The Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal filled out quite a bit last week with two significant new items. The first was an interview on the MLB Network by Tom Verducci, of disgraced Astros manager A.J. Hinch (Hinch Interview). The second was an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) by Jared Diamond, entitled “‘Dark Arts’ and ‘Codebreaker’: The Origins of the Houston Astros Cheating Scheme” (the ‘Dark Arts’ article). In his piece, Diamond detailed how it was the Astros Front Office, led by General Manager (GM) Jeff Luhnow, who originally developed the team’s sign-stealing capabilities. Both stories go a long way towards explaining the toxic culture that existed on the Astros. However, before I go into the sordid details of the toxicity, first a tribute to one of the greatest writers on baseball in the second half of the 20th Century, Roger Kahn, who passed away last week.
In 1951, Kahn was a 24-year-old sportswriter working at the now defunct New York Herald Tribune when he was assigned as the beat reporter for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was one year into the Golden Decade of Baseball when there were only eight teams per league and only 400 major league players. It was just after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier and the very best of the Negro Leagues was beginning to come into Major League Baseball (MLB). It was the decade of the greatest competition with the most talented players, before expansion diluted the talent levels. Kahn was there in New York City when one of the New York teams, the Yankees, Dodgers or Giants won early World Series save one.
While his sports writing was outstanding, I was introduced to Kahn through his book The Boys of Summer about the great Dodger teams from the 1950s who lost five out of six World Series to their rival from the American League (AL), the Yankees. Equally poignant was his tracing of their paths after baseball; from Jackie Robinson to Carl Furillo, the hardhat who sued baseball, to Roy Campanella, paralyzed in a car accident after the team moved to Los Angeles. According to his New York Times (NYT) obituary, “The Boys of Summer” — along with “The Summer Game,” the first collection of Roger Angell’s revelatory New Yorker pieces about baseball, also published in 1972 — more or less created a new literary category: long-form narrative baseball reporting.” Michael Wilbon, co-host of PTI, called it the best book on baseball ever. It was one of the books that has remained with me since I read it the first time, many years ago.
Kahn wrote about baseball through the eyes of a fan, with much awe and wonder. I wonder what he might make of the state of baseball about now? Verducci, writing in SI.com about his interview, said, “Hinch became the first person associated with the scandal to admit to it in detail and explain how wrong it was. Regretful, apologetic and briefly teary-eyed, Hinch this week, in an exclusive interview with SI and MLB Network, talked about when he knew about the scheme, his biggest regret, his emotional meeting with Crane, the whistleblower Mike Fiers, and his future plans.”
I watched the interview and Hinch was clear that felt he was responsible because he was the Manager. It happened on his watch and he did not do enough to stop it. Smashing the clubhouse monitor being used not once but twice was not enough to get the message across. Hinch admitted he should have said something. Hinch said, “I regret so much about that and it’s so complicated and so deep and there are parts that are hard to talk about but taking responsibility as the manager … it happened on my watch. I’m not proud of that. I’ll never be proud of it. I didn’t like it. But I have to own it because I was in a leadership position. And the commissioner’s office made it very, very clear that the GM and the manager were in position to make sure nothing like this happened—and we fell short.”
For me, perhaps most enigmatically, Hinch said he would do things different now. He stated, “As a leader what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown and the bigger stages that I’ve been on, I know how I would respond today.” At the time, I wondered how or why he believes he has grown enough to challenge the sign stealing scheme in the first place. After all wasn’t he the Manager (with a Capital M)? Apparently being the Manager on the Astros did not give you all that much power from what we learned from the Dark Arts article.
It turns out that the Astros developed their original sign stealing scheme back in 2016 and it was a front office initiative signed off by now disgraced and fired former GM Luhnow. The scheme was allegedly dreamed by a then intern (now front office exec). It even had a code name (although not very clever), Codebreaker.
According to the Dark Arts article, “The way Codebreaker worked was simple: Somebody would watch an in-game live feed and log the catcher’s signs into the spreadsheet, as well as the type of pitch that was actually thrown. With that information, Codebreaker determined how the signs corresponded with different pitches. Once decoded, that information would be communicated through intermediaries to a baserunner, who would relay them to the hitter.” Luhnow claimed he never knew about the scheme all the while admitting he saw a PowerPoint presentation on it. Indeed, the intern, “Derek Vigoa, currently the Astros’ senior manager for team operations, told investigators that he presumed Luhnow knew it would be used in games because that was “where the value would be,” according to the letter.” Put another way, do you think employees put plans to lie, cheat and steal in a PowerPoint presentation and then plan not to use it.
Moreover, once, when responding to an email “titled “Road Notes (April-May), which include reference to ““The System”—a reference to … as “all kind of covert operations,” including sign-stealing, “Luhnow responded to that email a day later: “These are great, thanks.” He wrote another email about three hours later. “How much of this stuff do you think [Hinch] is aware of?” In the face of all of this, Luhnow denies all knowledge of the sign-stealing scheme.
There you have it. The GM had the front office create a cheating system and tried to hide it from the Manager. Manager Hinch did not feel like he could stop the cheating system because it appears that it was condoned by the front office. What does that tell you about the toxic culture that existed at the Houston Astros? Manager Hinch knew the sign stealing scheme was wrong but could not go to his boss because he thought his boss was the one who had approved the scheme in the first place. It is only going to get worse for the Astros
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2020