1. Crisis Communications
The fallout from the Houston Astros cheating scandal continues and believe me when I tell you that it’s going to eat up large portions of the 2020 season.
I want to talk about the latest developments because they create an uncanny parallel with some other things going on in America.
So here’s the latest: Last week pitchers and catchers reported to spring training and regular players started dribbling into Florida and Arizona. Cody Bellinger, a young Dodgers star, had some things to say about the Astros.
Oh boy. You should have a look.
Bellinger broke the players’ omerta by blaming not the Astros management, but the Astros players, too. And he singled out Jose Altuve, Houston’s best player, and said that he cheated Aaron Judge out of an MVP award.
Fact check: Possible.
Unlike my colleague/best friend Sarah Longwell, I am not an expert in crisis communications.
But let me take a stab at how Astros players should have responded to Bellinger’s criticisms: By saying absolutely nothing.
If someone from Houston felt as though they absolutely had to say something, here is a rough sketch of what they should have said:
We screwed up. We pushed the limits of competition and in doing so, we disrespected the game, the fans, and our fellow players. We know it. We own it. We’re sorry. And we’re going to play every out this year like it’s Game 7 of the World Series because we know that while we can’t go back and make different choices, we owe this game and everyone associated with it our highest respect. The best way we can make amends is by playing straight, playing hard, and showing America, one person at a time, that this screw up isn’t our defining legacy.
I mean, you could tinker with some of the verbiage, but the key point, if you’re an Astros player who cheated his way to a World Series championship and has a giant target on your back, because the players’ union makes it impossible for the MLB to discipline you, is this: Take your medicine.
You’re not going to have your trophy stripped away. You’re not going to have your contract invalidated. You’re not going to get suspended. You’ve already escaped all of the hard punishments. The only thing you have to deal with are the soft, unofficial punishments that the culture of the game can impose.
And the best way to mitigate those is to take ownership of your mistake and apologize for it.
That is . . . not what the Astros did.
Instead, here’s how Houston’s star short stop, Carlos Correa, responded to Bellinger: “You gotta shut the fuck up.”
No, really. Those were his exact words.
By-the-by, the chances of us seeing a Dodgers-Astros World Series this year are very, very good. Los Angeles is built to win the pennant and Houston’s window is still open.
If they meet in October, it’ll be like Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania III.
2. Never Give an Inch
What interests me is why Correa would respond the way he did when it’s pretty clearly against his own interests.
If you’re a player for the Astros, you just want to move on with your life: Play baseball, win games, get paid, and ride off to Cooperstown.
Correa telling Bellinger to get bent is not going to help with any of that.
In a weird way, the entire sequence of Astros reactions has been not what you’d expect. It’s gone something like this:
(1) We didn’t do it.
(2) You can’t prove we did it.
(3) Actually, everyone else is cheating.
(4) Shut the fuck up.
This sounds kind of, sort of, familiar, yes? Like a pattern we’ve seen a lot in American politics?
There are other parallels: The Astros players are going to skate on any consequences for their cheating because MLB knows that the players’ union—which is absolutely not led by a guy named Mitch McConnell—won’t allow them to be punished, just on general principle.
But a bunch of secondary characters—general manager Jeff Luhnow, manager A.J. Hinch, and the Mets new manager, Carlos Beltran—all lost their jobs and may never work in baseball again. Kind of like Michael Cohen, Roger Stone, and Paul Manafort.
Also, there’s a small anti-anti-Houston Twitter brigade on the Internet of Beefs looking to beat up on anyone who says negative things about the Astros:
WWWAAAAHHH!!!!! Cry Me A River
— HAPPY HOUSTON SPORTS FAN (@Texans71816547) February 14, 2020
You see where I’m going with this, obviously: Consciously or not—my money is on “not”—the Astros are using the Trump formula for dealing with scandal: Lie, never give an inch, accuse the accuser, and intimidate.
I wonder if this approach is something new, or if it’s just something that’s seeped into the groundwater to the point where we’re going to see it everywhere, from everybody who gets caught on the wrong side of a scandal.
That question is academic, in a sense. What the Astros will find out is that Trump can follow that playbook because roughly 40 percent of the country is a fan of his team. In baseball, Astros fans make up maybe 3 percent of the population. There just won’t be a critical mass of people willing to rally around them out of tribal solidarity.
I mentioned that the Astros players were going to be protected from any hard consequences: No suspensions, no missed pay, and Gerrit Cole didn’t miss out on any dollars as a free agent.
But baseball has a culture of soft consequences. For instance, Carlos Correa is the spokesman for Blast Motion, a great product for teaching kids how to hit. I suspect that’s not a ton of money for Correa. But I would be surprised if he keeps that deal.
There are a number of Houston players who will some day be in the running for Cooperstown: Altuve, Correa, and Verlander, for sure. Maybe this scandal isn’t enough to keep them out of the Hall. But going full-Trump in attacking their critics surely increases the chances that it might.
And then there are the beanballs. If you’re going to be in Vegas this week, may I humbly suggest that you put $100 on Houston to lead the league in Hit By Pitch numbers this year? Because that is a stone-cold, mortal lock.
In a funny way, I’m actually optimistic that baseball’s culture of soft consequences will be enough to discourage other teams from cheating in the future.
It’s depressing to think about why baseball’s culture has such a healthy immune system and America’s political culture does not.
3. More Cheaters
Wired has a typically great piece about a running vigilante who’s made a hobby out of catching people cheating on marathons:
Four years earlier, Murphy had started a website called Marathon Investigation, and recently he’d been looking at the results of the 2019 Los Angeles Marathon, which had taken place on March 24. With more than 24,000 runners competing, the LA Marathon is one of the largest 26.2-mile races in the country. It’s also a qualifying race for the Boston Marathon, the most prestigious in the United States. Murphy had been particularly interested in the results for a runner named Frank Meza.
Meza, a prominent 70-year-old doctor from South Pasadena, California, hadn’t just qualified for the Boston Marathon, he’d run an exceptional time of 2 hours, 53 minutes that day, setting a record for the fastest marathon ever run by a man his age. This stood out to Murphy; over the years, he’d analyzed race results for thousands of amateur athletes and written about dozens who had cheated in various competitions. He typically starts his probing by looking at race splits—the time it takes a runner to cover a particular segment of a course. During many races, especially big ones like the LA Marathon, radio-frequency identification chips are embedded in runners’ bibs and record when the racers run over an RFID-enabled mat. Meza’s splits were consistent, showing that for the entire race, he ran six-and-a-half-minute miles. Still, several commenters on a popular message board for running enthusiasts, LetsRun.com, doubted Meza’s result. They had posted photos in which it appeared that Meza entered the run from a sidewalk during the middle of the race, suggesting the possibility that he cut part of the course and then reentered.