Sports

What the Houston Astros’ Arrogance Has Won Them

MLB’s penalties are this heavy for reasons beyond the team’s absurd sign-stealing scheme.

Astros team members rush toward one another near the pitcher’s mound.
The Houston Astros celebrate winning the 2017 World Series on Nov. 1, 2017, at Dodger Stadium.
Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred concluded his investigation into the Houston Astros’ comically intricate sign-stealing system and published his findings in a nine-page report released Monday. The punishment included forfeiture of the Astros’ first- and second-round picks for the next two drafts, a $5 million fine, and one-year bans from baseball for general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, both of whom team owner Jim Crane fired shortly after the report’s release. Reading Manfred’s rationale in full makes plain that what really ticked him off was the Astros’ brazenness.

Sign stealing is one of those gray areas of baseball: Every team does it, but there are vaguely defined limits about how shameless they can be. If a runner on second can figure it out and signal to the batter, the opposing pitcher-catcher duo should be smart enough to switch the signs. But if the runner on second figured it out with the aid of technology, that’s cheating—as MLB has made emphatically clear.

Back in August 2017, the New York Yankees accused the Boston Red Sox of using smart watches to relay signs. MLB fined the Red Sox and fired a warning shot at all the major league teams with a statement, which Manfred referenced in Monday’s report. “Following the issuance of the press release announcing the results of the Red Sox investigation, I issued a memorandum that same day to all Clubs reiterating the rules regarding the use of electronic equipment to steal signs, and putting all Clubs on notice that future violations would be taken extremely seriously by my office,” he wrote. “I specifically stated in the memorandum that the General Manager and Field Manager of Clubs would be held accountable for any violations of the rules in the future.” Two years later, former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers revealed to the Athletic that his old team had a technology-aided system in place since the start of the 2017 season.

Objectively, Houston’s system was hilarious. According to MLB’s report, Carlos Beltrán and other players wanted a way to decode signs, so then–bench coach Alex Cora arranged for the center-field camera view to be shown on a monitor near the team’s dugout. A player would watch the feed and someone else would hit a trash can with a bat, with the number of thumps indicating a certain pitch. (Baseball video savant Jimmy “Jomboy” O’Brien has a helpful video if you’d like to witness the process in action.) Sometimes it wasn’t a bat, as this delightful sentence explained: “Players occasionally also used a massage gun to bang the trash can.”

Before the 2018 season, MLB chose to make the rules more explicit in prohibiting electronic equipment to decode signs. The league couldn’t find evidence that the Astros kept up “the banging scheme” that year, but it did discover that the team’s replay review room continued to decode signs. At some point during that season, Houston players quit using the system because they didn’t think it helped.

Even though Manfred’s investigation led him to believe that the banging scheme was driven and executed by the players, with help from Cora, the commissioner chose not to take the path NFL boss Roger Goodell might have taken and bring the hammer down on them. That would’ve taken baseball into a thorny, possibly interminable labor dispute. Instead, Manfred followed through with his original warning: The responsibility would fall to the team employees who are supposed to be in control of all of this. Luhnow and Hinch were the nails.

You may recall that the Astros won the 2017 World Series in a fiercely entertaining seven games against the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Ben Reiter, the Sports Illustrated writer who in 2014 famously predicted the 2017 title and received a book deal for it, should be subpoenaed.) While there’s no way to take away that championship—well, MLB could, but that would stupidly ignore that Houston did win—Manfred did his best to make the Astros’ future much more difficult by taking away their draft picks.

Luhnow was really sunk not just by the sign-stealing scheme but in combination with another instance of the Astros’ institutional arrogance. Assistant GM Brandon Taubman became a well-known name for the wrong reasons after the team clinched the 2019 American League Championship Series in Game 6, when he yelled, “I’m so fucking glad we got Osuna!” at a group of nearby female reporters during the clubhouse celebration. Taubman was referring to Roberto Osuna, the ex–Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher who had been traded to Houston in 2018 after MLB handed him a 75-game suspension for a domestic assault charge, which was later dropped as part of a deal with prosecutors. Stephanie Apstein of Sports Illustrated was in the locker room and wrote about Taubman’s behavior, but the Astros initially pushed back in a haughty statement that called her report “misleading.” In the ensuing days, it became clear that Apstein had been accurate. The team retracted the statement and eventually apologized, but Luhnow came off very poorly throughout the mess, at one point saying he hadn’t found the time to apologize to Apstein while she was in the room. The GM seemed to treat what happened as a nuisance rather than a learning experience.

Manfred hadn’t forgotten what happened with Taubman, who was fired on Oct. 24 and suspended Monday through the 2020 World Series, with a requirement that he apply for reinstatement. To the commissioner, the “insular culture” of Luhnow’s department was a reason why Taubman felt the freedom to make his remarks, and indicative of an organization with a smug, corporate-management mentality and employees soaked in not just Champagne but overconfidence. Luhnow was in charge, so he was responsible. The league saw this case as a golden opportunity to look tough and show that it won’t hesitate to crack down on a recent champion, and now every major league team knows it. The question for the future is: Will such heavy punishment be as effective the second or third time it’s levied?

In terms of his future, Taubman is definitely screwed. Even if he’s reinstated, it may take a few years before he can get any sort of job in baseball again. Hinch said he knew of the banging scheme and disapproved of it but admitted he didn’t do enough to stop it, so he had to be contrite in his statement in an attempt to salvage his career after his suspension is complete. Remember after Game 1 of the ALCS, when Hinch laughed off the Yankees’ allegation that his team was using whistling to tip pitches? Funny, that. Maybe he’ll glom on as a minor league coach somewhere.

Luhnow was found to have had no knowledge of the banging scheme, but his cluelessness would suggest an entirely different set of problems in his managerial skills. His Nixonesque statement blamed everyone else around him; he’s probably screwed, too. The players got off without punishment, except for Beltrán, who may find indirect consequences in his new job, managing the New York Mets. Most screwed of all ultimately might be Cora, who was manager of the Boston Red Sox until the team fired him Tuesday. Everyone above and below him tossed him under the bus, seeing as he’s no longer with the organization and working for a formidable American League adversary. Manfred still hasn’t handed down the league punishment for Cora, but it’ll likely be a doozy.

In what must be a total coincidence, the Red Sox are waiting for the league to conclude its investigation into their own sign stealing, which took place during their Cora-led, title-winning season in 2018. Dave Dombrowski, the GM during that time, hasn’t worked for the team since September, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Manfred chose to make another example out of another World Series champion.