Nationals v. Astros: Sign-stealing in the stands, a rainout, and an apology

WEST PALM BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 22: Victor Robles #16 of the Washington Nationals heads to the dugout in the second inning for a rain delay during the spring training game against the Houston Astros at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on February 22, 2020 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
WEST PALM BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 22: Victor Robles #16 of the Washington Nationals heads to the dugout in the second inning for a rain delay during the spring training game against the Houston Astros at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on February 22, 2020 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images) /

There is something amusing about the Nationals facing the Astros in their first spring training match. Amusing, and troubling.

Oh, the censorial irony. Washington Nationals fans bent on hoisting a pair of Houston Astros-zapping signs for the Nats-Astros exhibition opener in West Palm Beach Saturday night had their signs stolen.

The Astros and the Nats share a spring complex, of course. With the Astros designated the home team for Saturday’s exhibition, ballpark personnel decided that the Astros didn’t need to open the exhibition season having their high-tech cheating signed the old-fangled way.

They must have been relieved when the game was called after a ninety-minute rain delay and two innings were played. They wouldn’t have to listen to seven more innings worth of brickbats and backlash.

What on earth did they expect—Nationals fans hoisting placards, banners, and other bric-a-brac with messages of forgiveness? Sure, the Nats outwitted the Astros in the World Series, but expecting opposing fans not to be cruel to be kind to the nice, chastened Astros is rather like expecting this year’s presidential candidate debates to resemble a quiet chess match.

It’s open to debate whether the Astros opened with a starting lineup full of prospects who had nothing to do with the Astro Intelligence Agency two years ago. Some will think the Astros wanted their remaining black bat jobbers out of the line of fire to open the exhibition season. Some will think the Astros, like several other teams, wanted an early and often look at prospects of all shapes and sizes.

Nationals starter Max Scherzer didn’t see anything conspiratorial about it. “You want to face the best,” Max the Knife told reporters. ”They’re a great lineup but I get it, it’s early in the spring, you’re not going to see them.”

More Nationals. Nationals won't stop the dance. light

But unless they’re festooned with obscenities there’s no purpose to stealing signs from fans bent on telling the Astros just what they think about high-tech cheating of the AIA variety. They pays their money and they takes their choice (thank you, Mr. Huxley) and they’re entitled to boo, heckle, razz, or show them all the colourful critique their hearts desire.

Two young men held signs up from behind the Astros’ dugout. As graphic arts, they didn’t exactly feature the greatest application of lettering, but for sentiment, there was nothing terribly out of line with one sign reading, “You see my hate?” and the other saying, merely, “Houston”—with an asterisk under the letters.

The signs went up as the Astros walked off the field following the pre-game playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That’s when a young lady working in the ballpark decided to play censor. She approached, planted her feet firmly, said, “Goodbye, signs,” and took the two crude but comparatively benign signs from the two creators and carting them off cradled in her arms. Almost as if she thought she was rescuing a baby from a pair of incompetent parents.

The censorship went only so far, thank God and His servant Jim Bouton. A group of fans wearing T-shirts saying, “Bang foul poles, not trash cans,” an apparent reference to Howie Kendrick‘s ringing two-run homer in Game Seven, went unmolested.

So did assorted fans banging on metal seats, mimicking the trash-can banging by which AIA operatives relayed the televisually stolen signs to Astro hitters in ’17 and parts of ’18. So did the scattering of fans hollering the gamut from “You suck!” to “Cheaters!” until the rains came. So did those singling out such Astros as Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Lance McCullers, Jr. for a little freewheeling verbal abuse.

And yet the Nationals and the Astros tried their best to play a baseball game while they could. Scherzer—who pitched Game Seven on less than fumes after a Hail Mary pass of a cortisone shot for the howling neck and shoulder—pitched two scoreless with three strikeouts and got to stomp around the mound as is his custom after the strikeouts.

New Astros manager Dusty Baker got his chance to play becalming philosophical father figure, too. “You’ll probably get the same reception most places you go, especially the first go-round,” he told reporters after the game was declared rained out. ”So, you’ve just got to put your big-boy pants on and then just try to shut it out and just play baseball and realize this too shall pass.”

It may take a very, very, very long while before that, too, shall pass. The Astros won’t be allowed to live Astrogate down for a very long time. Possibly not until after the roster turns over further, their current stars have either moved on or retired, and the front office overhaul (assuming one is continuing) is complete. It’s to lament for the young Astros vying to make the team, the ones who had nothing whatsoever to do with the AIA’s subterfuge.

And it’s not going to be a great look if the Astros can’t or won’t stop their ballpark personnel from censoring opposition fans traveling to Astro home games to heckle them. Any more than it’s been a great look for other teams doing likewise.

Like it or not, the price of a ticket includes razzing rights. You can’t just make a policy saying, “You can’t let our techno-cheaters have it—only we can let our techno-cheaters have it!”

Owner Jim Crane, who wasn’t exactly the epitome of forthrightness at that embarrassing spring training-opening presser, was anything but circumspect when e-mailing Astros season-ticket holders, an e-mail posted aboard Twitter Saturday afternoon.

“People in our organization broke the rules,” Crane wrote. “We were wrong, and we let you down. I want to reiterate what I said to you on January 13th—I am very sorry . . .

” . . . Our actions have left an indelible mark on baseball,” he continued. “I want to assure you that I recognize the impact to our fans and to the game of baseball. I promise you that, as hard as I worked to rebuild the Astros into a championship caliber team, I will work even harder to repair our reputation . . . We ask that you forgive us and that you continue to support our players and this organization.”

Next. Howie Kendrick and the test of time. dark

Now, why the hell couldn’t Crane or his players have said even that at that non-apologetically apologetic presser?