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Los Angeles (AFP) - Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch and team boss Jeff Luhnow were banned for the 2020 season then sacked by the club on Monday after Major League Baseball found team members engaged in an illegal sign-stealing scheme during their 2017 World Series-winning campaign.
In sanctions that sent shockwaves through baseball, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said the Astros had effectively ignored a league warning against illegal sign-stealing issued in September 2017.
"The conduct of the Astros, and its senior baseball operations executives, merits significant discipline," Manfred said in a nine-page ruling.
"While it is impossible to determine whether the conduct actually impacted the results on the field, the perception of some that it did causes significant harm to the game," he said.
Shortly after the suspensions were announced, Astros owner Jim Crane said Hinch and Luhnow had been fired.
"We need to move forward with a clean slate," Crane said. "We will not have this happen again on my watch."
- Multi-million dollar fine -
In addition to the suspensions, the Astros have been fined the maximum $5 million allowed under MLB rules.
The team has also forfeited its first- and second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts, MLB said.
The penalties are among the stiffest ever handed out to a team by MLB.
The Astros -- who defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games to win the 2017 World Series -- had been under investigation since November after former pitcher Mike Fiers lifted the lid on tactics used by Houston to illegally steal signs from opposing teams.
Sign-stealing in baseball -- observing the signals of opposing teams, most often between pitchers and catchers -- is an age-old albeit frowned upon practice by which players seek the tactical advantage of knowing what pitch is likely to be thrown.
Major League Baseball forbids the use of mechanical or electronic assistance to help steal signs.
Fiers told The Athletic the Astros had decoded signs with the assistance of a camera positioned in the outfield, with video relayed to a television monitor near the home dugout.
- 'Extraordinarily troubled' -
The Athletic report said an Astros employee would watch the opposing team's catcher's signals on the monitor, then bang a trash can to let batters know what pitches to expect.
The MLB ruling said that while the Astros sign-stealing in 2017 was "player-driven", former bench coach Alex Cora -- who guided the Boston Red Sox to the World Series in 2018 -- had been involved in setting it up.
The report warned that Cora could face penalties when the league completes its investigation into allegations of illegal sign-stealing by Boston in 2018.
Manfred said that in interviews, Hinch had told investigators he was opposed to the sign-stealing scheme and had twice damaged the video monitor.
However, Manfred said there "simply is no justification for Hinch's failure to act."
Hinch himself issued a statement acknowledging as much.
"As a leader and Major League Manager, it is my responsibility to lead players and staff with integrity that represents the game in the best possible way," Hinch said.
"While the evidence consistently showed I didn't endorse or participate in the sign stealing practices, I failed to stop them and I am deeply sorry."
Luhnow also issued a statement saying he accepted responsibility for rules violations that occurred on his watch but adding: "I am not a cheater.
"I did not know rules were being broken," Luhnow said. "As the Commissioner set out in his statement, I did not personally direct, oversee or engage in any misconduct: The sign-stealing initiative was not planned or directed by baseball management; the trash-can banging was driven and executed by players, and the video decoding of signs originated and was executed by lower-level employees working with the bench coach."
Manfred made it clear, however, that he thought Luhnow failed in his responsibility to prevent such actions.
"It is the job of the general manager to be aware of the activities of his staff and players, and to ensure that those activities comport with both standards of conduct set by club ownership and MLB rules," Manfred said.
The league said Luhnow and Hinch would be barred from performing any role with the Astros or any other club, whether Major League, Minor League or at spring training.
They are also banned from stadiums and any breach of the suspension could bring a lifetime ban.
In a separate sanction, the league also banned former Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman for one year. Taubman was sacked by the Astros in October after taunting a group of female reporters about domestic violence.
Manfred's ruling, however, cleared Astros owner Crane of involvement, saying there was "absolutely no evidence" he was aware of what had taken place.