Astros owner Jim Crane gave AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow only minutes of warning before he fired them on live television Monday. It was a cold, sudden ending to what had been such a warm story, as Hinch, the manager, and Luhnow, the general manager, guided Houston from irrelevance to the franchise’s first world championship, packed houses and three straight 100-win seasons.
Hinch was blown away by the news. He had anticipated discipline from Major League Baseball for failing to stop his team’s sign-stealing schemes in 2017 and 2018, but who actually anticipates getting fired? He was stunned, but still managed to tell Crane he understood and still wants what is best for the organization. Luhnow, true to his stoic self, took the news and was off the phone in a hurry.
Has anybody else been fired on live TV, let alone two successful shepherds of a franchise at the same time? Stunning as it was, Crane acted logically given the findings of the commissioner’s investigation.
The Astros had built a winning culture, but a deeply flawed, impersonal one. Crane would not risk returning to it–not by putting two placeholders into those jobs in 2020 and simply waiting to go back to Hinch and Luhnow in 2021 and the taint they carry. He had to move on permanently, not temporarily.
The report was damning on so many levels. The Astros, it established, cheated “throughout the 2017 postseason,” when they won the World Series, giving an MLB-sanctioned taint to that championship. Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran were at the heart of the schemes–the only named participants after 68 interviews. The Astros used so many methods to pull off their chicanery that it was hard to keep them straight: a runner, a smart watch, a cell phone, the dugout phone, the trash can, the replay monitor, the video room, the back office analysts, clapping, whistling, yelling, a massage gun … wait, what? A massage gun?
This was systematic cheating of the highest order over a two-year period. But what undermines all of it is the lost culture of the Astros–decency and a working moral compass lost in the maniacal quest not just to win but to achieve any incremental edge that made winning a bit more possible. The report damns this “insular culture–one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight …”
Luhnow and Hinch, for all their success, barely spoke, symptomatic of the internal dysfunction. The Astros crossed the line commissioner Rob Manfred drew in Sept. 15, 2017, when he alerted all clubs in a memo that the misuse of technology to steal signs would result in harsh penalties, including the loss of draft picks. He put on notice front offices, managers and coaches to make sure such cheating didn’t happen on their watch. According to the report, Luhnow didn’t even “forward the memoranda and did not confirm that the players and field staff were in compliance with MLB rules and the memoranda.”
The report added this punch in the gut to any Astros fan, revealing the ultimate “what if?” moment:
“Had Luhnow taken those steps in September 2017, it is clear to me that the Astros would have ceased both sign-stealing schemes at that time.”
The Astros would not have been penalized if they ceased the schemes at that time. Manfred has made it clear that the Sept. 15, 2017 memo is the line of demarcation: only cheating after that declaration will be met with harsh penalties.
Luhnow took what was an all-points bulletin from the commissioner of baseball and did nothing. Didn’t forward it. Didn’t tell his manager. Didn’t make sure his team was in compliance.
Hinch will manage again someday because the report makes clear he neither participated in nor condoned the sign stealing. His crime was one of one omission. He failed to stop the cheating when it was right in front of him. The industry understands. Luhnow is a different cat, more of an iconoclast who lost favor among the old guard in baseball when he fired advance scouts. His best practices were trashed in the report. His comeback will be more difficult, especially to return to another general manager position.
With smarts and nimbleness, Luhnow built one of the great teams at the end of the decade. But his mistake in 2017 to ignore the commissioner’s warning is one that will stick.
It not only led to the mess that happened Monday, but it also damaged the brand that Crane owns. The owner could not go back to that culture. He had to fire his two top decision makers, even if it happened on live TV.