Update: Astros fire GM Jeff Luhnow, manager A.J. Hinch over sign-stealing scandal

 

Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch have been fired after a Major League Baseball investigation held them responsible for illegally stealing signs during the team’s 2017 World Series run. Astros owner Jim Crane announced the dismissals hour after each were suspended for one year for their roles in a sign-stealing scandal that also will cost the Astros their top two picks in the next two drafts and a $5 million fine.

Commissioner Rob Manfred announced the punishments Monday, then Crane followed by dismissing the GM and manager that won the franchise its first World Series.

The investigation began in November, when former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers told The Athletic that Houston illegally stole catchers’ signs in 2017, using a live video feed, a television monitor, a bat and a trash can. The Astros won the World Series in 2017, winning eight of nine home games that October.

The nine-page report issued by the commissioner’s office confirms the method and says it continued during the 2017 postseason. MLB investigators found that Alex Cora, the Boston Red Sox manager who was then serving as Astros bench coach, arranged for the live video feed in the tunnel “approximately two months into the 2017 season” after a group of players including now-Mets manager Carlos Beltran suggested the team’s sign-stealing methods could be improved. The report says Manfred will not assess discipline against individual Astros players.

Cora’s discipline has not been announced, and is pending the ongoing investigation into allegations against his 2018 Red Sox team.

The report said witnesses described the escalated methods as player-driven, with the exception of Cora. It said non-player staffers, including those in the team’s replay review room, had no involvement in the trash can scheme.

Luhnow denied involvement, but Manfred levied discipline anyway, deciding to “hold him personally accountable for the team.”

The report said Hinch expressed “much contrition” but Manfred wrote that “I must hold him accountable for the conduct of his team.” Hinch did not immediately return calls for comment.

Former assistant GM Brandon Taubman, fired after a postseason clubhouse outburst toward female reporters, was placed on baseball’s ineligible list. The report said Crane did not have knowledge of the violations.

“Neither one of them started it, but neither one of them did anything about it,” Crane said in announcing his decision to fire Hinch and Luhnow.

The Astros were emblematic of what baseball had become, for better or worse. They leaned on theories that became calculations that became the nearest baseball had to cold, analytics-driven absolutes. They marginalized their scouts, the ones they didn’t terminate. They separated the people — their fears, their insecurities, their biases, their assumptions, their lying eyes — from the processes of building baseball teams and winning baseball games.

Then they gave in to the most elementary of human frailties.

They doubted it all.

What would win them baseball games in the end, they believed instead, when the lights went on and the stadium filled and the schedule put another team in front of them, was one of those flawed people, assigned to taking a baseball bat to a trash can.

Oh, it worked. It all worked.

The Astros had risen under Luhnow from the depths of the American League into a World Series champion. They were proud of, and rightfully lauded for, their cleverness. They had discovered a better way. They swung their competitive and strategic advantages like a sledgehammer. They have won three consecutive AL West titles, a run beginning only three years after the last of three consecutive last-place finishes.

In case the organization seemed almost too mechanized to love, or too aloof to understand, they led with Hinch, the former catcher turned manager. He stood on the top step of a dugout that held some of the game’s finest players. Jose Altuve was MVP of the American League in 2017. Alex Bregman was top five the next two seasons. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole were, if not the best two pitchers in the league, close enough. The roster was rich with All-Stars and familiar faces, men who gave of themselves on the field and away from it. There was, also, the usual dash of veterans and wise journeymen, men such as Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran and, yes, Fiers.

A month after winning that World Series, they non-tendered Fiers. Two years after that, Fiers revealed the scheme that would cast doubt on what the Astros had become, and how.

While the Astros previously had been suspected of skirting league rules concerning technology-driven sign stealing, the story spurred MLB into a months-long investigation of the club. In December, Manfred said the inquiry included interviews of dozens of players and personnel and inspections of more than 75,000 emails. League investigators also explored allegations the Astros continued forms of cheating in subsequent seasons.

The issue had become personal for Manfred in September 2017, three years into his tenure as commissioner. He’d just fined the Red Sox after determining they had used an Apple watch to steal catchers’ signs from the New York Yankees. He reminded teams then that electronic means of sign stealing were illegal and would not be tolerated.

“All 30 clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks,” he said.

In that case, Red Sox management was not found complicit. In the hours after Fiers’ allegations, Luhnow implied he was unaware of any illegalities involving his team. (During the 2018 postseason, the league reprimanded the Astros for assigning a team employee to stand near and photograph opposing teams’ dugouts. This postseason, several Yankees believed the Astros were relaying catcher’s signs to hitters by whistling from the dugout. The league cleared the Astros of those allegations, which Hinch subsequently called, “A joke.”) Hinch, at the winter meetings in December, declined to comment on the current accusations, citing MLB’s investigation. Alex Cora, current manager of the Red Sox and Hinch’s 2017 bench coach, also declined comment.

“We’re going to look into it, in cooperation with MLB, and we’ll find out,” Luhnow said in November. “We’re going to find out whatever there is to find out.

“If you’re not following the rules, it’s a serious matter.”

Whether the Astros were chronically culpable or chronically suspicious, their reputation now seems secure. It is unlikely the Astros were alone in creating a system or two that violated league rules. Before the league had concluded its investigation into the Astros, it had launched a new investigation into the Red Sox for similar — if not so brazen — tactics in 2018 and 2019. The Astros were exposed by a former employee, investigated and punished. That came on Luhnow’s watch, in Hinch’s dugout, from a roster of players who must now defend the honesty of the World Series rings they wear, of the AL West titles they celebrated.

They may tell their stories about how hard they worked, how focused they were, how committed they were to the cause and each other. How they once earned that trophy and the banners that fly at Minute Maid Park. The sad part is, they probably were the better baseball team in all those games, in all those ballparks in all those Octobers, because they had the better players.

Nobody else doubted it.

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