It must have felt good to be one of the Houston Astros on 29 October last year, to be part of one of the most talented teams ever assembled and to be only one home win from a second World Series title in three years.
Less than three months later, baseball’s most calculating club is shamed and in a shambles. The Astros lost on that autumn night and were beaten again the following evening as the underdog Washington Nationals completed an astonishing triumph. Now Houston’s manager and general manager are gone, after Major League Baseball doled out severe punishments for their roles in a cheating scandal. An investigation concluded the team had stolen signs from opponents, and Astros manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for the 2020 season. The team fired them shortly afterwards.
The pair were the chief architects of the once-hapless Astros’ rise to become perhaps baseball’s most feared franchise – though certainly not its best-loved, given the long-standing rumours that Houston had a penchant for dubious conduct.
A win-at-all-costs mentality now looks ruinously expensive. The Astros were also fined $5m and will forfeit their first and second round selections in the 2020 and 2021 player drafts.
Reporting by The Athletic last November revealed a camera at Minute Maid Park was focused on the visiting team’s catcher and sent footage to a monitor near the home dugout. Staff and players, the report said, watched the screen during games, tried to decode hand signals and then banged on a trash can, the noise alerting batters to the kind of pitch they were about to see.
The affable Hinch may wonder why he is out of a job yet no players have been sanctioned; Manfred’s report says the chicanery was “player-driven and player-executed” and the manager “attempted to signal his disapproval of the scheme by physically damaging the monitor on two occasions”, while Luhnow denied knowledge of it.
But Manfred is sending clear messages: generally, about the illicit use of technology that, more powerful by the year, presents challenges to sporting integrity; about the risks of undermining his own authority (he sent a warning against electronic sign-stealing to all clubs yet the Astros carried on) and specifically about Houston’s institutional behaviour. Indeed, the report found that the Astros continued stealing signs for part of the 2018 season until the players decided it was ineffective.
Alex Cora - a former Houston coach who is now manager of the Boston Red Sox - is set to be disciplined once MLB finishes its investigation into allegations that Boston, the 2018 World Series champions, also used technology to steal signs.
Hinch, meanwhile, is one of the fall-guys for an unhealthy club culture. Manfred wrote in his report: “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.”
Brandon Taubman, the Astros’ former assistant general manager, has been suspended from baseball for at least a year. Houston fired him during the World Series for taunting female journalists after the club initially falsely accused Sports Illustrated of fabricating the story. The episode was a window into an organisation that appeared convinced it could act with arrogance and impunity.
It was not hard to believe that the Astros might have the cunning and chutzpah to bring a modern twist to an age-old tactic. Runners on second base have long tried to sneak a glance at catchers’ hand signals, a facet of the sport that is implicitly tolerated; the Astros updated that shady tactic for the era of digital surveillance and marginal gains.
Yet, through a careful and clever long-term strategy that felt as much like engineering as sport, with nods to the creative but egotistic ethos of Silicon Valley and the results-oriented coarseness of Wall Street, Luhnow built a roster that was so talented, and so well coached by Hinch, that the Astros were surely capable of winning without cheating. Manfred’s report even states that some players felt the tactic was “more distracting than useful”.
The Astros lost more than 100 games a season from 2011 to 2013, then won more than 100 from 2017 to 2019. It is a worst-to-first tale that lacks the charm usually ascribed to sporting reversal-of-fortune narratives, reliant as it was on a patient process and NBA-style “tanking” so that the “Lastros” could secure high-placed draft picks, such as Carlos Correa, the brilliant shortstop, and nurture young talent.
With bloodless talk of strategies and systems, Moneyball refined and enhanced, it was perhaps a little too cold and cerebral to be warmly applauded by outsiders, no matter how impressive the achievements.
In 2013 the Astros’ wage bill on opening day was estimated at $26m – less than the New York Yankees paid one player, Alex Rodriguez, at the time. One 9-2 loss drew a local television rating of 0.0, indicating that – as far as could be measured – no one whatsoever was watching.
But the payroll was slowly but surely increased, and fans who endured all that ineptitude were rewarded with a first World Series title in 2017. Fans reveled in the team’s success while the city was recovering from Hurricane Harvey. The barren years seemed worth it.
Crane talked to the media on Monday about cleaning house and moving on from a “speed bump” and denied that 2017’s glory is tainted, an achievement with an asterisk. But the commissioner’s report states that the Astros decoded signs “throughout the postseason”.
Given all the variables it is impossible to know how much the sign-stealing scheme impacted results; what can be said for certain, however, is that in a culture where confidence curdled into conceit and an obsession with gathering data warped into a spying plot, a club known for making smart decisions made a very dumb one.