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story.lead_photo.caption Houston’s Dusty Baker is the oldest manager in the major leagues at 70. The Astros, whose 2017 World Series is tainted by a sign-stealing scam, are trying to become the first team to win 100 or more games in four consecutive seasons.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Baseball returns to the field next week when pitchers, catchers and cheaters report to spring training.

Fans await the annual scenes of favorites stretching on bright green grass in Florida and Arizona.

This year the players bring along controversy -- the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros have been tainted by their sign-stealing scam and the 2018 champion Boston Red Sox have been accused of similar subversion.

Teams hope once workouts start, the stain will fade.

"I think those stories lines will weave in and out, but that spring training is that juncture for individual fan bases to be optimistic about what the season ahead holds and it shifts back to that," Toronto Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro said. "There's a natural kind of rhythm to spring training that diverts to the positive stories."

But first, confessions?

Some regard baseball's blemish from sign stealing as vivid as the acne on the backs of steroids-swelled sluggers of the 1990s and early 2000s.

None of the current members of the Astros have publicly expressed contrition for breaking prohibitions against using a video camera to swipe signs from opposing catchers in 2017 and 2018. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said spring training might be the appropriate time for a group mea culpa because fessing up individually during the offseason "could be sort of a treacherous road to go down."

Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, now with Oakland, sparked the scandal in November when he went public in an interview with The Athletic. He took down 10% of major league managers and became for some an MVP -- Most Virtuous Player.

Houston Manager AJ Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for the season by Major League Baseball on Jan. 13, and the pair were fired by the Astros later that day. Manfred's conclusions led to the departures of Boston Manager Alex Cora, the Astros' bench coach in 2017, and new New York Mets Manager Carlos Beltran, Houston's senior player during the title run.

A third of the teams changed managers, including the Mets twice. Milwaukee's Craig Counsell, hired in May 2015, already is the National League's senior skipper. New faces include Dusty Baker (Astros), Joe Girardi (Phillies), Gabe Kapler (Giants), Joe Maddon (Angels), Mike Matheny (Royals), Luis Rojas (Mets), David Ross (Cubs), Derek Shelton (Pirates) and Jayce Tingler (Padres), with the Red Sox yet to announce Cora's successor.

Baker, at 70 the oldest big league manager, is tasked with keeping the Astros on track to become the first team to win 100 or more games in four consecutive seasons. He also will try to steady a core branded as villains by players and fans in other cities.

"You got to go forward and make sure that it doesn't happen again," Baker said. "It certainly is not going to happen on my watch here, and I don't foresee it happening ever again because this has been an embarrassment for a lot of people."

Cora's punishment was delayed by Manfred pending MLB's investigation into the Red Sox, which could conclude next week. Boston's turmoil extended to the trade market, with a deal that would send former MVP Mookie Betts and former Cy Young Award winner David Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of a three-team trade involving Minnesota. The delay in the deal being finalized prompted criticism from the players' association, still smarting over the grievance loss of Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, who unsuccessfully claimed the team violated the labor contract by delaying his big league debut until the day his free-agent eligibility would be delayed a year.

Bryant's trade value increased with arbitrator Mark Irvings' decision, because acquiring teams can be certain he cannot go free for two more seasons. The cost of top free agents was never more vivid than this offseason.

Players who switched teams included pitcher Gerrit Cole ($324 million from the Yankees), third baseman Anthony Rendon ($245 million from the Angels), right-hander Zack Wheeler ($118 million from the Phillies), third baseman Josh Donaldson ($92 million from the Braves) and left-hander Madison Bumgarner ($85 million from the Diamondbacks).

Right-hander Stephen Strasburg became a free agent shortly after winning the World Series MVP award, then stayed with the Nationals for $245 million.

Sports on 02/08/2020

Print Headline: Spring training arrives under cloud of scandal

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