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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Cheating Astros will feel the wrath of fans and opposing players

Owner Jim Crane of the Houston Astros reads

Owner Jim Crane of the Houston Astros reads a prepared statement during a press conference on Thursday in West Palm Beach, Florida. Credit: Getty Images/Michael Reaves

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.

It really didn’t matter how many times the Astros said they were sorry during Thursday’s staged apology session for trash can-banging their way to the 2017 World Series crown.

No one wants to hear any of it. And frankly, their manufactured show of remorse doesn’t change a thing.

These Astros have been permanently rebranded as cheaters, and that kind of stain tends to stick. Who were they talking to, anyway? Certainly not the Yankees or Dodgers, two teams that were robbed of legitimate title shots by some high-tech skulduggery and a few whacks to a garbage barrel.

If the Astros believe their reputations can be restored with a few somber-faced mea culpas, or even another winning season, they’re mistaken.

Team owner Jim Crane tried to get the spin party started Thursday by being the first at the microphone, but he would have been better off sticking to a statement.

Crane already had sacked general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, the dominoes that led to the firings of Alex Cora in Boston and Carlos Beltran in Flushing. But in pardoning his own players — in a player-driven scheme, according to commissioner Rob Manfred — Crane doesn’t get to claim the moral high ground.

And despite being worth $2.5 billion, Crane still can’t craft his own reality, as hard as he tried Thursday. He actually had the gall to suggest that the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme, which told his players what pitches were coming, “didn’t impact the game.”

Crane also should brush up on his vocabulary. When asked if what the Astros did was cheating, the owner avoided using the “C” word.

“We broke the rules,” Crane said, “and you can phrase that any way you want.”

The Astros should get comfortable with the term, because they’re going to be hearing it a lot. At every stadium that isn’t Minute Maid Park, and during the more hotly competitive moments, probably from opposing players, too.

They can only hope that’s the worst of it. Given the furious reaction throughout the league, it’s certainly possible that teams will seek some sort of retribution.

“Every team is going to handle it in their own way,” Carlos Correa said. “It’s baseball. I really don’t know what to say when we’re on the road. We’ll see what happens. But at the same time, we’re going to be focused on winning games.”

That won’t be so easy. Not with this following them around. The Astros had no trouble bonding together Thursday in the sanctuary of their own clubhouse, but there’s going to be some serious anger waiting for them between the lines.

“Once the season starts, we go back to worrying about what we can do, what we can control,” Josh Reddick said. “They’re going to do what they feel is right, whether it’s speak out to the media or take things into their own hands.

“We’ve heard all kinds of comments from people. But they can handle it how they want to and then we’ll get it together as a team, and when that time comes, we’ll handle it the way we see fit.”

Reddick sounds as if he has an idea of what’s coming, and the Astros are smart enough to realize the battle brewing. But it’s simpler to win games than a fight against public perception. From here, anything the Astros accomplish will be met with skepticism, or ripped for their cheating DNA. And deservedly so.

People tend to get second chances for making mistakes. Cheating, however, is a different animal. It colors everything going forward, no matter how many times you apologize. The Astros seemed to sense that during Thursday’s repeated attempts.

“We’re gonna have to have each other’s backs this year,” Justin Verlander said. “It won’t be easy, but in the end, the play on the field will speak for itself and I hope that we make the baseball world proud and we make Houston proud, too.”

Houston may be ready to side with Verlander. The baseball world? Not so much. Every day it seems as if another player or manager is spitting venom at the Astros, from Scottsdale to Tampa, and that’s only going to intensify when they’re across the field. They’ve cost people championships, jobs and potentially millions of dollars. That isn’t shrugged off so easily.

“We feel really bad for possibly ruining careers,” Correa said. “And having that advantage by using technology, that’s not what we stand for in this organization. We’ve got to right our wrongs.”

Correa, to his credit, was the most sincere in his apology. At least he admitted a clear benefit from the cheating, which the others refused to do.

It may not make a difference. Correa will be wearing an Astros uniform this season, which in the court of public opinion is now the equivalent of a prison jumpsuit.

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