“Your credibility is further impacted . . .”

Jeff Luhnow

An excerpt from the forthcoming Astrogate book by the reporter who co-broke the scandal story originally makes deposed Astros GM Jeff Luhnow look even worse.

“Winning fixes everything” became a catch phrase around the Astros in the wake of Astrogate’s presumed denouement. It also became the title of a forthcoming book examining the Astros’ organisational culture that fostered, enabled, and entrenched the team’s illegal, off-field based, highest-tech electronic sign-stealing in 2017-18.

The author is Evan Drellich, one of the two Athletic reporters (partnered with Ken Rosenthal) who first exposed Astrogate in depth by way of whistleblowing former 2017 Astro pitcher Mike Fiers in late November 2019—after the Astros lost the World Series to the Nationals in seven games none of which were won by the home team.

First, the book was to be called Winning Fixes Everything: The Rise and Fall of the Houston Astros and published a year ago. That would have been on the seventieth anniversary of the off-field based telescopic sign-stealing cheating by which the New York Giants mounted the staggering stretch drive comeback from the dead to force the fabled 1951 National League pennant playoff.

Then, the publication date changed to this past March. Then, to last month. I actually messaged Drellich via Twitter after the beginning of this year to ask the wherefore of the delays. Quite kindly, he answered that the book ended up taking longer to report out and write up than he thought going in, not to mention pan-damn-ically inspired supply chain issues prompting a possible July arrival.

But now, the book will arrive in due course under the title Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball’s Brightest Minds Created Sports’ Biggest Mess. The newly scheduled publication date: next Valentine’s Day. Astro fans still divided between sorrow and whataboutism about the now-long-tainted 2017-18 Astros won’t necessarily consider it a love letter.

If an excerpt published in The Athletic Thursday suggests nothing else, it suggests that the ultimate mastermind of what would become Astrogate in the first place outsmarted himself when Fiers exposed the Astro Intelligence Agency and thus prompted commissioner Rob Manfred to launch a complete investigation into the AIA.

Jeff Luhnow’s organisational culture when he ran the Astro show already lacked for what enough who escaped one way or the other described as basic humanness. It went beyond the team’s newly data-driven approach to tanking in order to rebuild a winner.

“In Casablanca,” Major Strasser said infamously, “human life is cheap.” In Luhnow’s Astroblanca, people learned the hard way that human decency was cost prohibitive. And Luhnow appears to have been willing to launch a high-tech coverup to keep Manfred and his bloodhounds from unlocking the Astrogate.

“In any investigation,” Drellich wrote, “the league notifies people of interest in writing that they need to preserve their cell phones . . . Luhnow, investigators learned, had instructed one of his lieutenants, Bill Firkus, to give a personal heads up to others with the team that MLB might collect their devices, a person with direct knowledge of the league’s investigation said.”

In a “quick and hurried manner,” Luhnow asked Firkus to tell “others” not necessarily to wipe their cell phones but ‘let them know their phone might be confiscated, and that they should be comfortable with what was on there.’ But the same sources having such deep knowledge of the Manfred probe said the Astros’ then-manager of pro scouting analysis, Matt Hogan, believed Firkus’s heads-up translated as, “MLB is coming, and that there’s a chance they can take your phone, so if you have things you don’t want anyone to see, I would get rid of them.”

Maybe nobody can isolate the actual language by which Luhnow counseled Firkus and what he did or didn’t actually suggest. But MLB, Drellich wrote, thinks it found only one individual wiping a cell phone after ordering Astro personnel to preserve those phones: Luhnow.

Manfred himself sent Luhnow a letter dated 2 January 2020, slightly over a month before the notorious spring training presser at which the Astros either apologised non-apologetically or non-apologised apologetically, depending on your translation. It laid out the evidence against the AIA. When the Wall Street Journal (which also exposed the Codebreaker algorithim that paved the path to Astrogate in the first place) published a story about the letter, it didn’t mention the cell phone wipes.

But Drellich revealed that the Manfred letter spanked Luhnow for the attempted Astrogate coverup. From the letter itself:

Your credibility is further impacted by the fact that you permanently deleted information from your phone and its backups in anticipation that my investigators would seek to search your phone. You did not tell my investigators that you had done this until they confronted you about it in your second interview. While you explained that you were simply deleting sensitive personal photographs, I have no way to confirm that you did not delete incriminating evidence.

“According to people with knowledge of the league’s investigation, the GM of the Astros had wiped every back-up from his phone, besides one, and other data was missing as well,” Drellich wrote.

. . . Investigators found that Luhnow’s phone had no standard call logs, even though Luhnow had known phone calls with A.J. Hinch that should have been there. MLB also could not locate known email exchanges that should have been on his phone that were found on others’ devices. But as MLB’s investigators saw it, if Luhnow had been trying to delete a large amount of information, he didn’t do a perfect job: the phone had Skype and WhatsApp call logs dating back to 2009.

When Luhnow offered a kind of apology for Astrogate in October 2020, he told a reporter for Houston’s NBC affiliate, Vanessa Richardson, that by God nobody told him about the illegally installed extra center field camera in Minute Maid Park, nobody told him it was sending real-time imagery to a clubhouse monitor illegally, nobody told him someone figured out what to bang on the can after deciphering that illegal intelligence, and by God he’d have told them no, nein, nyet if they’d gone to him asking permission.

Sure. Just the way Albert Fall told Harry Sinclair where to stuff it with his presents in exchange for getting to bid low and win the right to draw oil from Teapot Dome. Just as Lyndon Johnson told his pal/adviser Bobby Baker to quit swapping sex partnerships for Congressional votes. Just as Richard Nixon demanded names and heads on plates when he learned about a burglary at the Watergate Hotel.

Drellich never pretended other major league teams weren’t up to electronic chicanery. Neither did Cheated author Andy Martino, whose Astrogate book detailed how the Yankees and the Red Sox and others took to anything from AppleWatches in the dugout to replay room reconnaissance for sign stealing.

But the AIA was something newer, far more advanced, and far more disturbing. It continued even as Manfred formally wrist-slapped both the Yankees and the Red Sox for swapping electronic sign stealings in 2017 and warned all teams simultaneously not to even think about it. It went above and beyond the 2018 Rogue Sox’s replay room reconnaissance ring.

It went above and beyond such telescopic cheaters as the 1899 Phillies, the 1909-1910 Highlanders (Yankees), the 1940 Tigers, the 1948 Indians, the 1951 Giants (stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!), and the 1961 Reds.

MLB handed the replay room reconnaissance ringers the replay rooms they discovered could be used for espionage. It didn’t hand the Astros a license to operate their own sign-stealing closed-circuit television station.

A commenter on The Athletic‘s page publishing the Drellich excerpt asked, “Why are we still talking about [Astrogate]?” News bulletin: Baseball fans and historians haven’t stopped talking about the Black Sox scandal, the ’51 Giants, the 1957 Cincinnati All-Star ballot-box stuffing scandal, the political chicaneries driving the Dodgers and the Giants out of New York, the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trials, the Pete Rose scandal, the Steinbrenner/Spira scandal, or the scandals around actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances, either.

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. Astrogate won’t go away at last until the last member of the Astrogate teams standing no longer wears the Astro uniform. Even, then, books such as Martino’s and, in due course, Drellich’s, won’t let the scandal die the death the most stubborn Astro fans wish.

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