WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - On one side of Ball Park of the Palm Beaches, Houston Astros owner Jim Crane was deep into damage control and implausible deniability Thursday. On the day his team picked to give rehearsed remarks and canned answers to why his team cheated to win the 2017 World Series - "we feel remorse . . . I'm sorry . . . we made bad decisions . . . let's move on" - Crane couldn't stop putting his foot in his mouth.
"This didn't impact the game," he said, "and we won the World Series."
"I didn't say it didn't impact the game," Crane said, less than a minute after he'd said exactly those words in front of dozens of microphones. "It's hard to tell."
Is it cheating?
"We broke the rules. You can phrase that any way you want," said Crane who, like all his Astros, avoided the word "cheat" at all costs.
Yes, there's no better way to show good old-fashioned genuine remorse than by refusing to speak the misdeed you committed.
Crane and his team used their showcase to insist they keep their phony title and that MLB was correct not to fine or suspend any Astro. Also, we should just trust that they stopped cheating in 2018. Why? No reason at all. Just felt like stopping, even though they, you know, won the previous World Series doing it.
"Great group of guys who didn't receive proper guidance from their leaders," Crane said.
That's when I knew I shouldn't have left that barf bag on the plane.
Time after time, Astros players, at their lockers, repeated the same vague talking points with the same buzz phrases. To any tough specific question, they all said the same words: "We're not going into details today."
Could that be because the devil is in the details.
On the other side of the park, Kurt Suzuki, a Washington Nationals catcher who gave complex signs in the World Series to foil the Astros thievery, wasn't buying any of it.
"Do you think the Astros were still cheating in the '19 World Series," I asked.
"Oh, yeah, no question," Suzuki said. "We could hear it from their dugout. We heard their whistling. What are you going to do?"
What the Nats did was change their signs on every batter of the Series and sometimes within an at-bat when they sensed that a swing at a tough pitch was "so good" that the Astros cheating might have, momentarily, caught up with the Nats coding system. The Nats were never sure how well they were succeeding.
"When Max Scherzer has two strikes on you and he throws one 98 miles-per-hour near your head and you smash it - come on, nobody does that," Suzuki said.
"We got a couple of big strikeouts when their crowd was so loud they couldn't hear," Suzuki said. "The whole thing was crazy. I got messed up on signs a couple of times, had to call time and take us out of rhythm. I kept thinking, 'We have to go to the field and work early on our signs in the World Series just to stop their cheating.' It's so stupid and so wrong."
"All their players are insisting today that they didn't cheat last year," I said.
"They just got better at it," Suzuki said.
Maybe someday we'll find out if the Astros were honest about playing clean in 2019. But baseball is full of players who don't believe it. Suzuki doesn't claim certainty, but surely knows what he believes. If you aren't interested in the man calling the signals - five sets for each pitcher - whose view would interest you?
MLB's biggest problem with the Astros scandal, as well as its on-going investigation of the '18 champ Red Sox, whose manager Alex Cora was the Astros cheating coordinator as a Houston coach, is worse the doubt and conspiracy theories that now envelop MLB. If Suzuki hears whistles, sees tough pitches knocked off walls and senses cheating, the Astros long ago lost the credibility to dismiss his doubts with a simple, "We didn't do it." That's what the Astros told people inside the game as far back as 2016.
Nats reliever Sean Doolittle recalled two of his blown saves against the Astros in 2017 on homers by George Springer and Jose Altuve when he pitched for Oakland.
"I was wondering what that did to my trade value . . . I got hit around a bunch by the Astros," said Doolittle, who was soon traded to the Nats, along with Ryan Madson. Did a de-valued Doo make the two-reliever deal appealing to the Nats?
"Yeah. Maybe they don't make the trade. Maybe I'm still in Oakland," Doolittle said. "I landed on my feet, I ended up in a great spot. But for some guys, their bad outings, that was the end of the road for them. They got sent down. They never got called back up again. I think about those guys a lot."
In fact, Doolittle has thought of many of the damaging ramification of the Astros acts.
"Now . . . any time a player starts to improve or has a breakout season, any team that gets hot, there's going to be those questions: How are they doing this? Is this tainted? Are they cheating?" Doolitttle said. "Part of me wonders if you're the kind of person that's willing to do that, are you able to step back and see how that affects the integrity of the game? Can you see how it erodes public trust and fan confidence in the product that we have on the field?
"That's the kind of stuff that I'll be looking for when I see what they had to say. But they had how many months to put something together?"
Nothing any Astro said would meet that Doolittle candor threshold. Alex Bregman, after 10 minutes of "remorseful" deflections, finally got quiet, then said, "We are sorry . . . I learned about what's right and what's wrong. I've thought of this for the last four months non-stop."
Josh Reddick conceded that, at times, he asked not to get stolen signals. But when he was "struggling or facing a tough left-hander" he did. When did he first feel guilty? "Sometime in '17 it crossed our minds that it was wrong . . . But we didn't step in to stop it."
And when did he feel remorse?
"I don't know a date," he said, then paused. "When it comes out, maybe."
Unfortunately, getting caught is usually what does it. Then, in the Astros refrain of the day, Reddick said, "If we win, we shut everybody up."
No, you don't. The Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series. Seventy years later, they were still in a metaphoric cornfield in "Field of Dreams," coming out at dust to ask if they could just be allowed to play a game of baseball again.
Maybe, with time, some Astros will be more forthcoming with authentic feelings, not practiced phrases, that will show their human dilemma - most of them not $100-million stars or future Hall of Famers, just normal ballplayers caught on a runaway train with, realistically, no emergency brake available for them to pull.
For now, the Ball Park of the Palm Beaches is baseball's version of heaven and hell, divided exactly down the middle.
"We don't even know that the Astros are there unless we play them" in an exhibition game, Nats Manager Davey Martinez said of the vast two-team complex where you can go weeks without an iota of interaction between the teams.
"I can't speak on their behalf," Martinez said. "But we had a great day."