It’s all over in Houston, a town that knows its booms and busts, and the hubris that can build the former and accelerate the latter.
In this case, it is the Astros, who became the crown jewel in a football-obsessed region, delivering the championships the Texans and Oilers never did and the sustainability that eluded Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets.
They were a process-obsessed group that managed to produce glorious outcomes, accelerating baseball’s analytics age into, if you’ll allow, the stratosphere. They inspired copycats throughout the industry intoxicated by the possibility of being both efficient and dominant.
Now, just eight years after new owner Jim Crane tapped a business entrepreneur as his general manager, and the club (mostly) intentionally lost 100-plus games and then emerged as a World Series-winning force, it’s all been blown up.
And that leaves so many stakeholders to ask themselves a question: Was it all worth it?
Monday, Major League Baseball provided the dynamite, suspending GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch for the 2020 season after both failed to prevent an elaborate – and specifically outlawed – electronic sign-stealing scheme employed during the club’s 2017 World Series-winning season. Crane, perhaps with Commissioner Rob Manfred not so subtly twisting his arm, merely lit the fuse, firing Luhnow and Hinch just a month before the three-time division champs and two-time American League kings gather for spring training and another run at October glory.
Astros players celebrate the final out of the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium. (Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports)
Manfred’s Department of Investigations interviewed 68 witnesses, including 23 current and former Astro players, and his nine-page decision is a sober and well-considered document that lays out the timeline of the Astros’ illegal sign-stealing and the culpability Luhnow and Hinch must bear for it.
Most notably, he took one of baseball’s whispered-about but rarely quantified concepts – the Astros’ debatably human organizational culture – and said all the quiet parts out loud:
“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. 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 (misogynistic clubhouse rant), 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. The comments in this paragraph relate only to the baseball operations department.”
It is here that Manfred’s screed briefly detours into cognitive dissonance. Crane comes off as merely the shepherd of the Astros’ business operations, his hands clean, only responsible for coughing up $5 million in fines and four draft picks for the rogue actions of his baseball operations.
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Yet Manfred should know that everything is systemic, and any culture in baseball operations is merely being executed at the pleasure of ownership.
And the stolen sign flap is in many ways the Crane-Luhnow regime at its core: Ultra-efficient, leverage-oriented – and too far over the line.
Sort of like pressuring future star George Springer into signing a subpar deal – or take another few months of minor league servitude. Or trampling on the careers of longtime scouts and even alienating on-the-rise analysts in the name of efficiency.
Or the slippery negotiations with No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken – a scenario that screwed up the immediate future of three draftees, only to see the Astros emerge with the No. 2 pick and future superstar Alex Bregman a year later.
Luhnow’s bloodless management style yielded big results: Four playoff berths in five years, capped by 101-, 103- and 107-win seasons since 2017.
The 2019 campaign culminated in a World Series appearance greatly clouded by Taubman’s postgame tirade at three female reporters, some of whom dared to challenge the club over its coldly calculating acquisition of domestic abuser Roberto Osuna one year earlier. The Astros’ denial and utter bungling of that flap dominated the first four days of the Series and drew the ire of MLB, to say nothing of right-minded fans from coast to coast.
In hindsight, the Taubman flap was almost like Tiger Woods backing his Escalade into a fire hydrant: It did not directly expose the depth of problems within but rather seems a precipitating event that tumbled so many dominoes.
A few weeks later, former Astro Mike Fiers came forward to The Athletic with his account of the electronic sign-stealing and trash-can banging. Now, a wildly talented bunch of Astros players are left with that question, again.
Was it worth it?
How much edge was gleaned from this convoluted and, some might say, distracting system of subterfuge? To what degree must we cast aspersions on the Astros’ 8-1 2017 home playoff record – including a strafing of Clayton Kershaw four days after he dominated in them at Dodger Stadium?
Or put stock in the fact that players like Bregman actually performed better on the road (a .290/.360/.503 slash line) than at home (.278/.343/.444) over the larger sample of the 2017 regular season?
It’s too late now for Bregman and Springer and Jose Altuve and all the charismatic, wildly talented players the Astros employed – their championship is tainted. With Springer and Carlos Correa hitting free agency in the next two years, and four top draft picks plucked away from the next GM, the Astro window suddenly looks a lot more narrow.
At the least, the infrastructure has collapsed, a bullet train derailed. It comes 19 years and one month after another Houston giant succumbed: When Enron Corp. declared bankruptcy on Dec. 2, 2001, it epitomized deregulation gone terribly wrong, a story of greed and misdirection and cooked books that robbed shareholders of some $74 billion and its employees of billions more in pension benefits.
Jeffrey Skilling’s last stop before joining Enron and eventually ascending to CEO was McKinsey and Co., which coincidentally is where Luhnow spent most of his career before entering the baseball world with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2003. Sure, Luhnow won’t go to prison like Skilling, and the only tangible connection between Enron and the Astros was that their stadium bore the company’s name during its high-on-the-hog heyday of the late 1990s.
What’s more, the Astros’ accomplishments were far more tangible than the phony holdings Enron pushed on its investors. They will get to keep the World Series trophy and all the rings, and the players involved do, in fact, know how much their cheating did or didn't aid the cause.
But, save for the remaining years left on players’ contracts, all that the Astros built is gone. Whether that’s due to a singular incident or a systemic culture is certainly open to interpretation.
Either way, the players who participated in the former and the executives who propagated the latter will have the rest of their careers to ponder whether it was worth it.
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