WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It was a pretty quiet Wednesday morning at the Fit Team Ballpark of The Palm Beaches. Birds chirped. Trees rustled. There was the soft hum of lawn mowers, and the harsh hum of leaf blowers, and the occasional bangs of last-minute construction.
But it won’t be still here for long. Starting Thursday, the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros will share a facility for another spring. That’s when media will be permitted into clubhouses, questions will begin, and the Astros will either atone or not atone for the sign-stealing scandal that has rocked the sport. Meanwhile, across the parking lot, the Nationals will be asked about the Astros, the team they beat in the most recent World Series, and, fittingly, is now led by their former manager.
So, on one plot of land, we’ll have the defending champs, the disgraced champs, the club that lost to the defending champs, and the manager, Dusty Baker, who was fired for not leading the now-defending champs to a title three years ago. It should make for an interesting time.
By 9 a.m. Wednesday, there were apparent differences between the two spring trainings. Pitchers and catchers reported for both the Nationals and Astros. No media were permitted past the entrances. But while the Nationals’ parking lot was silent, and only half-filled by cars, the Astros’ was staked out by a small crowd of reporters. ESPN had a camera crew. Two photographers snapped photos of every car that passed. Who was behind the tinted windows became a guessing game.
ESPN reported Tuesday that the Astros and owner Jim Crane will meet to plan a public response. Their first attempt, at a team event in mid-January, showed little remorse and was devoid of the word “sorry.” Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, George Springer and José Altuve, all hitters who participated in an elaborate electronic sign-stealing scheme, will now have another shot to apologize.
Their former teammates are beginning to do so. Marwin Gonzalez did at Minnesota Twins spring training Tuesday. Dallas Keuchel, a pitcher who did not benefit from the sign-stealing, was remorseful after joining the Chicago White Sox this winter. Former Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who was fired in the wake of the league’s investigation into the Astros, recently did a sit-down interview with MLB Network. Next up are the remaining stars.
It is expected that those players — Bregman, Correa, Springer, Altuve — will address the media Thursday, all while the Nationals are just a few long tosses away. Baker will, too, only three springs after he worked across the way. It is also expected that a smattering of national baseball reporters will be there, and Twitter feeds will light up with every word muttered in the Astros’ clubhouse.
Yet it would be silly to suggest that there will be any tangible tension between the Nationals and Astros. No one is happy with the Astros right now, the Nationals included, but they only see each other during exhibitions inside the facility’s main ballpark. The practice fields are totally separate, so is the parking, and the Nationals, having won the World Series, do not feel slighted by the Astros’ practices. MLB’s report covered 2017, the Astros’ championship season, meaning the Los Angeles Dodgers lost a title while the sign-stealing was in full swing. It would be more awkward if they, not the Nationals, trained in West Palm Beach.
Will Harris joined the Nationals in January, and was in the Astros’ bullpen from 2015 to 2018. He is the one Washington player with a connection to the sign-stealing scandal, but only in that he was on the team while it happened. He did not benefit as a reliever. He will discuss the 2017 title in the coming days, whether he feels it is tainted, and what he knew at the time. The other Nationals will be asked for a broader view of the Astros, what this means for the sport, and how sufficient the league’s response was, or if they think it was sufficient at all.
These are the questions ringing throughout baseball, when there is supposed to be unspotted excitement for a new year. There will be a point, however far from now, when the focus will shift to the field. The Nationals and Astros open their spring training schedule on Feb. 22. The Nationals will open their season in New York on March 26. But it will take a bit for that shift to happen in West Palm Beach.
On Wednesday, on the eve of the teams’ first workouts, there were ropes set up to keep media away from the Astros’ parking lot. On Thursday, once those workouts begin, it will get a lot harder to hide.