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Excitement, angst face Cubs fans as winter winds down

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CHICAGO — Talk to a Chicago Cubs fan these days and you’re likely to find mixed emotions. That’s been the theme of the offseason right up to, and through, this past weekend’s annual winter fan convention.

Mixed emotions. Conflicting thoughts. Excitement and angst.

Those are all part of the Cubs experience right now as the calendar inches toward spring training. In the past, the Cubs signed big-ticket free agents like Jon Lester, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Yu Darvish. But this winter has been anything but big. The front office forecast early that the budget wouldn’t allow for additions like those splashes. Utility man Daniel Descalso is the lone new player on the team that’s won the most regular-season games the past four seasons but has come up short in the postseason the past two years.

“We didn’t have the flexibility this year to go ahead and sign a huge free agent and I’m not sure we would have anyway,” owner Tom Ricketts said on ESPN WMVP-AM 1000 last week in a rare interview. “We like the team we have. We have strong young guys at most positions.”

So free agent Bryce Harper would not have been on the Cubs’ radar, even with the budget for him? Not many fans believe that from an owner who has been less transparent in recent days. Ricketts canceled his annual fan forum over the weekend for the first time since buying the team in 2009. Yet team president Theo Epstein held a session with fans himself. He wanted to face the music after a disastrous end to 2018, and he did.

So there was transparency from one executive, whereas the owner claimed “low ratings” from previous years were to blame for canceling his own panel discussion. Ricketts did explain himself regarding the employment of shortstop Addison Russell, who is suspended for the first 28 games of 2019 after violating the league’s policies on domestic violence. That’s yet another topic ripe with mixed emotions, especially when you consider the Cubs won’t invite former star Sammy Sosa back into the fold until he comes clean about use of performance-enhancing drugs. For some fans, that opened the door to compare and contrast Russell’s and Sosa’s situations. Right or wrong, it doesn’t sit well that one has a job with the team and the other can’t wave to the fans at a fan convention.

Without Ricketts answering questions, without charismatic team leader Anthony Rizzo in attendance (he was on his honeymoon) and without a major new addition to the team, the headlines from the convention fell to Kris Bryant. He was openly critical of how free agency has played out again this winter, then hours later called the city of St. Louis “boring” — starting an offseason feud with the rival Cardinals. Many fans loved it, but since Bryant and his team must now back up the rhetoric, even that moment brought some mixed emotions.

Eventually, the weekend discussion returned to the field, where the Cubs failed on offense down the stretch last season and then vowed to fix what ailed them. That’s when the Harper discussion picked up, only to be quashed early in the offseason.

“The money got eaten up in a lot of ways by the guys that were coming through the [arbitration] system, and it’s not like we had a big contract roll off,” Ricketts said.

So the team turned inward, with manager Joe Maddon saying over the past few days there was more to “extrapolate” from his current group, while the front office has asked players to maximize their day-to-day prep better. After all, the Cubs won 95 games last season. Tweaking to maximize potential only makes common sense.

“You turn over every stone,” Zobrist said. “You’re thinking about ‘why.’ It’s not just that it did happen. You have to figure out why and then you have to make an adjustment and do something different.”

The Cubs also want better leadership in the clubhouse. This was supposed to be a tight group — the same that won the World Series in 2016. But perhaps it’s been too tight. Calling each other out, when needed, hasn’t been a part of the room since David Ross and Jon Jay moved on. Perhaps a full season with pitcher Cole Hamels will provide some extra leadership.

“That’s where I need to be,” Hamels said this past weekend. “That’s the role directed towards you if you play this game long enough. Being more vocal, instead of just letting it play out on the field.”

Ultimately, if the Cubs start to hit again, the rest should take care of itself. The starting staff is deeper — Darvish is healthy and seems more confident — and Epstein has found effective arms for his bullpen over the years, even if they aren’t always the biggest names. The key might simply be the Cubs’ attitude. They were once on top of the world, but the end of last season knocked them down. How they get up off the mat is how they’ll be judged moving forward. Mixed emotions and all.

“We’re a confident group,” Albert Almora Jr. said. “We just have to finish what we start. We want to send a message early on.”

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What to make of Houston Astros owner Jim Crane’s public (non-)apology

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Houston Astros owner Jim Crane’s latest attempt at damage control blew up in spectacular fashion Thursday. In the span of 27 minutes at a news conference, he claimed his team’s routine cheating during its 2017 championship season didn’t impact the game, declared he shouldn’t be held accountable for the organization he runs, used commissioner Rob Manfred’s report on the Astros’ malfeasance as a binky and so often repeated talking points that the Apology.exe program he tried to install in his head looked like it was glitching. The entire charade devolved into a glorious conflagration, Crane’s mouth a veritable fountain of lighter fluid.

It didn’t have to go this way. It wouldn’t with most other organizations. But these are the Astros, and they make Everests out of molehills. Their fall is so spectacular because their pride was always outsized, and the latest example unfolded at their spring training complex on a day that should have been more about healing than hubris.

Crane cannot help himself. He hired a crisis PR firm, according to sources, but seemed to forget the PR part. Amid his attempts at apologizing were clear signals that his contrition went only as far as his ability to absolve himself of wrongdoing. And the more Crane spoke, the more his words served as a spade, digging a hole from which he couldn’t rescue himself.

It’s best to begin with the most absurd moment of the day, in which Crane — endeavoring to explain away the Astros’ illicit use of a center-field camera to decode catchers’ signs that were then relayed via banging on a trash can to alert hitters as to the pitch type about to be thrown — said with a straight face: “Our opinion is that this didn’t impact the game.”

When pressed on what exactly he meant by that, Crane said: “I didn’t say it didn’t impact the game.” He had, of course — 67 seconds earlier, for those curious about the capacity of Crane’s short-term memory. And it did, clearly, as his team’s shortstop, Carlos Correa, would later admit.

“It was definitely an advantage,” Correa said, one of many honest decrees offered by Astros players to reporters after Crane spoke. Outfielder Josh Reddick, when asked about remorse, copped to not feeling it until The Athletic’s November story that laid bare the Astros’ scheme — a real sort of admission that follows the logical path of this scandal: Houston thought nothing of its cheating until it was caught. Redemption starts with an honest self-assessment of damage done by one’s actions, and Astros players are not irredeemable people. They cheated at a game. It is wrong, and it is disappointing, and it is unfortunate. It is a transgression with clear casualties — those whose careers were ended, livelihoods altered and lives changed. It will chase them, and rightfully so. But it is no mortal sin.

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Doug Glanville argues that the Astros’ response on Thursday to the sign-stealing scandal wasn’t enough and begs the question on how much they will actually reveal.

What’s indefensible is asking for forgiveness while not abiding by its path. Crane zig-zagged around his Thursday. His ruminations on accountability were particularly rich. He mused that Major League Baseball’s suspension and his firing of general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch served as satisfactory pounds of flesh because, though neither was responsible for implementing the scheme, both were responsible for overseeing the team’s baseball operations. Never mind that Crane, as the team’s owner, was responsible for overseeing Luhnow and Hinch.

“No,” Crane said, “I don’t think I should be held accountable.”

Such a bastion of accountability then suggested he was the one to keep the Astros on the straight and narrow going forward. Seven times he said: “This will never happen again.” When asked why someone who wasn’t taking responsibility for it happening on his watch the first time deserved the benefit of the doubt, Crane didn’t outline a plan or offer the sort of transparent answer such a benefit demands. He did what the Astros always do, which is speak in platitudes, generalities, opacity.

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“I’ll make sure I have someone that’s accountable moving forward and will be checking constantly,” he said. “We’ll have controls in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And again, if I’d have known about it, I’d have done something about it. But I’m not in the locker room. I’m not down in the dugout. So it was very difficult, and I didn’t know about it until November, just like you guys.”

I happened to be one of those guys, and I knew about it long before November. I first heard players accuse the Astros of cheating in mid-2017. For the next year, I tried to find someone who would speak about it on the record. Nobody would. The code of silence in baseball buries countless secrets.

Then came the 2018 postseason. During the American League Division Series, a man named Kyle McLaughlin, whom Crane brought into the Astros organization, was caught pointing a cell phone toward the Cleveland Indians‘ dugout from an on-field camera well. He was removed from the area. The Indians warned the Astros’ AL Championship Series opponent, the Boston Red Sox, about McLaughlin, and during Game 1 of the ALCS, he was again removed from a camera well next to the dugout.

I wrote a story about the McLaughlin incidents, and in it, I reported that the Oakland A’s had accused the Astros of relaying pitch types to batters during an August series. Further, I reported, two major league players had said they witnessed the Astros hitting a trash can in the dugout as a way to alert hitters.

Again: This was in 2018, more than a year before Crane claims he learned of the issue. The day after the story ran, Crane told another reporter to leave McLaughlin’s name out of his story. Clearly Crane knew that a story about McLaughlin had been written. Either he learned of the story’s details or avoided them altogether. The former would make him a liar. The latter would make him an owner who ignores potentially injurious information about his billion-dollar business.

For someone with such a commitment to doing things right going forward, Crane’s lack of curiosity is quite curious. When asked when the Astros’ cheating stopped, he said: “I didn’t do the investigation.” When asked about the culpability of Carlos Beltran, the player who alongside former Astros bench coach Alex Cora implemented the trash-can-banging scheme, he said: “Again, I didn’t do the investigation.” If Crane can’t be bothered during the worst cheating scandal in a century to look beyond Manfred’s report — which he referenced nine times, as if it were some sacred scripture — how, exactly, does he expect to fix the institutional rot in his organization? Crane, after all, still denies there’s a problem with the Astros’ culture. Perhaps his mirror is just broken.

The gap between words and actions is cavernous, and the Astros’ history is big on offering the former and skimping on the latter. They said they had a zero-tolerance policy on domestic violence. Then they traded for closer Roberto Osuna as he was serving a suspension for a domestic incident. They tried to smear a Sports Illustrated reporter who wrote that their assistant GM, Brandon Taubman, had punctuated a pennant-winning celebration by yelling toward a group of female reporters: “I’m so f—ing glad we got Osuna!” Then they doubled down on it before realizing what was obvious from the beginning: The report was accurate.

And here they are now, desperately clinging to this notion that they aren’t a dysfunctional mess, that Crane is indeed the person to shepherd the Astros through a period that even for the most stable organization would prove trying. He sat at a table out in the Florida sun and said that because Manfred offered players who participated in the scheme immunity from punishment by the league in exchange for the truth, they were, in his mind, absolved of wrongdoing. Those same players, minutes after Crane finished talking, conceded just how wrong they were.

“I think I’ve done just about everything I can,” Crane said.

On a day of damning words, of self-owns, of the Houston Astros doing what the Houston Astros do, this was perhaps the gravest admission of all. The burning, raging mess around him is indeed everything Jim Crane can do.

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Mariners’ Mitch Haniger undergoes second core surgery

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Mitch Haniger is recovering from a second surgery in three weeks on a core muscle injury, meaning the Seattle Mariners won’t have the veteran outfielder for Opening Day and beyond.

“2nd surgery today in the last 3 weeks,” Haniger wrote on Instagram Thursday night. “Not how I imagined heading into the 2020 season but I’m really excited to start this recovery process and build myself back up. I’ll do whatever it takes to come back even better than I’ve ever been!”

It wasn’t immediately clear how long Haniger will be sidelined. General manager Jerry Dipoto had said last month that Haniger likely needed an initial surgery and wasn’t expected to be ready for Opening Day — but that was before he had the additional procedure.

Haniger suffered the injury during an offseason workout in January. Dipoto had said the setback was tied to Haniger’s injury issues from last year, when he missed the final 3½ months of the season after suffering a ruptured testicle and then experienced back and core issues during his recovery. Haniger was limited to 63 games and batted .220 with 15 homers and 32 RBIs.

A year earlier, Haniger was an All-Star after hitting .285 with 26 homers and 93 RBIs and an OPS of .859.

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Mariners’ Mitch Haniger undergoes second core surgery

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Mitch Haniger is recovering from a second surgery in three weeks on a core muscle injury, meaning the Seattle Mariners won’t have the veteran outfielder for Opening Day and beyond.

“2nd surgery today in the last 3 weeks,” Haniger wrote on Instagram on Thursday night. “Not how I imagined heading into the 2020 season but I’m really excited to start this recovery process and build myself back up. I’ll do whatever it takes to come back even better than I’ve ever been!”

It wasn’t immediately clear how long Haniger will be sidelined. General manager Jerry Dipoto had said last month that Haniger likely needed an initial surgery and wasn’t expected to be ready for Opening Day — but that was before he had the additional procedure.

Haniger suffered the injury during one of his offseason workouts in January. Dipoto had said the setback was tied to Haniger’s injury issues from last year, when he missed the final 3 1/2 months of the season after suffering a ruptured testicle and then experiencing back and core issues during his recovery. Haniger was limited to 63 games and batted .220 with 15 homers and 32 RBIs.

A year earlier, Haniger was an All-Star after hitting .285 with 26 homers and 93 RBIs and an OPS of .859.

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