There’s no reason to believe anything the Houston Astros say at this point. One of baseball’s very best teams is also its most contemptible. The Astros are a study in hubris, only emboldened by a report into their cheating by Major League Baseball, which turns out to have been designed more to sweep this scandal under the rug than punish the team.
On the first day of Astros spring training camp, a full month after MLB suspended the club’s manager and general manager, cost the team four draft picks and issued a paltry $5 million fine, current Houston players finally apologized. These apologies came in the form of two brief, prepared statements by Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve. The pair spoke for a total of a 90 seconds.
Even new manager Dusty Baker, who had no part in this scandal but is being used by the Astros as a credibility shield, read a statement. But the standout was owner Jim Crane, a man impervious to personal responsibility.
Crane less than a minute later: “I didn’t say it didn’t impact the game.”
The tone of the Astros’ press conference was one of defiance and PR-coached vanilla statements disguised as apologies. But there was no remorse, which is remarkable given the team had literally a month to formulate a plan for contrition.
Then again, this is par for the course for the Astros, who completely bungled the detestable Brandon Taubman incident in October, mishandled the fallout from Yuli Gurriel’s racist gesture during the 2017 World Series, and barred a reporter from the clubhouse in 2019 in violation of the collective bargaining agreement.
The most convenient thing for the Astros, and for MLB, would be if this story just went away, but relief from the scandal doesn’t appear to be on the horizon. The team would very much like to refer to the suspensions and firings of manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow as the final word on the matter. They certainly don’t see themselves as culpable.
“I don’t think I should be held accountable,” Crane said Thursday.
Crane, whose Eagle USA company in 2001 reached a settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to pay $8.5 million for discriminating against African American, Hispanic, and female employees (an amount later reduced to $2.5 million on appeal), is no stranger to toothless rebukes. He bought the Astros, a franchise currently estimated to be worth $1.775 billion, for $680 million in 2011. Crane himself is reportedly worth $1.3 billion, so the $5 million fine levied by MLB — the maximum allowed by baseball’s constitution — was merely a drop in the bucket.
The commissioner is hired by MLB owners, so good luck thinking any future such fines against them will have any significant impact. What the commissioner can do is levy punishment on those directly involved, and each day it becomes increasingly clear that Manfred fell woefully short in this regard.
“We have the right to discipline players right now. I’m absolutely convinced of that fact,” Manfred told reporters at baseball’s owners meetings. “We made a decision in the Houston investigation that in order for us to get the facts that we needed, somebody had to get immunity.”
The players got immunity in both investigations, but weren’t the only ones to get off lightly.
A report by Jared Diamond at the Wall Street Journal details how the Astros front office, under Luhnow, devised an application called “Codebreaker” to decode signs from opposing catchers. Manfred wrote about it to Luhnow on Jan. 2, 11 days before the organizational punishment was handed down by the league, despite the assertion from the league report that this was a scheme driven by the players and former bench coach Alex Cora.
The WSJ article, which involved Astros director of advance information Tom Koch-Weser and then-intern Derek Vigoa, reads like an absurd clandestine novel:
Vigoa’s presentation wasn’t the only time Astros employees say Luhnow was informed about Codebreaker. Koch-Weser, the Astros’ director of advance information, said he discussed Codebreaker with Luhnow in one to three meetings after the 2016 season.
Koch-Weser told MLB that Luhnow would “giggle” at the title and appeared “excited” about it. Koch-Weser also said that Luhnow sometimes entered the Astros’ video room during road games and made comments such as, “You guys Codebreaking?”
Luhnow denied Koch-Weser’s accounts.
In addition to Koch-Weser and Vigoa, special assistant Kevin Goldstein was reported by Jeff Passan of ESPN to have sent an email in August 2017 asking scouts to assist in the sign stealing process:
Goldstein, who did not return a message seeking comment, wrote in the email: “One thing in specific we are looking for is picking up signs coming out of the dugout. What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can [or can’t] do and report back your findings.”
This email was also reported by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich in The Athletic, four days after their initial report of Houston’s sign-stealing scheme that started MLB’s investigation in the first place.
Yet despite the Goldstein’s email, and MLB’s knowledge, per the Wall Street Journal, of at least two emails from Koch-Weser to Luhnow about sign stealing, Manfred failed to suspend any other front office member but Luhnow (Taubman was also suspended for a year, but for his sexist conduct following the 2019 ALCS rather than the cheating).
Koch-Weser is still employed as the Astros’ director of advance information, Goldstein remains a special assistant to the general manager (now James Click), and Vigoa is now Houston’s senior manager of team operations.
“The leader of that department has been fired. I’ve had some time to review the department, and there will be some changes in there,” Crane said Thursday. “The commissioner said he wasn’t going to hold the lower-level people accountable, and I agree with that.”
General manager James Click, in his first week on the job, was evasive when asked about reports of cheating from current members of the Astros’ front office, saying, “Any new GM coming in would want to take a full view of the baseball operations staff, the full staff.”
New Astros general manager James Click when asked about Derek Vigoa, Tom Koch-Weser and Alex Cintron and their roles in the sign stealing scandal and future with the club pic.twitter.com/OpJEyb0wYm— Brian McTaggart (@brianmctaggart) February 13, 2020
Luhnow’s tenure in Houston was defined by an all-knowing front office where information was king, and the ability to place a value on every single aspect of the organization. The idea that he was unaware of such an elaborate scheme, if not intimately involved, is laughable, yet Luhnow’s official statement in response to his suspension and subsequent termination by the Astros was defiant, insisting “I am not a cheater” and “I did not know rules were being broken.”
Baltimore Orioles general manager Mike Elias was assistant general manager under Luhnow in 2017. When he left for Baltimore in 2018, Elias brought Astros’ director of decision sciences Sig Mejdal with him. Understandably, Elias would like to distance himself as much as possible from the scandal.
“I am confident that group that’s here that came from Houston will not be connected to or implicated in the sign-stealing situation in Houston,” Elias told reporters at Orioles fan fest last weekend.
There’s reason for Elias to be confident that that connection will never be officially drawn. Major League Baseball has demonstrated they won’t pursue anything unless its feet are put to the fire. It took them two years to thoroughly investigate the Astros, and only then after a player (Mike Fiers) went on record to disclose the scheme. Manfred’s report went out of its way to avoid placing blame on the front office. Now we know that Houston’s front office was integrally involved, and it’s difficult to believe that MLB didn’t.
Former Astros manager Hinch, suspended and fired for failing to stop the electronic sign stealing in 2017, was asked about further allegations of the Astros using buzzers in 2019 in a redemption plea interview with MLB Network.
“We got investigated for three months, and the commissioner’s office did as thorough an investigation anyone could imagine was possible,” Hinch said. “I believe him.”
Hinch did not deny, instead referring to MLB’s response saying they found no evidence to substantiate the use of wearable devices.
The Astros were once considered a success story, the embodiment of thoughtful team-building and the poster boys for the cutting edge of baseball analysis. But that analytical edge seems to have carried with it a sharp edge of contempt, which even now is preventing the organization from showing any sign of contrition. By abdicating their collective responsibility in this scandal, the Astros have become baseball’s villain, and they seem more and more worthy of that title with every passing day.