Clueless Crane

2020-08-01 JimCrane

Astros owner Jim Crane—Playing what-about-ism, implying everyone else’s fault, possibly sorry only that his boys got caught, talking to USA Today’s a still-bad look for him.

In a 1964 novel about Navy fliers in World War II, Richard Newhafer’s The Last Tallyho, a fresh group of pilots assigned to a carrier performs a target hop. One of the young men overshoots the tow plane target and hits the plane, instead, flown by their squadron lieutenant. Forcing the lieutenant to a fatal water landing.

The tow pilot happened to be the squadron skipper’s best friend. When the skipper and their air group commander face questioning by the task force commander flying his flag aboard their carrier, the latter asks the skipper why they were called in. “We’re here,” the skipper replies, “because we are responsible for what happened.”

“I don’t see it that way,” the CAG practically snaps. “No matter who did what,” the skipper rejoins, “[CAG] and I are in positions of command. When you command you accept the responsibility for what is done by your subordinates.”

Maybe Houston Astros owner Jim Crane should have read The Last Tallyho. He might have learned something about command responsibility and avoiding mealymouthed avoidance of it, the latter of which he availed himself in an interview with USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale.

Astrogate returned to the otherwise coronavirus-dominant baseball news last week after Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly threw fastballs twice behind Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and breaking balls twice making their shortstop Carlos Correa skip rope. They got Kelly an eight-game suspension and the Astros on the receiving end of fresh rounds of fury.

Remember: Commissioner Rob Manfred handed Astro players on the 2017-18 teams immunity to spill about the Astro Intelligence Agency’s off-field-based electronic sign stealing those seasons, instead of bringing the powers of his office to bear and ordering one and all to spill or be spilled. Even if the players’ union filed countering grievances, Manfred would have sent a far stronger message than a few brushback pitches.

The outrage over Kelly’s suspension was, basically, “He gets eight games for doing in essence what Manfred wouldn’t, but those guys still get off scot free?” Nobody’s justifying throwing at Bregman’s head, but the outraged are right. As a matter of fact, Nightengale asked Crane the same question, phrased a little differently. The answer may or may not surprise you.

“People are aggravated the players didn’t get suspended,’’ said the owner, “but I didn’t have anything to do with that. That was Rob’s call. Listen, it’s always going to be whatever you want to call it. A black mark. An asterisk. It happened. It’s not good for anybody. It’s not good for the game. We broke the rules. We got penalized. We were punished. There’s no doubt it weighs on all of us every single day.”

Crane seemed to say it as though he hoped that would be the end of the story. Except that it wasn’t, quite. After apologising for sounding like a fool at the infamous February spring training press conference, the subject detoured briefly toward the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, both of whom have been reprimanded for a little espionage of their own, though not quite performed the way the Astros developed it.

“I think (MLB) had a bigger problem than everybody realized,’’ Crane told Nightengale, playing the what-about-ism card. “[The Yankees and the Red Sox] were doing things and got caught, but we’re the ones who took the bullet. That’s the way it works. I’m not trying to blame anyone else. It was our problem. We dealt with it.”

Except that, after a little talk about things such as revelations about the Astros’ less than honourable front office “culture,” Crane tried to blame, well, something close enough to everyone else as well as the Yankees and the Red Sox.

“I just think everybody was paranoid that everybody was doing it,” he said. “The technology was right in front of you. We already know two others teams were doing it and got caught. But the way we were doing it, that was pretty (stupid). I mean, banging on trash cans? You could have found a better way to do it.”

“Crane’s take . . . seems to be that he and the Astros are the real victims here, and everyone else should leave them alone already,” writes NBC Sports’s Craig Calcaterra. “Really. That’s the vibe he gives off on all of this. Crane seems to believe that the Astros sign-stealing fallout is overblown and that the public’s anger mostly has to do with how Crane himself bungled the P.R.”

Crane seems indeed clueless that, except for the Red Sox’s AppleWatch incident late in the 2017 season and an extra Yankee dugout phone the same time, the AIA didn’t stop at just the technology just being “right in front of you.” Not even close.

The Red Sox’s Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring didn’t involve anyone altering a real-time monitor feed to decipher opposing pitch signs to signal to their baserunners who’d then send the pilfered intelligence to their hitters. Needless to say by now, it also didn’t depend upon having a man on base to receive the stolen signs in the first place.

It would have shocked nobody to learn that the Rogue Sox weren’t the only team to operate a similar reconnaissance ring out of the replay room. And, yes, MLB handed them the keys to the hooch hutch with the replay rooms at home and on the road. Boys will be boys, alas, and asking them to resist such temptation would have been like asking Donald Trump to give up Twitter.

But the replay room reconnaissance ringers didn’t alter ballpark cameras off their  mandatory eight-second delays or install second cameras not on the delay to send signs to a clubhouse monitor in front of which someone, several someones perhaps, decoded the signs and then banged the can slowly for the benefit of Astro hitters.

Using what’s there for a little chicanery is one thing. Altering it or supplementing it illegally is something else entirely. When a team as genuinely great as the 2017-18 Astros were takes up such subterfuge—and if you need proof they were great without the AIA (which operated in Minute Paid Park and wasn’t portable), remember that those Astros had better road than home winning percentages in both seasons—it’s well past boys being boys.

Some accuse Kelly of hypocrisy because of his membership on the 2017 AppleWatch Red Sox. Well, now. Their replay room reconnaissance ring apparently began in 2018—after they hired, what do you know, the Astros’ 2017 bench coach and (we’ve known since the Manfred Report on Astrogate) AIA co-mastermind Alex Cora to manage them. All the way to a World Series ring.

Before Manfred released his Rogue Sox findings, Kelly wondered aloud, “Whenever the investigation is done I’m interested in seeing what is in the investigation.”

If there is cheating involved with how good our team was we should have won every single out. We should have not even lost an inning if there was some good cheating involved, which would have been a lot more fun because we would have won in four. We would have swept through the playoffs and made it really, really fast and been able to go to Hawaii or go to Mexico and go on vacation a lot sooner than we did.

Known to be an erratic pitcher who isn’t shy about a little headhunting when he thinks it’s called for, Kelly inverted the old observation, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” and became a Dodger last year.

The Astros’ mealymouthed responses to Astrogate questioning as spring training opened outraged the Dodgers more than most, and enough players around the Show were outraged, because they’d been the team the Astros beat in seven to win the ’17 Series. It’s not impossible that Kelly had in mind both Astrogate and what was subsequently revealed about his former Rogue Sox when he decked Bregman and Correa.

If the Dodgers weren’t playing this year’s pandemic-inspired regional season schedule, they might have faced the Red Sox. And, inspired perhaps by a few revelations in Manfred’s Rogue Sox report and his Dodger teammates, Kelly might have sent a few messages to those 2018 Sox still on the team for tainting those ’18 Series rings.

Astroworld’s been buffeted harshly by Astrogate. It’s still tussling between those of its citizens who think the AIA was a reasonable defense against whomever else was doing illegal sign stealing and those who think their faith in their team’s greatness was misplaced or abused.

Crane hasn’t said much if anything about that yet.

Meanwhile, note once again Crane’s choice of phrasing to Nightengale: [T]he way we were doing it, that was pretty (stupid). I mean, banging on trash cans? You could have found a better way to do it. Is he saying the AIA itself was stupid? Is he saying he’s sorry only that the Astros got caught committing high crime?

“We’re sorry. We apologized. But no matter what happened, it wasn’t going to be enough,” Crane told Nightengale. “People wanted me out of baseball. They wanted players to be suspended. They wanted everything.” Setting aside that those February apologies were as non-apologetic as apologies can get, what did he expect people to want? A whitewash?



Mr. Crane, Astrogate IS about baseball

2019-11-21 JimCrane

Astros owner Jim Crane talking to the press, presumably without police protection, on another occasion.

“If you want to talk about baseball, I’ll talk about baseball,” said Astros owner Jim Crane to an inquiring reporter at this week’s owners’ meetings at Arlington’s Live! By Loew’s luxury hotel. “What else do you want to talk about?” And then two police officers shepherded Crane away.

If Crane was trying to say he wasn’t going to talk about Astrogate, here’s a bulletin for him: Astrogate is about baseball. It’s about cheating in baseball, it’s about the Astros rigging an off-field camera tied to a clubhouse television set for stealing signs, it’s about violating baseball’s specific rules against that kind of sign stealing, it’s about the likelihood that they weren’t the only such extralegal reconnaissance operation.

It’s about playing the game the right way, as former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers said outright when he blew the whistle on and the covers off the Astros Intelligence Agency last week.

If none of that is baseball, we should love knowing what Crane thinks is baseball. Or what he thinks baseball is. Either way Crane offered as bad a look as the police presence at the owners’ meetings, part of which moved him away from legitimate questioning about something that is very much baseball.

Early during the Watergate scandal, Barry Goldwater said it started to smell like Teapot Dome. Early during Astrogate, I said it started to smell like the Black Sox scandal. The references weren’t just to those scandals’ gravity but to their attempted coverups. Richard Nixon in 1973 tried to get away with saying, “One year of Watergate is enough.” Crane seems to believe almost two weeks of Astrogate are enough.

Nixon’s mistake was not demanding names, places, and heads on platters from the moment he learned about the Watergate break-in. Crane’s making a mistake if he isn’t demanding names, places, and heads on platters over Astrogate. If Manfred needed any more ammunition to take after the Astros, whom he has in his specific sights for now, Crane just handed the commissioner a loaded Uzi.

Trying to say Astrogate isn’t about baseball is like trying to say Teapot Dome—in which Warren Harding’s interior secretary Albert Fall (talk about the perfect name for the job!) sold Navy oil reserves to oil baron Harry Sinclair without formal sanction or competitive bidding—was much ado about Lipton’s Tea.

Crane would do himself and Astroworld alike a phenomenal favour if he shies away from stonewalling legitimately inquiring journalists. They’re trying only to get the answers fans who support his team and the game itself want very badly. Other teams want those answers too, even those who operated similar reconnaissance to counter the Astros or otherwise.

And if Crane wants to, he can look at it this way: They’re trying to get the answers he himself should want as the owner of a team whose game-changing success run was compromised by who knows yet how many people that couldn’t resist the temptation to just that little extra edge, whatever good it did or didn’t do, extra-legally.

The questions out of Crane’s mouth to his organisation should be, “What did you know? When did you know? And who are the wisenheimers whose brainchild this was in the first place? I want names. I want places. I want heads. And I want them five minutes ago.”

He needs to be the Astro Hoover, beating, sweeping, and cleaning. Baseball observers ask what his general manager Jeff Luhnow knew and when he knew it. Manfred already has former assistant GM Brandon Taubman under questioning for taunting women reporters over domestic violence, and don’t think for a minute Manfred won’t ask Taubman what he knew and when he knew about the AIA, too.

Another Luhnow aide, Kevin Goldstein, is liable to face interrogation over his 2017 e-mail suggestion that Astro advance scouts—enough of whom seem to have quaked at the idea—use video cameras in the stands to help develop other ways of high-tech sign stealing.

Just before Astrogate began, Crane moved his son, Jared, into the Astros’ executive suite, which meant he had to move Reid Ryan out into a lesser role. Which meant Ryan’s father, Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, leaving the Astros and saying, perhaps tellingly, “I will not be back with the club and will leave it at that.”

It’s not impossible that Manfred or his Astrogate bloodhounds have thoughts about asking Ryan if there was just a little more than a father angry about a son’s demotion prompting his departure. Especially since it happened five days before Fiers’s revelations hit the fan.

Crane doesn’t need to tell even one reporter that he’s only going to talk about baseball as if Astrogate is much ado about a spacecraft hatch. And he doesn’t need the cops to hustle him away as if he needs to be in the witness protection program.

He’s a businessman one of whose companies is involved in playing a game that millions love, in Astroworld and all over, but which has a serious enough issue that strikes at the very integrity of the game, the idea that everybody plays by prescribed rules and shouldn’t be trying extra-legal tactics to prevail in or profit from a contest or even a championship series.

That’s why the hoo-has over the Black Sox scandal (and the decade of rampant gambling/game throwing that nourished it in the first place), All-Star ballot-box stuffing (1957, on behalf of the Reds; 2015, on behalf of the Royals; others), Pete Rose’s Rule 21(d) violations, actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances (and the Selig era’s foot-dragging over it), and the ultimate confirmation (first in 2001) that The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant! in 1951.

If Crane doesn’t want to look at things that way, he can look at at it as a businessman: Astrogate stands to cost his baseball organisation millions—in fines, international bonus room, draft pick losses, whatever Manfred decides.

Any businessman cares about the health of his industry, no matter that he loves to one-up the competition at every legitimate chance. Crane should be very alarmed that similar hits could be laid upon other baseball teams running their own extra-legal espionage and compromising theirs and maybe, just maybe, the entire game’s credibility, too.

He should be alarmed likewise at Astrogate’s impact on his team’s credibility. It’s compromised. The Astros’ front office may have developed something of a reputation for ruthless lacking in people skills, but the team on the field built a reputation for dominant play by high character people, including some who were characters in the best ways. Astrogate now makes them look like shameless cheaters.

“When players discuss (off-field high-tech sign stealing) accusations,” Thomas Boswell wrote about the 1951 Giants and similar espionage, “it is with contempt in their voices, not amusement.”

A spitballer or corker can be caught by an umpire, who has the right to examine or confiscate equipment. Both teams play on the same damp base paths and inclined foul lines, even if they’ve been doctored a bit for home-field advantage.

But an elaborate system of sign stealing—with an old pro in the art of signs in a hidden space—is almost impossible to catch. Umps and foes are defenseless. The game becomes fundamentally unfair because knowing what’s coming is a big deal.

(Damp base paths? The 1962 Giants’ grounds crew turned the dirt around Candlestick Park’s first base into a swamp in a bid to slow down Maury Wills’s road running. Inclined foul lines? The 1950s Phillies’ grounds crews sculpted the third base line in Shibe Park into a ridge to keep Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn’s deft little bunts up the line from rolling foul so Mr. Putt Putt could beat them out for hits.)

Once or twice someone caught onto the Astroplot. Notably enough then-White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar, a year before his tragic in-dugout brain hemorrhage, smelling enough of a rat—when he heard the boom! boom! of the clubhouse trash can being banged, sending the stolen sign deciphered on a live TV screen to an Astro hitter—that he called his catcher to the mound to switch the signs up.

“There was a banging from the dugout, almost like a bat hitting the bat rack every time a changeup signal got put down,” said Farquhar, now the pitching coach for the White Sox’s Winston-Salem (A-advanced) affiliate. “After the third one, I stepped off. I was throwing some really good changeups and they were getting fouled off. After the third bang, I stepped off.”

Crane saying he’ll talk baseball but not Astrogate, which is about baseball whether he likes it or not, makes him look further out of touch if not completely indifferent. A police presence at the owners’ meetings looks strange enough by itself without a couple of the gendarmes shielding Crane from valid questions about a rot in his team.

Try to picture the look of police shielding NBC chieftain David Sarnoff or CBS emperor Bill Paley from questioning about the quiz show chiselings of the mid-to-late 1950s. Sarnoff and Paley may not have wanted to own the fixings on Twenty-One or The $64,000 Question, since they weren’t exactly the masterminds, but neither did they call the cops when the press and Congressional investigators finally came a-calling.

Better yet, try to picture the look of the fuzz shielding American presidents, from the incumbent on back, way back, from legitimate questioning about why they forgot there was a crazy little thing called the Constitution that doesn’t, as the somewhat notorious incumbent prefers to believe otherwise, let them just do whatever they damn well please in office.

Those looks would be terrible. And it’s a terrible look for a baseball owner whose team has won, in three seasons, three American League Wests and one World Series, got to within eight outs of winning a Second series, but now looks as though the rules against off-the-field electronic video sign stealing either didn’t apply or didn’t exist.