Rob Manfred attacks ‘very problematic’ Astros culture with discipline

The Astros have fired manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow following the suspensions handed down by the MLB in wake of sign-stealing investigations. Ben Nicholson-Smith and Faizal Khamisa break down the latest.

TORONTO – There is so much in Major League Baseball’s justifiably harsh discipline of the Houston Astros that is unprecedented. The suite of personal, financial and draft penalties handed down by commissioner Rob Manfred, prompting team owner Jim Crane to fire both GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, is among the most severe in the game’s long and at times sordid history. This is 1919 Chicago Black Sox and Pete Rose gambling territory, wholly appropriate whenever the sport’s integrity is placed in such grave danger.

Given that we were here back in 2017, when the Boston Red Sox were caught cheating with smart watches and were only fined for the hustle, some worried the Astros would escape with another slap on the wrist. Instead, Manfred delivered a punch to the face that should resonate with those who want to push the fine line between legit gamesmanship and illicit cheating.

Everyone now knows the consequences, and boy are they real.

Still, more remarkable, in some ways, is the fashion in which Manfred publicly vilified a baseball operations culture he described as “very problematic” in a thorough and well-reasoned nine-page decision released to media. Given that it was the brazen and shameful harassment of three female reporters by fired assistant GM Brandon Taubman during a post-season celebration that triggered the initial probe into the Astros’ front office, that’s significant, and surely forced Crane’s hand in firing one of the smartest executives in the sport.

Can’t exactly bring a guy back from a season-long ban and move forward as if nothing happened when Manfred writes that, “at least in my view, the baseball operations department’s insular culture – one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led, at least in part, to the Brandon Taubman incident, the club’s admittedly inappropriate and inaccurate response to that incident, and finally, to an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.”

Take a second to wrap your mind around that. When is the last time a commissioner of any sport issued such a comprehensive rebuke of a club’s core being?

He just crushed them.

Then, as if anticipating the Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” defence, Luhnow offered in a statement that he both accepted responsibility and blamed underlings, including, without directly naming him, Alex Cora, the former bench coach and current Red Sox manager.

Manfred made clear that ignorance doesn’t absolve one of responsibility.

“Regardless of the level of Luhnow’s actual knowledge, the Astros’ violation of rules in 2017 and 2018 is attributable, in my view, to a failure by the leaders of the baseball operations department and the field manager to adequately manage the employees under their supervision,” wrote Manfred, “to establish a culture in which adherence to the rules is ingrained in the fabric of the organization, and to stop bad behaviour as soon as it occurred.”

In other words, if it happens on your watch, you own it, which is the way it should be, and for their troubles, aside from having to cough up $5 million and two first-round picks and two second-round picks, the Astros must find a new GM and manager. Considering that they’re carrying a beyond-the-luxury-tax payroll projected at $216 million, losing two top leaders a month away from spring training is rather detrimental to leveraging an expensive roster.

(A tangent here, but John Gibbons makes sense as manager for a win-now team in desperate need of stability, offering a steadying hand the way Jim Fregosi did when the Toronto Blue Jays fired Tim Johnson in the spring of ’99.)

So, examples have been made – something Major League Baseball should have done in 2017 with the Red Sox, perhaps establishing a deterrent then that would have prevented all this – and the real question now is whether it’s enough for the game to move forward.

Discipline still looms for Cora, depicted in the report as the Astros mastermind, for his role in a similar sign-stealing plan with the 2018 Red Sox, and the burden may be higher there given that he’s violated the rules with two clubs now.

Whether Cora can survive in a way Luhnow and Hinch did not will be closely watched, but how things sit among players is even more interesting.

Privately, players have long whispered that the Astros aren’t the only ones doing it, that other clubs engage in dark arts, too. The relative silence of the Los Angeles Dodgers – who lost the World Series in 2017 to the Astros and in ’18 to the Red Sox – makes you wonder if they’re reluctant to cast stones because they too have sinned.

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And hey, maybe there really was a Man in White employed by the Toronto Blue Jays to relay signs from the centre-field seats. Wait, that was last decade? Doesn’t matter, better hide him guys, stat.

Seriously, though, how deep a dive to take into the sign-stealing cesspool makes for an interesting debate. How will players that feel cheated out of numbers and service time react? Does baseball need a Mitchell Report on steroids examination into who did what when with electronic sign-stealing? Is this Astros pound of flesh enough to deter the bold and immoral?

Murky, ground, all of it.

Regardless, the rules of engagement for would-be-cheaters is now clear. Manfred has established a baseline punishment to fit the crime, and he’ll run reputations into the ground as he shows perpetrators out the door, too.

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