It’s the morning before pitchers and catchers report. I got into work early on a rainy Austin morning, put a fresh cup of black coffee in my ‘Astros Uniform History” mug and sat down to write about a subject that has quickly becoming forbidden in my household: the Sign Stealing Scandal. You can read my initial thoughts on it here. After months of handwringing and back and forth on social media about it, I’ve reached about my level of tolerance of the story.
It appears, at least from this fan’s perspective, that the story is going to die with the Astros, and it is now apparent that the story we’ve been told wasn’t the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
We were told that this was exclusively a player led scandal. That the management didn’t condone and that the GM didn’t know about it. Then the Wall Street Journal article comes out and the phrases “Codebreaker” and “Dark Science” become part of our vocabulary. Turns out, according to reports, that Jeff Lunhow was aware of the effort to steal signs. It makes him sound like a low rent Palpatine that relied on Excel and not the force, but I digress. The funny thing is, I was already kind of over Lunhow. No one can doubt his acumen as a GM, but I’ve never been a big fan of the smug, ‘smartest guy in the room’ type and that part of his personality was increasingly present. The Taubman incident, the MiLB story and now this really do make me question the state of the Astros front office culture. Can’t ignore all the folks who quit with little warning. That he was involved doesn’t surprise me and as the story has grown, I’m increasingly glad he’s been fired, whatever affect it might have on the team on the field going forward.
The big question: why were the players blamed exclusively in such a ‘thorough’ report? I’ll get to my theory in a second.
AJ Hinch’s MLB interview has been greatly discussed across the community. I’ll get into some of it in a second, but I think, largely, he came out ahead. He was contrite, he didn’t pass the buck and admitted, which is hard for anyone, that he was weak. The big issue was…why didn’t he stop it? We can all agree he should have done more, but like in most instances, we often put standard on others we don’t hold ourselves to. So let’s dive into the situation.
It’s one thing to say “why didn’t you do more” when it was just the players doing a thing. But let’s look at that team. The team was young. Over achieved in 15, fell back to Earth in 16 and it was decided that the team needed veteran leadership. So they bring in Beltran, the only player named in the scheme. The players were told to listen to this dude. But still…it seems after the second monitor is broken, why not go to your boss? According to the WSJ, it wasn’t JUST the players. It was his boss. Who’s he supposed to complain too? He spoke about is his weakness in 17, the lack of culture he created. I fully believe he has grown in that role. No one is born fully formed and this experience will make him a better manager and a team will be lucky to have him in the future.
Lastly, on the Hinch interview. Lots of sound bites have been thrown out there, characterizing the interview this way or that way. He didn’t flatly dodge the “buzzer question,” as much as Buster Ohlney wishes he did. The sentence before, he flatly denied any cheating in 2019. Any attempt to take this out of context is irresponsible. The statement about the Commissioner’s report was clearly a stream of consciousness answer. Not at all comparable to Bregman’s repeated Commissioner’s report answer at Fan Fest.
As for the Players, lots have been said about why they haven’t apologized yet? When would they? Why is anyone surprised, in 2020 when every word is twisted and turned, that they didn’t rush out and apologize and risk deepening the hole they are in? Every attempt at an apology by former Astros has been met with a chorus of ‘not good enoughs’ as it is. Particularly in light that it seems the players are being blamed for the whole thing when it seems to be, at least in part, directed by the front office. The will apologize. They should apologize. I’ve no issue with them, deciding as a group, what that apology looks like. People aren’t going to like the apology anyway.
All of this leads me to the report, which by any measure is flawed at this point. Manfred appears to be setting this at the foot of the Astros players. Wasn’t anyone else shocked that Verducci, in the AJ interview, didn’t ask him to name the other teams the Astros believed were doing it? Crane mentioned they had information on other teams in his presser firing AJ and Lunhow. I truly believe other teams were involved in sign stealing. The egregiousness on the part of the Astros, from all accounts, was the method delivery of the sign information, not the stealing of the sign itself. They used the video room like everyone else that allegedly did this did. Why will this stop at the Astros players? Why will the Red Sox, second time offenders, get off lighter? There are two reasons:
- It will stop at the Astros players because the players can’t get in trouble at this point. The deal with the union means they can’t punish the players, making them perfect fall guys. The further up the chain you go, the closer you get to the owner. Manfred doesn’t work for players, he doesn’t work for fans: he works for owners. He shielded Crane and the longterm growth of the league by placing it at the feet of those that can’t get punished.
- Why not other teams? Easy. You have taken your pound of flesh from a team with middle of the road popularity who dared fly in the face of the league. The Lunhow Astros were brash in how they did business. They gave the middle finger to old school baseball more than Billy Beane did and the trashcan is the ultimate sign of that. So you punish a team that’s middle of the road in value and that allows you to avoid punishing the big earners of the MLB. So much anecdotal evidence has popped up about other teams, but it will go nowhere. The league sent a message by how it punished the Astros: if you talk honestly, your manager will get fired. I don’t think Fiers would have said something had he known AJ would bear the brunt of it. Players generally like their managers. There is no incentive to come clean in future stories.
So who gets hurt? The players? They already get booed incessantly at places like Yankee Stadium. Oakland. Not much will change. Will the Astros get thrown at? They’ll take the free bases the suspensions of other pitchers all day.
Fans on both sides get hurt. The MLB has their villain: the Astros. And while the punishment seems harsh, all fans are coming around to the fact that the longterm health of the franchise isn’t derailed that much. Those 4 picks won’t be as valuable as some think. And they will be smart in the international market. The Astros, who might not win the World Series this year, won’t lose it because of some karmic reaction to this report. It will be because they are over extended and couldn’t afford Gerrit Cole. That’s it. Sure, we lost our beloved manager. I will miss AJ so much. But, as stated, I was over Lunhow anyway.
The anger toward Astros fans has been ridiculous. I’ve spoken about my grandson being harassed by a guy in Portland for wearing an Astros hat. I’ve talked about the poor woman who’s son took a picture at a cancer hospital with Jose Altuve only to be harassed on line. She probably didn’t know anything about the scandal because her life is consumed with her son having cancer and for a few minutes, it wasn’t.
And this is the offseason. The more the league makes this an Astros only issue, the more fans of other teams feel aggrieved, you have the opportunity for harassment and violence of visiting Astros fans. Look at the bathroom incident at Yankee stadium. Fans should feel free and safe to travel to other parks. It’s part of the charm of baseball. The longer this persists, the potential for an issue grows exponentially. I am definitely aware of where I’m traveling to, knowing the the Mets game in NYC might get dicey.
So where does it leave us? The game will be no less clean. The championship isn’t tainted for me. I can’t say that they wouldn’t have won or lost under any other situation. Much has been made about Kershaw and Jansen in that series, but those guys had playoff issues before and after. But I will say it’s tarnished. Anytime I mention is, I can look forward to all those creative ‘trash can’ jokes.
Lots of attempts have been made to show how truly helpful the scandal was to Astros hitters. There are just as many reports and ways to view the stats that say it hurt as much as it helped. the comparison to knowing the play in football is lazy at best. Knowing the pitch is coming is not the same as knowing the offense is going to run a dive off left tackle. There are fewer variables in football than in baseball.
I just know, on a personal level, I’m exhausted by it. They’re still my guys. I think they’re a great team and I think they can show it this season. And I’ll be there in Houston and in Oakland and in NYC and in Baltimore. Minnesota. Toronto. In Astros gear hoping to have a great time experiencing baseball all over the country. Boo the team all you want. No Astros fan banged a trashcan. So for me, I’m ready to move on and happy to talk baseball with anyone. There is nothing better than that.
Go Stros. For the H.