FORT MYERS, Fla. — Juan Centeno had already played for the Mets, Brewers, and Twins when the Astros signed him before the 2017 season.
The catcher, then 27, was grateful for the opportunity. He started the season in the minors but was called up for two games in May before joining the team again in August.
Centeno made a good impression and stayed on the roster for all three rounds of the playoffs.
By then, he knew what was going on. The Astros were using a video feed adjacent to the dugout at Minute Maid Park in Houston to steal signs from the opposing catcher.
“They weren’t doing it the first time I was called up,” said Centeno, who is now in his second season in the Red Sox organization. “But when I came back up, they were. Everybody knew it.”
As a catcher, Centeno didn’t like the idea that signs were being stolen. But he went along with it because he didn’t want to cause any waves in the clubhouse of a powerhouse first-place team.
Centeno was an itinerant backup new to the organization. Nobody on the team had less status. Voicing even the slightest complaint could have meant his demotion, if not his release, in the cutthroat, win-at-all-costs culture of the Astros.
“I just went along with it,” Centeno said. “I don’t feel good talking about it now. But I did it.”
Major League Baseball’s investigation into the Astros revealed that Carlos Beltran, with the backing of bench coach Alex Cora, pushed the team to improve how it stole signs. They devised the infamous system of banging on a plastic trash barrel to signal hitters about what pitch was coming.
Beltran and Cora are baseball icons in Puerto Rico. Centeno, who also is from the island, was in no position to stand up to them.
“It wasn’t right, I knew that. But what could I say?” Centeno said, pausing to choose his words carefully. “You can steal signs if you’re on second base and you can see the catcher. But what they were doing was different.”
Centeno admitted that he benefited from the system, but to what degree he can’t recall. He was 5 for 25 at the plate during home games in August and September, but struck out only three times.
According to research by an Astros fan named Tony Adams, Centeno heard 13 bangs on that trash can.
“Maybe I got some hits because I knew the pitch; I probably did,” Centeno said. “I would apologize to any pitchers if I did. It wasn’t right.”
The Rangers claimed Centeno off waivers after the 2017 season. He then bounced to the Red Sox last year and appeared in seven games. The Sox signed him to a minor league contract Tuesday that included an invitation to spring training.
Centeno is a long shot to make the Opening Day roster. But he’s willing to wait for his chance.
The fallout from the Astros scandal is being felt at many spring training camps as former Houston players are asked what role they played.
Cora lost his job managing the Red Sox because of the cheating scandal, which erupted in November. Beltran, who had been hired to manage the Mets, also was let go.
The Red Sox are being investigated, too, for similar actions they allegedly took in 2018.
Centeno said he was almost relieved when the story broke about the cheating because he wants to see the game get cleaned up.
“I’m a catcher, I know how tough it is with signs,” he said. “We always have to change them and be careful about what the other team is doing. It’s not a good thing for the game.
“I hope baseball can fix it and make sure teams aren’t doing it. It’s not good for the sport.”
Centeno has a World Series ring that was once a symbol of his perseverance. But now he’s not sure what to think of it.
“I loved playing for the Astros,” he said. “But what they did, what we did, was wrong.”