Mix all that together — technology, creativity, brain power and money — and the scandal that resulted makes sense. The Houston Astros fired general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch on Monday because they oversaw a team that prided itself on discovering every possible edge. Such an environment emboldened players to use elements both modern (real-time video) and archaic (banging on a trash can with a bat) to — how to put this? — outright cheat the game, cheat the opponents, cheat the fans who thought they were witnessing a fair fight.
We should have seen it coming. Sign-stealing, using the human eye, has been baked into baseball culture for a century. Put millions of dollars on the line, outfit each team with frame-by-frame, high-definition video, and, lo and behold, the notion of using the available tools for unintended purposes proved too tantalizing to resist. Go figure.
An hour before Astros owner Jim Crane dismissed his club’s two most visible leaders, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred had suspended each for the 2020 season because they failed to stop their club’s elaborate and electronic method to steal signs from its opponents. Hinch admitted he knew about it but did nothing. Luhnow claimed he didn’t know, which would be laughable even if Manfred’s report didn’t cite “at least two emails” to Luhnow mentioning the scheme, which it does.
This, coupled with a $5 million fine and the stripping of first- and second-round draft picks for two years, was Manfred’s hammer. As many stars as the Astros have — from Justin Verlander to Alex Bregman to Carlos Correa — Luhnow and Hinch defined the organization, inwardly and outwardly.
The Astros, then, are the villains, and while baseball can’t strip them of the 2017 World Series title they won — this isn’t the NCAA — they are forever stained. That’s indisputable. Yet remember, even while cursing Houston and bemoaning its victims, that MLB is not beyond reproach.
As forceful and decisive as Manfred’s move seemed Monday, it shouldn’t be forgotten how lax the league office was about monitoring this stuff in the first place. Once there’s a phone in the dugout that goes directly to a video room, and once information is flowing from that room to the participants in the game — be they players, coaches or the manager — then someone should have put into place safeguards to make sure operations such as the Astros’ didn’t develop.
Major league baseball is perhaps our most quantified and analyzed sport, one in which teams now more than ever sift through the sands for even the slightest advantage. That the sport’s powers put into place mechanics that could easily be exploited seems obvious now. It should have been obvious in 2014, when the replay challenge system went into effect. It was not, and the Astros’ sinister ways developed from there.
That it was Luhnow’s Astros who developed this methodology is hardly coincidence. Long before Houston’s franchise became the pariah that it turned into this offseason, I was talking casually to the head of baseball operations of another club. This was late in the 2015 season, Hinch’s first as manager, Luhnow’s fifth as GM. In describing his distaste for how Luhnow conducted his club’s business, this executive had one word: “binary.” Either a move helps the Astros win more games, or it does not. There is no room for gray areas.
That description fits, and not just because of sign-stealing. It’s why Houston traded for reliever Roberto Osuna, accused of domestic violence, when other teams wouldn’t touch him. Osuna’s welcome to Houston — not as much by Hinch, but certainly by Luhnow and the front office — ended up revealing more of the Astros’ hubris. During their celebration after winning last season’s American League Championship Series, Brandon Taubman, one of Luhnow’s top assistants, screamed in the direction of three female reporters: “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so f------ glad we got Osuna!”
That the Astros initially stood by Taubman offered further insight into the culture Luhnow created. Eventually, they fired Taubman, a move Luhnow clearly wouldn’t have made on his own. The general manager never appeared to understand the intimidation tactics at work in that incident. He viewed Taubman as a piece that helped his club win more games. Why would he get rid of a baseball asset for a personal failing?
Manfred’s report came to the exact same conclusion.
“[While] no one can dispute that Luhnow’s baseball operations department is an industry leader in its analytics, it is very clear to me that the culture of the baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relations with other Clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic,” Manfred wrote in his 10-page release. “At least in my view, the baseball operations department’s insular culture — one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led, at least in part, to the Brandon Taubman incident, the Club’s admittedly inappropriate and inaccurate response to that incident, and finally, to an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.”
Who was hurt here? Plenty of people. The Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers, whom the Astros beat en route to the 2017 championship. The Indians, whom the Astros swept in the division series in 2018. And the Rays and Yankees, whom the Astros beat last fall. (Thankfully, not the Nationals. Think this is a mess now? What if Anthony Rendon and Howie Kendrick hadn’t homered in the seventh inning of Game 7?)
Manfred’s report said the Astros stopped using their system at some point in the 2018 season — not because they had a moral epiphany but “because the players no longer believed it was effective.” But who’s to say?
You know who gets off easy here? The players. Manfred’s report said “most of the position players” at least knew about the scheme, but he called it “impractical” to discipline so many, particularly because some now play for other teams. The only player named in the report is Carlos Beltrán, the new manager of the New York Mets. But MLB’s investigators, who interviewed 68 characters, have to know where the ideas and the orders came from. Can’t those individuals be held accountable?
What a mess. An organization that thought of itself as redefining how we should think about baseball is in a shambles because of the culture it created. A sport that has embraced technology and data analysis is reeling because it allowed those to mix, unchecked. And with spring training a month away, we’re left not only with the hope that such methods will be abandoned because of better policing and — oh, I don’t know — a sense of morals and fair play, but with the knowledge that all these shenanigans should have been prevented in the first place.
From the archives: MLB aims to crack down on the game’s tradition of sign stealing