on a trash can while a group including Bregman, Altuve and shortstop Carlos Correa took batting practice.

Altuve, considered one of baseball’s most popular players before the scandal was revealed, quickly discovered the new norm. As he walked past a group of fans, a man yelled out, “Cheater!”

The Astros were found by Commissioner Rob Manfred to have cheated during their run to the 2017 World Series and again in the 2018 season. The investigation found that Houston used the video feed from a center field camera to see and decode the opposing catcher’s signs. Players banged on a trash can to signal to batters what was coming, believing it would improve the batter’s chances of getting a hit.

Manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for a year by MLB and subsequently fired by Crane last month. But many around the league feel that Houston’s players should have faced punishment, too and have been quick to express those feelings.

Bregman refused to respond directly to any comments about his team from players across the league.

“Everybody has the right to say whatever they want to say, and we put ourselves in that position,” Bregman said. “I think what we can do moving forward is learn and work extremely hard to regain the trust of baseball fans. We know that won’t be easy, but we feel the responsibility to do that.”

Veteran Dusty Baker was hired just before spring training to take Hinch’s place. And though he wasn’t part of the team during the scandal, the 70-year-old is front and center while the Astros try to put it behind them.

“The players know the formula on how to get there and they just need me to help direct them and navigate them through this course we’re about to take,” he said.

The Astros know they’ve become perhaps the most despised team in baseball, but are trying to stay positive and focus on their loyal fans who are still with them.

“You get different opinions,” Correa said. “When I walk around Houston people are behind us, they love us. So, it just depends what you ask.”

Houston hitters might also be concerned about getting beaned after several pitchers said they’d intentionally throw at the players they consider cheaters.

Manfred addressed the issue Sunday and said there will be no tolerance for such behavior.

“I hope that I made it extremely clear to them that retaliation in-game by throwing at a batter intentionally will not be tolerated, whether it’s Houston or anybody else,” Manfred said. “It’s dangerous and it is not helpful to the current situation.”

The Astros lauded the warning by Manfred and hope it keeps that from happening this season.

“I don’t think that’s the first time he said that,” Altuve said. “He said that multiple times and it’s (good) because that’s dangerous.”

At camp Monday, it was impossible for the Astros to ignore the fallout from their sign-stealing, and they know this season will have many challenges as they deal with it again and again.

“The most important thing is to have the trust of the guys who are in this locker room,” Springer said. “Whether we’re down, up, good, not good. That’s why this is such a family and I think we’re all going to rely on each other a lot this year.”

NOTES: Houston signed RHP Jared Hughes to a minor league contract with an invitation to big league spring training on Monday. The 34-year-old right-hander was a combined 5-5 with a 4.04 ERA in 72 games for Cincinnati and Philadelphia last season. Hughes is 29-24 with a 2.88 ERA in 524 career relief appearances.

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