The Grapefruit League facility that the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals share here, known as FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, has a new moniker this spring: home of the cheaters and the champs.
On one side of the sprawling complex are the Astros, architects of the illegal sign-stealing scheme that tainted their 2017 World Series win over the Dodgers and led to the scandal that has rocked the sport.
On the other side are the Nationals, who won all four games of a seven-game World Series against the Astros last October in Minute Maid Park.
The two story lines drew about 100 reporters and 15 to 20 television crews to the first day of workouts Thursday, but most were on the Astros side of the facility, a circumstance that irritated Washington general manager Mike Rizzo.
“One of the problems I have with it is that on opening day 2020, there’s 50 media people here and 47 were at the Houston Astros, who cheated to win a World Series, and there were three of them here with the current reigning world champions,” Rizzo said Friday. “And that’s not right.”
Rizzo used the word “cheated” several times during a lengthy meeting with reporters. He wished he would have heard it more Thursday, when Astros owner Jim Crane and the seven Houston position players from the 2017 team who benefited from the scheme tried to make amends for breaking baseball’s rules.
Crane seemed to go to great lengths to avoid the word in a clumsy attempt at an apology, and only one player, shortstop Carlos Correa, who said he didn’t want “my kids, my brother, my family members to think that it was right to cheat,” uttered it.
“The commissioner did an investigation and found that they cheated in 2017 and 2018,” Rizzo said. “Somebody has got to say the word over there: cheated. That’s important to me.
“For the sport to move on, which is what I’m most concerned about, we have to make sure that all the I’s are dotted and the Ts are crossed on this investigation before we end it. … We keep skirting around the word — and they cheated. They were found guilty of it. And I haven’t heard it yet.”
Washington pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who won 2019 World Series most valuable player honors after going 5-0 with an 0.99 ERA in six postseason starts, was too busy watching golf on Thursday to pay much attention to the Astros, but he didn’t like the way Houston dominated the headlines this winter.
“I think it’s disappointing that it becomes the talk of the offseason,” Strasburg said. “I think it kind of upsets a lot of us in this clubhouse because we did something really special and that gets overshadowed because some guys were cheating.
“That’s something they have to live with. It’s not something I would ever do because I think who you are as a person and how you play this game is so much more important than what’s on the back of your baseball card.”
A Major League Baseball investigation determined that throughout the 2017 season and for part of 2018, Houston video room staffers used a center-field camera to steal signs from the catcher, and those signs were relayed to batters in real time by banging on a trash can at the base of the dugout steps.
The Astros denied cheating in 2018 and 2019, but the Nationals were on high alert as they entered the World Series last October.
“I think it was telling,” Rizzo said, “that when we won the NL championship and we knew we were playing the Astros, we got a lot of volunteer phone calls on how to beat them and how to play them and that type of thing.”
Strasburg declined to identify specific players who contacted him or say how that intelligence was distributed to Nationals pitchers.
“But the league is a lot smaller than you think,” said Strasburg, who signed a seven-year, $245-million deal to remain in Washington this winter. “You play with guys on other teams, and it’s a tight-knit community. We all want it to be fair and to compete on an even playing field.”
The Nationals devised elaborate sign sequences in the World Series that were tougher to decode. Their catchers wore wristbands resembling those worn by NFL quarterbacks to store the information.
Though they were blown out in three losses at home, the Nationals limited the powerful Astros to three runs or less in three of their four series wins in Houston.
“Unfortunately, there are rumors that go around the league, and not for just last offseason,” Strasburg said. “You go through a bout of paranoia, but we discussed it and had a good program in place to where it was virtually impossible” to steal signs. It was nothing they saw before, and we kept it really close to the vest.”
Despite Thursday’s public acts of contrition, the Astros continue to get bashed by players around the league, with Dodgers star Cody Bellinger saying that “everyone knows they stole the ring from us,” and Cincinnati pitcher Trevor Bauer calling the Astros “hypocrites, cheaters, they’ve stolen from a lot of other people, and the game itself.”
Can the Astros do anything to regain the respect of their peers or will this stain follow them as long as they play the game?
“That’s for them to decide,” Strasburg said. “It is a game, and we’re all going to be retired, ex-major league baseball players for a lot longer than we’re [players].
“One thing we talked about going into last season was that we wanted to do everything we can to leave it all out there on the field, knowing that someday I’m going to hopefully have some grandkids and I’ll be able to sit down with them and talk about that World Series appearance and not being ashamed of it at all.”