NORTH PORT, FLA. — Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias stood nearby as baseball commissioner Rob Manfred dealt with the continuing fallout from the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal and acknowledged that his close ties to the organization made the news conference Sunday at MLB’s spring training media event hard to watch.
“Yeah, it’s tough ... It’s a shame," he said during his own media availability at the event, which was held at the new Atlanta Braves spring training complex. “Obviously, the personal people involved, it’s been very difficult to watch what’s happened there. It’s also been disappointing to learn what we’ve seen about the things that happened in the 2017, 2018 time frame coming to light.”
Elias has not been implicated in the elaborate sign-stealing scheme that led to the firing of GM Jeff Luhnow and Astros manager A.J. Hinch, and he said that the scandal should not tarnish the work his team did to scout, draft and develop the key players who have admitted cheating during the 2017 season and in the World Series.
“I am still confident that it does not affect the quality and effort behind the scouting and player development work that was done over there and led to that success,” he said, “which is so relevant to why we’re here with the Orioles … why we’re in this position … what we’re going to do over the next couple of years, but yeah, it’s a shame.”
Since news broke of the scandal and the penalties against the Astros by Major League Baseball, Elias has claimed repeatedly that he and the former Astros employees that he brought with him to Baltimore were too far removed from the on-field operation to have known anything about the scam.
“The group that’s here in Baltimore, myself included but everyone, were not involved in major league operations and we were focused on scouting and player development," Elias said. “I was running the minor leagues and the amateur drafts and, subsequent to that, added to the international department. We were not involved in anything like this related to major league operations, the dugout, the clubhouse, so I know there was no connection or involvement on anyone’s behalf.
“It’s still tough for us that what we worked so hard to build up had to undergo this footnote, but it’s not going to affect the Orioles.”
Elias said he wasn’t in a bubble. He did hear the whispers that were circulating in baseball at the time.
“There were rumors around in 2017," he said. “That was the same year that the Apple Watch thing happened. You kind of heard stuff over that period of time, but that was the extent of it for me.”
No shortcut to better attendance
Soon after Manfred endorsed the efforts of Elias and his staff and expressed confidence that the Orioles are headed in the right direction, Elias addressed concerns about the steep, multiyear decline in attendance at Oriole Park.
“Look, I wish our attendance was higher and it will be higher in the future … I know that,’’ he said. “In the meantime, it’s where we’re at. It’s the situation that we’re in and the only way out, and the primary focus, needs to be to get the club back on its feet and win enough games to compete for a playoff spot.
“That’s going to take a little bit of time because of the way baseball’s set up. I don’t know of any reliable way to sort of artificially inflate attendance while your team is losing, so we just want to start winning and we’re doing what we need to do to do that, to put a real winner out there."
When that happens, he said, attendance will rebound.
“With the sports passion we have in Baltimore, with the history attached to the club, to the unbelievable ballpark that we have and everything that’s being done to improve the ballpark experience, it’s coming back," Elias said.
More pitchers on the way?
The Orioles probably are finished with their offseason quest to stockpile inexpensive pitching depth, but Elias will never say never.
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“I wouldn’t close the door to it," he said. “I don’t know that there’s a likelihood. Definitely not anything pending. It’s still early enough in camp that we would be open to opportunities. I think at some point we might be a little mindful of the calendar and go with what we have, but we’re still monitoring which free agents are available.”