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The Houston Astros demonstrate how not to handle a PR crisis

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The A.L. champions are really bad at media and public relations.

Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

This story is something I don’t think anyone could make up. The Houston Astros had just won the American League pennant Saturday night. And during the chaotic scene in the clubhouse, Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman did something jaw-dropping. It was written up by Sports Illustrated reporter Stephanie Apstein:

More than an hour after José Altuve won the Astros the pennant, the party in the Houston clubhouse still raged. Rightfielder Josh Reddick was crushing vodka Red Bulls. Starter Gerrit Cole smoked a cigar. Shortstop Carlos Correa gazed lovingly at the American League championship trophy.

And in the center of the room, assistant general manager Brandon Taubman turned to a group of three female reporters, including one wearing a purple domestic-violence awareness bracelet, and yelled, half a dozen times, “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so f------ glad we got Osuna!”

The outburst was offensive and frightening enough that another Houston staffer apologized. The Astros declined to comment. They also declined to make Taubman available for an interview.

It’s worth reading Apstein’s entire article, and what happened was corroborated by several other reporters:

So. Houston’s assistant GM did something wrong, a story was written, other reporters said it was true.

What did the Astros do?

Oh, brother. This is exactly how to NOT handle a situation like this, beyond the fact that it was a lie. Reportedly, Osuna wasn’t even in the area when Taubman made his outburst. The Astros got pounded all over social media all morning about it. ESPN’s Jeff Passan summed up what the Astros did this way, late this morning:

Consider what the Astros are trying to sell. That Brandon Taubman is an extraordinarily supportive person, and that his comments were earnestly meant in support of Osuna. In what universe does that sort of person shout them in a clubhouse celebration for everyone to hear? Particularly with the knowledge of how polarizing Osuna’s presence on the team is in the first place? Taubman is an assistant general manager. He aspires to run a team someday, like his predecessors in the role, Milwaukee GM David Stearns and Baltimore GM Mike Elias. If he wanted to offer support for Osuna, he would tell Osuna, not yell it in front of reporters and cameras.

No, this was something darker. Arrogance, intimidation and a contemptible sort of nastiness. Something the organization easily could have disavowed. Instead, it tried to spin it -- and whirled itself into a corner from which there is no extrication.

This percolated for a few more hours. Sports Illustrated issued a response:

Last night, the Houston Astros released a statement calling into question the accuracy of a report by Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein on a scene she witnessed in the locker room during the Astros’ ALCS-clinching celebration. Sports Illustrated unequivocally stands behind Apstein, her reporting and the story, which was subsequently corroborated by several other media members present at the scene. Any implication that SI or any of its journalists would ‘fabricate’ a story in its detail or intent is both disappointing and completely inexcusable.

At last, early this afternoon, Taubman and Astros owner Jim Crane issued these statements:

There are several problems with those statements. First, “I am sorry if anyone was offended by my actions” is not an apology. Period. You’d think people would have learned that by now. “I am sorry” is what needs to be said. Period. Nothing more. That was a non-apology apology by Taubman. Beyond that, Taubman essentially admitted that the Astros statement from last night was wrong when he said he used “inappropriate language” that was “unprofessional.” He’s right, but from the Astros? Crickets. Crane’s statement was fine, but nowhere in that statement by the Houston owner was the Astros’ incorrect statement about Stephanie Apstein’s article apologized for.

National writers noticed:

Major League Baseball also issued a statement:

I hope that MLB’s interviews of “those involved” include talking to the reporters who all witnessed Taubman’s outburst and corroborated Apstein’s article.

Here’s a timeline of what the Astros ought to do in order to even begin to make this right:

  • Withdraw their statement made Monday night
  • Apologize to Stephanie Apstein for claiming her story was untrue
  • Apologize to anyone who witnessed the incident
  • Formally reprimand assistant GM Brandon Taubman
  • Send Brandon Taubman to some sort of sensitivity training
  • Increase their donations to local domestic violence prevention programs

That would be a good start for the Astros, who got themselves in hot water earlier this year with MLB for banning a properly-credentialed reporter from their clubhouse just because Justin Verlander didn’t want to talk to him. That was a violation of the MLB/MLBPA collective-bargaining agreement. Players don’t have to talk to reporters if they choose not to, but they don’t have the right to ask that a properly-credentialed reporter not be permitted to do his job. There have not yet been any consequences for this, to my knowledge. Houston’s had a pretty bad PR year (and I am not familiar with the first item on this list):

For her part, Apstein was hoping there would have been an apology. She told the Washington Post she might not have written her story if there had been one:

“Frankly we thought given 36 hours that someone would have apologized and then we probably wouldn’t have written the story,” she said. “Obviously they didn’t.”

She continued: “The choices were to write or not to write it. And the truth is we just want to work, as reporters we just want to do our jobs. We don’t want this to be the story. But I wrote it because it’s not right and it’s true and that’s our obligation to say things that are true and then peel back the curtain on attitudes that I think are pervasive in the game.”

She’s right. These attitudes persist, years after they should have been banished from sports forever. The Astros, though, don’t seem to have learned that lesson. It’s certainly not the way they would have wanted to begin their second World Series appearance in three years, but after failing in just about every way here, they need to.