Analysing a few scenarios such as general managers now on the hot seat (Billy Eppler, Los Angeles Angels, check the cushion temperature) and other off-field doings and possible undoings, The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal also ponders Ron Gardenhire’s possible successor. The Detroit Tigers manager elected to retire for his health’s sake over the weekend. Prospective successors, Rosenthal says, include A.J. Hinch.
Wasn’t he the manager who snoozed on Gerrit Cole in favour of Will Harris and got the rudest awakening when Howie Kendrick rung the Houston Astros’ bell in Game Seven of last year’s World Series? And didn’t it turn out he was the skipper who slept while the Astro Intelligence Agency burned his team’s legacy of three straight American League Wests, two pennants, and a city-healing World Series win?
The answers there are no, and yes.
It wasn’t even close to Hinch’s fault that the Astros couldn’t lay more glove on an obviously drained (by a long season and a barely-fixed neck and shoulder issue) Max Scherzer than a solo home run and an RBI single, before his own starter Zack Greinke ran out of fuel and into Anthony Rendon’s homer in the top of the seventh. Or, that their shortstop Carlos Correa would be the only Astro to hit safely with a man on second or better all night.
And while Cole manhandled the Nationals in Washington in Game Five, the Nats slapped him silly in Houston in Game One. Plus, with Cole never having entered a game in the middle of even the slightest jam in his entire professional pitching life, Harris—proud possessor to that point of a 1.50 regular season ERA and a postseason 0.93 entering Game Seven—really was Hinch’s best card to play in the moment. Even with Juan Soto on first.
Harris’s profession as a relief pitcher includes walking into the middle of fires running the scale from small trash can blazes to first-floor-and-climbing infernos. He threw the perfect retardant to Kendrick, a nasty little cutter off the middle of the plate and toward the low outside corner, and watched it bonk off the right field foul pole.
“It’s every reliever’s worst nightmare,” Harris said after game, set, and Series ended with the Dancing Nats dancing on the Astros’ Minute Maid Park graves. (They won, without precedent, entirely on the road.) “He made a championship play for a championship team.”
Soon enough, alas, we learned that Hinch was aware of but did nothing much to put the AIA out of business in 2017-18. A couple of cross words here, a couple of busted clubhouse monitors there, but otherwise Hinch couldn’t and didn’t summon up the authority to tell his already over-talented club and make it stick that they needed to cheat about as badly as Superman needed an airplane.
One of the game’s most sensitively intelligent managers got caught with his Astrogate pants down around his ankles.
But wasn’t Hinch thrown out of baseball over the AIA? Didn’t commissioner Rob Manfred—jolted out of his own slumber when Astro-turned-Tiger-turned Athletic pitcher Mike Fiers blew the whistle on Astrogate almost a year ago—hand the cheating players immunity in return for spilling and make Hinch, general manager Jeff Luhnow, and some choice draft picks to come, the sacrificial lambs?
Not quite. Hinch and Luhnow both were suspended merely for the 2020 season. Those suspensions end after the World Series does next month. Baseball’s official line will be that they did the crime, they did the time, they don’t get a do-over but they do get a fresh start if anyone’s willing to hand one to either or both.
If you’re going to ask whether they deserve second chances, period, you might say neither one of them considering the stain of the Astros’ level of illegal, off-field-based, electronic cheating. If you’re going to ask whom between them sooner deserves a second chance, you might pick Hinch in a heartbeat. Might.
No matter how far down his pants were, Hinch wasn’t even close to the one who fostered the atmosphere in which the cheaters could and did prosper. Luhnow is another story entirely. His win-at-all-cost atmosphere dehumanised his front office, and he was a lot more aware of his Astrogaters than he’s still willing to admit.
Hinch at least had the conscience and the grace to say in his own statement that “while the evidence consistently showed I didn’t endorse or participate in the sign stealing practices, I failed to stop them and I am deeply sorry.” Even a small handful of accountability goes long toward cleaning up your own mess.
It was more accountability than any Astro was seen to show during that notorious February presser—unless they were ex-Astros. Then, Hinch sat down with Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci.
In hindsight I would have a meeting. I should have had a meeting and addressed it face-forward and really ended it. Leadership to me is often about what you preach. Your pillars of what you believe in. Leadership is also about what you tolerate. And I tolerated too much. And that outburst . . . I wanted to let people know that I didn’t like it. I should have done more. I should have addressed it more directly.
Luhnow himself also declined full accountability in the immediate fallout of the Manfred report. In fact, he lied through his proverbial teeth in the formal statement he issued, saying he didn’t “personally” direct, oversee, or engage in any shenanigans and insisting, “I am not a cheater.” The revelation of the Codebreaker algorithim for extralegal sign decoding, about which Luhnow was aware enough, put the lie to it.
His mess is still considered so toxic that it likely forced Alex Rodriguez and his lady Jennifer Lopez out of the running to buy the New York Mets, after it became known A-Rod sought Luhnow’s baseball administration counsel even informally while Luhnow remained under suspension. It was like seeking family counseling from Charles Manson.
All that said and done, how strong are the chances of Hinch taking the Tigers’ bridge? He has a friend in the Tigers’ front office, Rosenthal says, namely vice president of player personnel Scott Bream.
But former Atlanta Braves/Florida Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez—once thought the favourite for the Tiger job before they chose Gardenhire—has friends in high Tiger places, too. They are GM Al Avila and assistant GM David Chadd, all of whom go back with Gonzalez to his first managing gig with the Marlins in 2007-2010.
If the Tigers end up hiring Hinch, the public relations hit they’ll take would be a couple of water drops compared to the likely flood coming for any GM seekers hiring Luhnow. Hinch may be viewed as the hapless Astrogate fiddler but Luhnow is probably seen as the one who really allowed the joint to incinerate.
The Mets may be looking to get out from under GM Brodie Van Wagenen’s laughingstock lash. Cohen may want to bring in his own man no matter what. (Former GM Sandy Alderson has “a relationship” with him and might have a hand in a new GM pick.) If they were wary of selling to an Alex Rodriguez thinking nothing of engaging Luhnow even under the table, they’d have to be wary about handing Luhnow the front office.
The Phillies may make GM Matt Klentak pay for their shockingly arsonic bullpen doing the most to keep them with a very tenuous postseason reach. A man with an image as a misogynistic cheater—who once defied his entire front office’s outrage to trade for relief pitcher Roberto Osuna while Osuna remained under domestic violence investigation—won’t exactly be at the top of owner John Middleton’s wish list.
Hinch first took the Astros’ bridge as they re-emerged from Luhnow’s controversial introduction of rebuilding by tanking, leading a newly-youthful team with a few veteran pitchers to the 2015 American League wild card game to beat the New York Yankees but lose the division series to the eventual world champion Kansas City Royals.
Two seasons later, Hinch’s Astros stood as now-tainted world champions. Assuming the Tigers have no thoughts of underground intelligence chicanery, and Hinch truly has learned the hard way about fiddling while his dugout empire burns him, he might be just the man to take a Tiger team transitioning to youth back into contention and maybe beyond in a year or two.
Gonzalez wouldn’t exactly be a lame horse. Until they began aging and the front office lost its grip, Gonzalez took his Braves to a couple of postseasons (with early exits, alas) and kept them in contention until a 9-28 opening in 2016 took him to the guillotine. Both Gonzalez and Hinch know a few things about keeping young or young-ish teams in the races.
If the Tigers seek experience on the bridge, there’s another dark horse lurking. Former Astrogate bench coach-turned-Soxgate World Series-winning manager Alex Cora’s suspension ends after the World Series, too. Officially, baseball might say he, too, did the time after doing the crimes.
Notice it’s crimes, plural. Cora was definitely culpable in Astrogate and may or may not have been directly culpable in the Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring. The Red Sox threw their video room operator under the bus to the unemployment line after they got bagged, and after Cora either resigned to keep from being fired or got fired anyway.
One more reminder: The Rogue Sox took the technology MLB provided them (and every other team) in the video rooms and clevered up the old-fashioned gamesmanship. The Astros either altered an existing camera off mandated transmission delay illegally, or installed another camera to operate in real time. Neither was right, but MLB handed the Rogue Sox (and probably others yet uncaught) the weaponry.
To avoid even a couple of days worth of PR fury, the Tigers might reach for Gonzalez. To show they believe in second chances and have enough kidney to survive the brief enough uproar—not to mention an experienced but still very young man with a balance between analytics and in-game eyes—they might reach for Hinch.
Someone once lost the presidency of the United States after not doing more to get to the bottom of the re-election committee crimes that caught him, too, with his pants down at first but joining their cover-up soon enough. However awkwardly, Richard Nixon admitted it in the statement with which he accepted his successor’s pardon.
Since it happened in his second term, Nixon was enjoined legally from seeking a do-over. Hinch doesn’t have that restriction. And he’s a far more sympathetic figure than Nixon was seen to have been.
He obeyed the mandate of his suspension to the letter. He didn’t show up near any team, at any ballpark or facility, either of which could have gotten him banned from baseball for life. If the Tigers reach out to him after the World Series, he would do well to tell them exactly what he told Verducci in February after he owned his Astrogate culpability:
I have to stand out front . . . [with] the message that we took it too far. And it didn’t need to happen . . . [I took] seriously the fact that I’ve been suspended based on the position I was in and what went on under my watch and I will come back stronger for it. I will come back a better leader, and I will be willing to do whatever it is to make the game better.
It would be further evidence that he deserves the second chance Luhnow doesn’t yet, if at all.