The Houston Astros’ Sign-Stealing Scandal: Aftershocks and Damage

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Manager A.J. Hinch, former bench coach Alex Cora and then-outfielder Carlos Beltran watch from the visitors dugout as the Astros play the Rays in 2017. All three are central figures in MLB's report on the Astros' sign-stealing scandal. (Photo: Jason Behnken, Getty Images)

Without an unnecessary and redundant prologue, let’s get into how the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal is causing aftershocks throughout baseball.

Major League Baseball

MLB has always had a set of indistinguishable lines when it comes to cheating. Separating acceptable violations and whether the behavior is overt or subtle has frequently been contingent on how the public reacts to it. Gaylord Perry is in the Hall of Fame because of the spitball. Norm Cash and Amos Otis cobbled together notable careers using hollow bats. Mike Scott would likely have been out of baseball at 29 had he not learned to skillfully use a piece of sandpaper. These are the known names.

Teams have taken part in notable trickery such as signaling batters from center field scoreboards, deciphering signs from players, coaches and managers, and trying to get every advantage they possibly could.

It was accepted as “part of the game”.

What the Astros were caught doing is classified as going beyond the boundaries of competition. There is a perceived difference between using advanced technology and eyeballs to gain an advantage. The draconian penalties are for public consumption more than justice for the violations themselves.

MLB did not take steps to tamp down on performance-enhancing drugs until it impacted their financial standing and Congress threatened the owners with greater oversight. The Astros’ behavior falls into that category of calling into question the sanctity of the game itself. Had it been little more than “X player got better when he got to the Astros because they had a guy who knew how to load bats and another guy who taught the new pitchers a scuffball,” nothing happens. The scandal fed into itself from multiple directions and MLB had no alternative but to act.

Houston Astros

The Astros, being the team that has used analytics as close to its logical conclusion as anyone, might be the main target because they pushed beyond boundaries that were subjective to begin with.

It’s possible and even highly likely that every team had a comparable form of trickery taking place. The Astros just happened to win while doing it and drew great attention for it. Much of it due to their own mythologizing and the media’s complicity in crafting their narrative. They’re bearing the brunt and they kind of asked for it.

The stories about the Astros are endless and laudatory to the point of obnoxiousness. From Jim Crane purchasing the team and handing the reins to Jeff Luhnow; allowing him to run roughshod over baseball orthodoxy in the same Texas-style iconoclasm that Crane embraces; to the ends justifying the means culture (as long as you don’t get caught) that was a significant factor in rebuilding from what was tantamount to an expansion team and winning that championship within five years, this is an example of not wanting to know how the sausage is made.

The championship should not be tainted – they won it. But it will be tainted and the narratives that created the image of the Astros will, in a Twilight Zone-style irony, be attached to that championship regardless of the steps they have taken and will take at damage control.

Jim Crane

The owner gets off light because he’s the owner. Billionaires rarely apologize and when they do, it’s laden with caveats. Barring a stunning – and beyond stupid – paper trail linking Crane to the sign-stealing, no one will ever know if he was aware of what the players were doing. Still, judging by the freedom he gave Luhnow to run the team and do whatever it takes to win, it’s hard to see him having been aware of what was happening so far down the chain-of-command.

For those who complain about the penalties being too light, how much were they supposed to fine the organization? And how much would truly impact Crane – a billionaire? $5 million is a lot of money to most people. To Crane, it isn’t. It’s a rounding error. Had he been fined $20 million, $30 million, this would have headed to court and Rob Manfred’s status as commissioner would have been doomed.

The draft pick penalties are considered moderate, but the Astros were built based on their skill at picking players and developing them. Even though the picks will probably be in the lower third of the first and second-rounds since the Astros are still a contending team despite this current controversy, losing those picks in consecutive years is a big hit to an organization whose farm system was already in decline through players making it to the Majors and from win-now trades. With the head of baseball operations, Luhnow, fired, these sanctions will not hurt immediately, but they are hefty punishments in the long-term.

Firing Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch was not as necessary as some believe it was. The New Orleans Saints and their bounty scandal resulted in suspensions of the general manager, head coach and others and all are working in the NFL right now with Saints GM Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton still with the team, mostly unscathed.

The front office system is strong enough that a placeholder GM could have continued running the club in the same structure until Luhnow was reinstated. Firing them was a surprise. Rather than deal with the endless series of questions about whether the GM and manager would be back in 2021, Crane did his purge and insulated himself. Ownership is a dictatorship and the underlings take the fall.

Jeff Luhnow

Luhnow’s rise and fall is Shakespearean. Regardless of whether he’s perceived as a cold, ruthless automaton or someone who was just doing the job he was hired to do, there are many people who are celebrating; people he stepped on as he rose to the top and who are laughing as they watch his downfall.

Like Crane, there is no possible way to know if Luhnow was aware of what was happening with the complex sign-stealing operation. He claims not to have known, but for someone whose finger is on every pulse in the organization, it’s hard to envision him being so clueless that he was unaware that some form of this was happening. If he didn’t know-know in detail, that provides some level of plausible deniability, but it didn’t help him either way once the die was cast.

He is ultimately responsible for what happened under his watch and it could be argued that the culture he created was the mitigating factor in players taking their mandate to win to the degree that it imploded.

From the time he entered baseball, Luhnow was viewed as an unwanted interloper because he was an unwanted interloper. The St. Louis Cardinals front office was led by Walt Jocketty; the field staff by Tony La Russa – two men in relative lockstep with one another in terms of how a team should be run. Luhnow never played professionally and to them was just some guy who upended their domain, chafed at being mocked, took to brutal infighting, lost a power struggle with La Russa, was on the outs in St. Louis when he was named the Astros GM and given full say in how the team would be run.

Whether he’s an arrogant technocrat with no regard for humanity and an inherent cruelty in treating players like disposable chattel or a guy who was doing the job he was asked to do any way he could do it is now secondary. Of all the participants, he is the one whose baseball career is likely over. He brought it on himself and his fall came as suddenly as his rise. The Astros were despised because of the attitude instilled by the GM. Now, he’s paying the price.

A.J. Hinch

Hinch gave a smug, condescending and smirking dismissal of the sign-stealing allegations when they were first made. Clearly, he thought it would simply go away. It didn’t.

Hinch admitted to knowing about it and expressed regret that he did not do more to stop it. Smashing the equipment was a half-measured attempt at dealing with it, but the equipment was quickly replaced and the activities started all over again. Worse for Hinch is that players who were interviewed said they would have stopped had Hinch told them to. He didn’t.

Why was this?

Speculatively, there are a couple of reasons. First, this was Hinch’s second managing job after a disastrous run with the Arizona Diamondbacks a decade ago. When he was hired by Josh Byrnes to replace Bob Melvin in Arizona, the veteran D-Backs were angry that the popular Melvin was dismissed. Byrnes compounded this by figuratively castrating the inexperienced Hinch by saying he would provide “organizational advocacy” implying that he would do what he was told by the front office.

Today, that would be shrugged off as commonplace and part of the job. Then, in 2009 and 2010, the manager as a nameless functionary of the front office was a new concept. Having had clubhouse problems in the past, Hinch did not want to run the risk of that sabotaging him again.

Second, the Astros were a loaded team ready to win. They were streaking toward a World Series. Had he been more forceful with the players, they could easily have turned on him and blamed him for losing.

Third, the Astros’ culture is results-oriented with a front office that would fire him without a second thought if the team underachieved based on its expectations. Interfering with a tactic that the players thought helped them put him in jeopardy of losing his job – which he eventually did anyway. More Twilight Zone irony.

Hinch was apologetic. He was guilty in that he did nothing to stop it. But he will presumably get another chance to manage after he has served his suspension and sufficient penance. He’s still got friends in baseball, many of whom are in positions of power to grant him that redemptive opportunity.

Alex Cora and the Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox had some scandalous accusations of their own with Apple watches and other trickery they were said to have used as they made their dominating run to the 2018 World Series. Cora was the Astros bench coach and a ringleader in the scheme. After the report was released, the Red Sox saw that the damage was irreparable and they “mutually agreed to part ways”. It sounds more like they asked Cora to leave quietly with a payoff and he did.

This aside, the Red Sox having fired president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski less than a year after winning that title did not bode well for Cora even before this story came out. There’s no doubt the Red Sox were a disappointment in 2019 and Cora could not motivate a still-excellent team to even make the playoffs or meaningfully contend. It’s possible that the fickle and reactive John Henry felt Cora was getting too much credit for a great team winning the World Series.

It’s also possible that he got an itchy trigger finger and wanted to dismiss Cora along with Dombrowski. It’s a certainty that new chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom prefers a manager who will do what he’s told vs. the independent-minded Cora. Had the Red Sox retained him he might have gotten fired at mid-season anyway.

There are two ways the Red Sox can go in replacing Cora: Jason Varitek or an interim/no-name who will fall in line. The problem with Varitek is that it would be next-to-impossible to fire the popular former Red Sox captain. It would stem the anger and give a team in transition some wiggle room because of his popularity. A no-name is a no-name. In fairness, Terry Francona was a failed retread when the Red Sox hired him in 2004 and that worked out pretty well.

Carlos Beltran and the New York Mets

Beltran is the only player who is seriously implicated and it comes concurrently with him getting a managing opportunity with the Mets. This situation is the most fluid and by the time you read this, Beltran might have saved himself or been dismissed.

The Mets being dragged into this is absurd. So too is it preposterous that the Mets are being criticized after going through an exhaustive interview process and picking their preferred choice as manager only to be in the firestorm of sign-stealing their new manager took part in as a player. If he was untruthful about this during the interview process or left information out, then the Mets do have the right to fire him for misleading them. That he was a player then and is a manager now and was unpunished for his role in the sign-stealing is nonsense. The Mets can make the change if they feel they need to. And they might.

The fan and media reaction has surpassed that silliness.

Fans are predominately indignant that there’s a chance Beltran will not manage the Mets. These same fans never liked Beltran as a player and either blamed him for the Adam Wainwright strikeout to end the 2006 National League Championship Series or held it against him that he offered his services to the Yankees at a reduced price before being rejected and signing with the Mets. The relationship between Beltran and the fans was a business one after that. He was a great player, but never was and never will be beloved.

The Mets do not need this aggravation and there is a growing momentum that they make a change at manager to quell the noise. They can stem that tide by doing one thing: having a press conference as soon as possible in which Beltran will stand in front of the media, answer every single question truthfully, leave them nowhere else to go and no reason to continue bringing this up. Short of that, they will need to bring in a new manager. Whether that is runner up Eduardo Perez or if they roll the dice and hire Luis Rojas is irrelevant.

The reality with Beltran is that he has never managed before at any level. He could be great at it or he could be terrible at it. With a good team – as the Mets are – he would make his share of mistakes and either be bailed out by player performance or his missteps would cost the team games a seasoned manager would have avoided. The angry response is contrarian because it does not make much difference if he’s managing the team or not.