Anatomy of an Apology

Anatomy of an Apology

January 26, 2020 0 By Dan Freedman

About ten days ago I was on the phone with a friend when I got an alert on my computer that Carlos Beltrán and the Mets had agreed to part ways. One can parse that statement any way they want, but there is simply no denying that Beltrán was fired…before he managed a single game for the club. How very “Mets”.

My friend was devastated. It turns out that his son is a massive Carlos Beltrán fan; he even has a Beltrán bat framed in his bedroom. He didn’t know what to tell his son, how to break the news.

We were on the phone for a bit – long enough for Beltrán’s statement to be issued. I quickly read it and reported back that this was an easy one. Based on Beltrán’s own words, you can easily explain to your child that actions have consequences, that one must own their mistakes, apologize for their behavior, and vow to be better. In short, Beltrán’s statement covered all the bases. As poor as his decision to cheat, was how great his expression of regret.

“Over my 20 years in the game, I’ve always taken pride in being a leader and doing things the right way, and in this situation, I failed. As a veteran player on the team I should’ve recognized the severity of the issue and truly regret the actions that were taken. I am a man of faith and integrity and what took place did not demonstrate those characteristics that are so very important to me and my family.

“I’m very sorry. It’s not who I am as a father, a husband, a teammate and as an educator. The Mets organization and I mutually agreed to part ways, moving forward for the greater good with no further distractions. I hope that at some point in time, I’ll have the opportunity to return to this game that I love so much.”

Beltrán’s apology was all the more shocking (and heartening) because we have not seen that level of self-awareness in the recent past. Time and again athletes and executives do wrong, and time and again they fail to show the proper contrition. But not Beltrán. He may have lost his right to manage (for now), but he hasn’t lost his moral authority. This is an “A+” example of a proper apology; it is a confession we can share with our kids as a learning tool; and a model that others caught in the crosshairs would be wise to follow.

Now, contrast Beltrán’s words with the various and sundry apologies and non-apologies we have heard in the past few months:

Here is Jeff Luhnow, the suspended and now-fired GM of the Astros (condensed for brevity, the emphases are mine):

“I accept responsibility for rules violations that occurred on my watch…I apologize to the Astros organization, Astros fans and the Houston community for the shame and embarrassment this has caused…

I am not a cheater. Anybody who has worked closely with me during my 32-year career inside and outside baseball can attest to my integrity…I did not know rules were being broken…I did not personally direct, oversee or engage in any misconduct: The sign-stealing initiative was not planned or directed by baseball management; the trash-can banging was driven and executed by players, and the video decoding of signs originated and was executed by lower-level employees working with the bench coach. I am deeply upset that I wasn’t informed of any misconduct because I would have stopped it…”

The statement started well, with Luhnow owning the issue. But it quickly devolved into a “not my fault” recitation. This reeks of a “I am only apologizing because it is the *right* thing to do, but not because I am truly sorry” proclamation. He had the memo from the Commissioner; he spent time in the clubhouse and in the dugout. He knew or should have known what was happening over the course of two seasons. In this case, less would have been more. He could and should have ended the statement at “integrity,” and he would have received an “A”. As it stands, this is a “C+” at best.

AJ Hinch, the suspended and now-fired manager said the following (again, condensed with my emphasis):

“As a leader and Major League Manager, it is my responsibility to lead players and staff with integrity that represents the game in the best possible way. While the evidence consistently showed I didn’t participate in the sign stealing practices, I failed to stop them and I am deeply sorry.

“I apologize to Mr. Crane for all negative reflections this may have had on him and the Astros organization. To the fans, thank you for your continued support through this challenging time – and for this team. I apologize to all of you for our mistakes but I’m confident we will learn from it – and I personally commit to work tireless to ensure I do.”

This one is a little tricky in that Hinch was punished for essentially turning a blind eye to his coach’s and his team’s behavior. He certainly seemed to own his mistake, but he cannot help but add a little “but it wasn’t me” in there, which does take away a smidge of the repentance. Throughout the various Astros scandals, Hinch has been a voice of reason and remorse, so it was just a bummer that in trying to take the fall, he also had to try to clear his name. That said, this is still an “A-”.

Speaking of other Astros scandals, we all remember the case of Brandon Taubman. When he finally had to admit his wrongdoing, this is what he offered:

“This past Saturday, during our clubhouse celebration, I used inappropriate language for which I am deeply sorry and embarrassed. In retrospect, I realized that my comments were unprofessional and inappropriate. My overexuberance in support of a player has been misinterpreted as a demonstration of a regressive attitude about an important social issue. Those that know me know that I am a progressive and charitable member of the community, and a loving and committed husband and father. I hope that those who do not know me understand that the Sports Illustrated article does not reflect who I am or my values. I am sorry if anyone was offended by my actions.”

Did he really end this with the “I am sorry if anyone was offended by my actions” bromide? He knows people were offended. He said it to offend. Criminal law has the concept of mens rea (the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing). By all accounts, Taubman had the sufficient mens rea to be guilty, so his many-days-too-late non-apology simply doesn’t cut it. Only if you get points for trying will he earn a “D-”.

In the days after the Taubman clubhouse incident, not only did the Astros not apologize to the women affected, they attempted to obfuscate and impugn the reputation of a well-respected journalist. When the story became too large and too well known to slip under the champagne-soaked rug, after a five-day delay, Astros owner Jim Crane said the following:

“On behalf of the entire Astros organization, I want to personally apologize for the statement we issued on Monday October 21st. We were wrong and I am sorry that we initially questioned your professionalism. We retract that statement, and I assure you that the Houston Astros will learn from this experience.”

Rare is the captain of industry who can utter the word “wrong,” so Crane gets kudos for doing so. But even what appears to be a full-throated and well-meaning apology falls short. Crane, while acknowledging his organization questioned writer Stephanie Apstein’s professionalism, never acknowledges that what she wrote, and what the team denied for nearly a week, was absolutely correct. That would have gone a long way toward healing the wounds inflicted by the Astros’ callous indifference to the facts. Crane is a billionaire; he is a leader in at least three major business fields (energy, shipping, professional sports); the bar for him is considerably higher. So his statement gets a “B-”.

Last week, the Astros held their annual FanFest, and reporters, as they are wont to do, asked Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman about the sign-stealing scandal.

Altuve didn’t try to apologize. His simply said: “I think the time to comment about that will come. It’s a little too early for me.” Maybe that is genuine. Maybe the impact of the entire saga has been too much for him to process in such a short space of time. Maybe he just isn’t ready to discuss the topic, and will do so when the team gets to Spring Training next month. Personally, I find it weak and a bit cowardly, but it is too soon to tell. I give this an incomplete, with his ultimate apology grade TBD.

But Bregman is a whole other story. He didn’t even bother. He showed disdain for the entire process. On at least six different occasions, in response to various forms of questions, Bregman said the following: “The commissioner made his report, made his decision, the Astros made their decision, and no further comment on it.”

Like an automaton, Bregman could not even conjure an original thought. He would not address the press, the fans, or the 725 non-Astro MLB players (many of) whom feel like he and his teammates cheated their way to two pennants and one World Series title. This is an “F”.

A fish rots from the head down. Jim Crane set the tone for this club with his lies and then delayed response to the Taubman incident. Jeff Luhnow learned from his boss, as did AJ Hinch, and each tried to give the appearance of contrition while attempting to salvage his own reputation by throwing trusted colleagues under the team bus. So it is not shocking that players raised in the organization chose not to confront the issue with at least some level of regret; without at least giving lip service to the damage they have wrought.

I have often wondered who is providing advice to these athletes before they get in front of a microphone so woefully unprepared. And then I got an answer. In an interview withThe Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, uber-agent Scott Boras offered us the following pablum (among many other nonsensical thoughts):

“But to suggest players make a team apology … the reality of it is that the apology from the people who had notice, not from the people who didn’t have notice. And the people who are responsible for providing notice. That’s who the apology should come from.”

Boras had the temerity to state that if the players knew what they were doing was wrong, they would have stopped. Despite the fact that the players hid the monitors, and despite the fact that the Commissioner’s Report states that there was “panic” in the Astros’ dugout when White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar seemed to be on to the scheme, Boras wants us to believe that all participating players thought this entire arrangement was on the up-and-up, just because a bench coach was in on the caper. He doesn’t really believe we are that gullible, does he?

Boras loves an analogy, and he tried this one out: A man driving 55 in a 35 MPH zone only knows he is speeding if the law is clearly posted. Fair enough…on Route 66. The argument holds considerably less water if that man is driving through your local neighborhood. These guys have been playing baseball their whole lives; they are grown-ass men; they know right from wrong. And they chose wrong to achieve a competitive advantage. Trying to blame this on a lack of signage in the clubhouse is at best, hogwash, and at worst, utter and complete bullshit.

But, keeping with Boras’ theme, the Astros players didn’t even need to formally apologize (though Dallas Keuchel chose to do so). I am no crisis counselor, but it seems they really would have helped their cause if, when confronted by intrepid reporters, they said something like this:

“We regret that the Commissioner’s Report has cast a pall over our team and our organization. 

“Our number one goal is to restore the faith and earn back the trust that our fans and the MLB community preciously had in us. We are going to work hard every day to bring a championship back to Houston and prove to the world we are not who was portrayed in that report. 

“Whoever our next manager is, we will make him, our fans, and especially the kids who look up to us, proud of the Houston Astros.”

This doesn’t seem that hard. Bill Plaschke wrote another article claiming that the Astros lack of apology is an affront to the Dodgers. I respectfully disagree. It is an affront to the entire game, from within and without. This will not just go away – as Astros players will learn in each park they visit this season – just by burying their collective heads in the sand. This mark – this asterisk – will linger until fans and players alike feel justice has been done and/or proper remorse has been shown.

“I’m sorry” are two of the hardest and two of the most productive words in the English language. Maybe they can learn them deep in the heart of Texas.