Does Luhnow still not get it?

Jeff Luhnow, in front of the uniforms of two Astros Hall of Famers about whose baseball counsel he couldn’t have cared less—but probably should have.

Deposed and disgraced former Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow wants you to know that those who brewed what became Astrogate went rogue on him. He also wants you to know that nobody told him a blessed thing about the off-field-based, illegal sign-stealing scheme, and things would have been different if they had.

Where have I heard that before?

Oh, yes. Once upon a time, in 1971, I heard it from deposed New York City police commissioner Howard Leary. He’d either looked the other way, or denied what was in front of him for years, as graft ran even more rampant in his department than a decade earlier, when bookie Harry Gross had almost as many New York cops on his payroll as the city did.

Luhnow gave an extensive interview Monday to Vanessa Richardson of KPRC, Houston’s NBC affiliate. “Whether it’s the players or the video staffers, they just decided on their own to do it and that’s a shame,” Luhnow told Richardson, “because had they come and asked me for permission I would have said no. Had they gone and asked Jim for permission, he would have said no. There’s just no reason why that should have happened.”

When Leary in 1971 was hauled before the Knapp Commission empaneled to get to the depths of what clean cops Frank Serpico and David Durk exposed to The New York Times, the ex-commissioner told the panel wearily that nobody told him anything, either, and by God things would have been different if anybody had.

The original Times story actually prompted Leary to denounce the paper for McCarthyism of the worst sort (his words). Serpico biographer Peter Maas revealed in due course that one of the few superiors Serpico trusted suggested to Leary that the plainclothesman was due a promotion and commendation for trying to expose rampant corruption, Leary snapped, “He’s a psycho!”

“In that case,” the superior rejoined dryly, “maybe the department needs more psychos.”

The Astros don’t need psychos to move past Astrogate. But they could use a lot better than their former general manager continuing to throw people under the proverbial bus while insisting falsely enough that it wasn’t him or didn’t begin with him.

Richardson asked Luhnow for a kind of timeline of the Astro Intelligence Agency’s operation. After beginning his reply by mentioning “a cabal” of video staffers and “coaches” executing the sign-stealing scheme via illegal camera operation—and saying they actually opened for business in 2016—Luhnow said, “It was pretty blatant. They were assigning duties, ‘Who’s on codebreaker duty tonight’.”

Pay close attention to “codebreaker.” Now, remind yourself that last February Wall Street Journal reporter Jared Diamond exposed a front office-developed algorithm called  Codebreaker, and shown to Luhnow in September 2016, brought to him by an Astros front-office intern who told him the algorithm could steal opposing catcher’s signs.

That was already far above and beyond traditional on-field gamesmanship, baserunners or coaches catching and deciphering opposition pitch signs to transmit to batters. (Or, catching pitchers tipping pitches.) That also preceded whoever it was that decided to either take an existing center field camera off mandatory transmission delay or install an additional camera transmitting real-time to clubhouse monitors.

If Luhnow wants you to believe nobody told him a bloody thing about any such espionage, beware the for-sale sign on whatever North Pole beach shop he owns.

Former longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Jose de Jesus Ortiz pounced at once. “If Luhnow wants to say [Astros] players & [former manager] AJ Hinch didn’t tell him, he can go there,” Ortiz tweeted angrily enough. “Some might even believe him, but in my 23 years of covering ball I’ve found that players rarely spill info outside of the group. You can think you know, but you don’t. But he hired the ‘code breakers’.”

That was after Ortiz fumed, “Here’s the [fornicating] truth about Jeff Luhnow & baseball ops under him. They didn’t take into consideration what Nolan Ryan, Craig Biggio, Reid Ryan & Enos Cabell had to offer on baseball ops. It’s quite rich of him to [be] wondering why they didn’t know” about the Astros’ extralegal sign-stealing.

Luhnow didn’t mention a specific name, and Richardson hadn’t even prompted him to go there, but when he said, “one of the people who was intimately involved, I had demoted from a position in the clubhouse to a position somewhere else, and after I was fired he was promoted back into the clubhouse,” the assumption quickly became that he referred to Reid Ryan—the son of Hall of Famer Nolan.

Craig Biggio, of course, is a Hall of Fame second baseman. Enos Cabell was a corner infielder/outfielder for the 1972-80 Astros. They may not be the only baseball people whose counsel their baseball employers ignore, but the Astros’ apparent ignorance thereof hurt worse than any of the 285 pitches that hit Biggio during his long playing career.

Reid Ryan was the president of the Astros’ business operations for seven years until he was re-assigned in November 2019. (And, replaced by Crane’s son, Jared.) He was known if anything for applying himself to enhancing the fan experiences at Minute Maid Park.

When he was demoted his father quit the organisation outright at once. (Reid also insisted after his reassignment that the Astros’ 2017 World Series title wouldn’t really be tainted by the AIA cheating operation.) That wasn’t exactly part of the future Nolan Ryan had in mind after he threw his final major league pitch and accepted his plaque in Cooperstown.

Luhnow was the president of baseball ops. Jim Crane made clear Reid Ryan handled business & Luhnow handled baseball ops,” Ortiz reminds us. “It was Luhnow’s culture. I wish him well, but he exits Houston as he arrived, [defecating] on people who devoted their lives to the Astros.”

Luhnow’s Astro “culture” was long exposed as a result-oriented culture in which human relationships were cheap and too often disregarded.”Luhnow had all year to speak,” Ortiz continued. “But as was the case throughout his tenure Luhnow is as calculated as ever. That’s why baseball folks throughout the country say he’s dismissive of traditional baseball folks, scouts, players, etc. He sees them as assets, people to manipulate.”

He practised what legendary football coach Vince Lombardi is still misquoted as saying, even today: Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. He denied responsibility when the Astros were exposed and caught in the first place. He barely flinched when it turned out the most apologetic Astros for Astrogate were such former Astros as J.D. Davis, Tony Kemp, Dallas Keuchel, and Jake Marisnick.

But he said little to nothing about the former Astro who blew the Astrogate whistle in the first place. Mike Fiers’s revelations included that he and several other players tried convincing sportswriters to expose the AIA only to discover those writers couldn’t convince their editors to let them run with it without even a single player willing to put his name on it.

The Oakland Athletics, for whom Fiers has pitched since mid-2018, filed formal complaints with Manfred’s office. So, apparently, did a few other teams. Manfred made a point of saying his office investigates any and all such complaints, yet nothing really seemed to move until Fiers spilled to Athletic reporters Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich almost a year ago.

When Hinch spoke to Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci after his own firing, he, too, was remorseful over his Astrogate role, which was kind of a non-role of sorts: aside from destroying a couple of the clubhouse monitors receiving the illegally-pilfered intelligence, he did nothing much if anything.

“I should have had a meeting and addressed it face-forward and really ended it,” he admitted. “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.”

That’s still a great deal more owning up than Luhnow has done. The former GM still thinks he was targeted specifically on behalf of Manfred needing a head or two on plates to show the commissioner meant business. He also still thinks it was just about everybody else’s fault.

“The reality is, the Astros cheated in 2017, and cheated a little bit again in 2018 using just the decoder method, and it was wrong, and it should never have happened, and I’m upset,” Luhnow told Richardson.

I’m really upset that it happened. I’m upset for our fans, I’m upset for players on other teams that gave up hits as a result of this that should never have happened. If we won games because of it, it should never have happened, and we didn’t need to do it. We had a great team. The team we put together in 2017, a lot of which is still together today is one of the best teams of the 21st century, and has had an incredible stretch. And there’s no reason why we needed to explore breaking the rules to gain an advantage, it made no sense to me.

Now he tells us. On the threshold of a World Series in which his former Astros won’t be appearing thanks to the Tampa Bay Rays.

If there was no reason for the 2017-18 Astros to break the rules to gain an advantage, why didn’t Luhnow kill it in its Codebreaker crib? The Los Angeles Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves may win their next World Series titles sooner than the answer arrives.

Luhnow would have done far better to heed not the actual or alleged Vince Lombardi credo but that of another sports legend, writer Grantland Rice:

When One Great Scorer comes
to write against your name,
He marks not that you won or lost,
but how you played the game.

Does Verlander down mean a coming Astro remodel?

Verlander faces Tommy John surgery. Will it begin the Astros’ reconfiguration, too?

One of the jokes going around the last couple of months is a visual of one of those make-yourself/change-yourself outdoor display signs, reading, “Going to ask Mom if that offer to slap me into next year is still good.” This year’s Houston Astros have more reason than most major league baseball teams to ask Mom for that slap.

Before the coronavirus world tour interrupted spring training, invited the hurry-up summer camps, and delivered the truncated regular season with all its foibles, follies, and folderol, the Astros figured only to wear a scarlet C. All things considered, they might settle for that right now. It might be an improvement.

They were injury-punctured almost from the words “Play ball!” when the truncated season began. If the New York Yankees’ 2020 yearbook could be The Johns Hopkins Medical Journal, the Astros’ could be The Physicians Desk Reference. The latest casualty: Justin Verlander, who’s graduating from the injured list after a single late July start to down until 2022 after he undergoes Tommy John surgery.

We should probably consider as ESPN’s David Schoenfield does, that Verlander’s right elbow ligaments were lucky to have lasted as long as they did. He’s thrown 51,931 pitches in sixteen major league seasons—48,822 in regular season play and 3,109 in postseason play. That averages out to 107 pitches per regular season start and 100 per postseason game, in a career in which he’s averaged seven innings a start.

Verlander’s Astro deal expires after next season. He’ll be 39 when he hits the open market then. Pitchers that age not named Jamie Moyer have tricky enough markets without being 39-year-old post-Tommy John pitchers. Taking every objective factor into consideration, we may have seen the last of Verlander in a major league uniform and now count the days to the beginning of his Hall of Fame watch.

We may also be watching the beginning of the end of the Astros’ tainted legacy while we’re at it.

Verlander himself isn’t part of the taint. It wasn’t the Astros’ pitchers who cooked up that illegal, off-field-based, electronic sign-stealing Astro Intelligence Agency operation that rendered their 2017 World Series title stained forever. But the opportunity is about to arrive for which the Astros’ new regime can apply and spread the Febreeze liberally.

Nine of this year’s team remain from the tainted 2017-18 team. Three—first baseman Yuli Gurriel, and outfielders Josh Reddick and George Springer—can hit the open market this winter. Three—shortstop Carlos Correa, and pitchers Chris Devenski and Lance McCullers, Jr.—are signed through the end of this season and become arbitration-eligible after next year. Two—second baseman Jose Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman—are locked in through the end of 2024.

Schoenfield thinks that of the foregoing free agency-to-be group Springer might be the one the Astros would love most to keep. But he also thinks Springer might still hold a grudge against the organisation for their bid to try signing him long-term while he was still in the minors and for their delay in promoting him to the Show.

Astroworld may be watching the last days of Springer in Astros fatigues. From this point until the end of 2021, it’s also possible that the Astros will be remade and remodeled. Maybe a tear-down on behalf of a renewed youth movement, hopefully without compromising the team’s competitiveness, but definitely continuing the cleanup of the Jeff Luhnow fallout.

The sooner, the better. New general manager James Click’s challenge is keeping the best of that era aboard and making sure the worst doesn’t get to within ten nautical miles of the franchise ever again.

The Luhnow administration’s forward-ho analytical approaches forced other teams to re-think and re-model their own player development. That was good for the game as well as for the Astros, and the braying old farts who screamed bloody murder over the thinking person’s sport being invaded by, you know, actual thinking, were invited kindly but firmly to sit down and shut up.

But the braying old farts had one point after all, even in the breach. The price for the Astros was a win-at-all-cost mindset through which Luhnow’s leadership left the Astros as misogynistic cheaters who just might sacrifice virgins while running an extracurricular spy ring, if it meant winning that one extra game to make the difference.

Not one Astro player truly paid the price—unless you count ducking pitches to their heads or elsewhere this year, that is. (On the flip side, alas, is poor Abraham Toro. He wasn’t an Astro until last August. But he leads with having taken six for the team. Not nice, not acceptable. At least Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly targeted two who were 2017-18 Astros.)

The players were offered and took immunity in return for spilling their Astrogate beans. They didn’t pay so much as a quarter’s worth of a fine, and when called upon to stand accountable in the public eye they apologised, kind of, sort of, before spring training was stopped due to the pandemic.

Harrumph if you must about the 2018 Boston Red Sox, likewise exposed as high-tech cheaters. But there were reasons they didn’t feel half the cheat-shaming the Astros have taken. For starters, they executed manager Alex Cora—thought to have been an Astrogate mastermind—before the investigation into their own Soxgate treachery was finished.

Also, the Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring depended entirely upon what was handed them in their video rooms (at home and on the road) and upon someone sending stolen signs to their baserunners to send to the batter’s box. MLB handed the Rogue Sox the keys to the liquor cabinet and dared them not to open it and drink underage. It won’t be that shocking if we discover they weren’t the only ones drinking accordingly.

But nobody on high told or allowed the Astro Intelligence Agency to either alter an existing camera off the mandatory eight-second transmission delay or install a fresh, furtive, real-time camera, sending signs to the clubhouse monitor next to which someone banged the can slowly sending the stolen intelligence to the hitters.

By the way, the Red Sox are so far out of the postseason picture this year you could argue a case of instant karma. You could, that is, if you ignore that last offseason they were, inexplicably, more concerned about staying under the game’s luxury tax than about locking down their franchise player—who’s now locked in as a Dodger for life and helping them to what’s liable to hold up as coronaball’s best record.

Luhnow’s ramifications went beyond just soiling the Astros’ powerhouse and the team’s image.

We know now that the entire sport prayed that the net result of last year’s postseason would be anyone but the Astros winning the World Series. We know now that too much of the Show believed the major reason the Astros abandoned the AIA by 2019 was their possible fear of exposure.

We also know that the Washington Nationals—who sent their postseason pitchers to the mound prepared to change up as many as five sets of signs each, just in case—spoke of it being “amazing, once we were playing the Astros [in the World Series], how many people were coming out of the woodwork to let us know what they were doing.”

In other words, the Nats winning the Series at all gave the sport the warmest fuzzy possible. Winning it entirely on the road, in Minute Maid Park, was almost gravy.

(Last year, the Nats turned a 19-31 record into the Promised Land. This morning, the 19-31 Nats battered and bruised themselves out of a postseason trip. Wait till next year.)

Luhnow even had an impact on the sale of another major league franchise. Alex Rodriguez and his partner Jennifer Lopez lost out on buying the New York Mets as much because of A-Rod’s informal contacts with the suspended Luhnow as because J-Rod didn’t have quite the billions to tap that hedge fund wheel Steve Cohen does.

The last thing the Mets and the Show alike needed was seeing the Mets sold to someone who’d take counsel from the man who made it possible for a World Series champion and three-times-dominant American League West champion to resemble an unholy union between a high-tech frat house and an underground spy network.

The next-to-last thing the sport needed was to see an Astro fan base whose profound loyalty was second to very few ground under the Astrogate heel. Those Astro fans who refused to be shaken tripped over their own circle-squarings; those Astro fans who couldn’t help but be shaken still try making sense of it.

If the Astros are indeed on the threshold of a tear-down and remodel, it’s the best thing that could happen to the franchise and their fans, and one of the best for the sport itself.

At last, an Astrogate apology

signstealingscandal.com

A video capture made infamous by Jonboy after the first Astrogate revelations: Evan Gattis at the plate in 2017, about to face a pitch from Danny Farquhar just before Farquhar called his catcher to the mound to switch signs . . .

Maybe Evan Gattis felt a little too much heat last week, when he snarked about being the last to land a nasty drinking cup with Mike Fiers’s face and the caption “Snitches Get Stitches.” And, when he hastened to walk it back after his boast got him a small firestorm (including “Cheaters Get Heaters”) of snark-back.

Maybe, too, the former Astros backup catcher was reminded that was him at the plate in a 2017 game against the White Sox, on preserved and notorious video, getting electronically stolen signs banged his way until White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar smelled the proverbial rat, called his catcher out to the mound, and changed signs posthaste.

Whatever compelled him, the now-retired Gattis isn’t feeling too snarky about Astrogate anymore. He unloaded to The Athletic‘s podcast 755 is Real this week. He unloaded a no-holds-barred apology for the Astro Intelligence Agency’s illegal, off-field-based electronic sign-stealing of 2017-18, even while acknowledging that by now no apology on earth will untaint or restore the Astros’ image.

And he’s also more than willing to give Fiers—the original Astrogate whistleblower, the only one among four 2017 Astros who was willing to put his name on the record to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich last November—his props, rather than saluting even a just-kidding threat against the now-Athletics pitcher.

“I don’t think I can win the hearts over of anyone right now at all, or maybe ever,” Gattis told 755 is Real. “I don’t know how to feel yet. I don’t think anybody—we didn’t look at our moral compass and say, ‘Yeah, this is right.’ It was almost like paranoia warfare or something. But what we did was wrong. Like, don’t get it twisted. It was wrong for the nature of competition, not even just baseball. Yeah, that was wrong. I will say that.”

Retired since the end of the 2018 season, Gattis didn’t stop there. “If our punishment is being hated by everybody forever, then (so be it),” he said, after saying he hated to see general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch fired almost the moment their suspensions for 2020 were handed down by commissioner Rob Manfred.

“And I don’t know what should have been done, but something had to be [fornicating] done,” the former catcher continued. “And I do agree with that, big time. I do think it’s good for baseball if we clean it up. But I really don’t know to this day, and I’ve thought about it a [spit] ton, know what I mean? And I still don’t know how to feel.

“I’ll get ripped by somebody—‘That’s not an apology’—and if I do apologize, that’s still not going to be good enough. No [spit], it’s not going to be good enough. I understand that it’s not [fornicating] good enough to say, sorry. I get it.”

Luhnow and Hinch may have been suspended from baseball through the end of the 2020 season, whenever the season might be played if it’s played thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but they’d be free to seek other baseball employment afterward. Even if 2020 ends up canceled entirely. There are those who say nobody should even think about hiring them even as concession hawkers.

Luhnow fostered the victory-uber-alles culture within the Astros organisation that too often operated according to Major Strasser’s law (expressed in a memorable line in Casablanca), “You’ll find that human life is cheap.” A culture that allowed Luhnow to dismiss internal alarm when he dealt for a relief pitcher still under suspension for domestic violence and call for an internally-developed sign-stealing algorithm that paved the way to the AIA.

Hinch didn’t exactly look the other way when he caught onto the AIA, but he did nothing to stop it other than smashing one or two of the monitors in the clubhouse from which the opposing signs picked up by an illegal camera were transmitted for translation to pass on to Astro hitters. He fiddled while the plot apparently led by his then-bench coach Alex Cora and his then-designated hitter Carlos Beltran—both of whom eventually lost managing jobs over their Astrogate culpability—burned opponents with little to no idea they walked into a stacked Astro deck.

“For some players that we faced, that I’d never faced before or something like that, even selfishly we didn’t get to find out how good those people are—and they didn’t either,” said Gattis to 755 is Real. “I think that was the one cool thing about playing in the big leagues, was just to find out how good you are, which I think is valuable. Everybody wants to be the best player in the [fornicating] world, man, and we cheated that, for sure. We obviously cheated baseball and cheated fans. Fans felt duped. I feel bad for fans.”

Gattis may have handed ammunition, inadvertently, to former major league pitcher Mike Bolsinger’s legal team, in Bolsinger’s lawsuit arguing that—when he was trying to hang in as a remade relief pitcher with the 2017 Blue Jays—the Astros’ illegal sign-stealing operation destroyed him in what proved his final major league appearance.

In that game, the Astros got more stolen signs banged on the can to their hitters than in any other game for which banging-the-can-slowly could be determined. They also got more when Bolsinger was on the mound than when they faced any other Blue Jays reliever that day. Bolsinger was torn apart for five runs when he entered with two out in the bottom of the fourth, escaping only when he managed to get Alex Bregman to fly out.

The Blue Jays sent Bolsinger to Triple A right after the game. He might have been a former starter reduced by injuries to a journeyman trying to remake himself as a reliever, and I’ve said this before elsewhere, but it’s worth a reminder: Even a marginal relief pitcher has the right to know that his major league career got torpedoed straight, no chaser.

The Astros have had the original Los Angeles judge in the Bolsinger lawsuit removed for “prejudice,” never mind that the judge was chosen at random. They followed that by filing to have the suit either thrown out or moved to Texas in the name of “fairness.” They also face a lawsuit back east from a group of fantasy baseball players arguing that the AIA tainted the games through which they played their fantasy ball.

Aside from handing both lawsuits’ plaintiffs valuable close air support, Gattis isn’t so willing to be snarky about Fiers anymore, either, if his comments to 755 is Real are any indication.

“With Fiers, he had something to say, dude,” the former catcher continued. “It probably started out with him saying exactly what he said—some of these guys coming into the league, they don’t [fornicating] know yet that this [spit] goes on. And I respect that. And he had something to say. So he had to [fornicating] say it. And then we had to get punished. Because if not, then what? It’ll get even more out of control.”

Gattis acknowledged that previous reports citing an anonymous 2017 Astro had it right that Brian McCann, the longtime Brave who joined the Astros for 2017-2018, who retired after a final tour with the Braves last season, objected to the AIA “and made his feelings known at least a couple of times,” as Athletic writer David O’Brien phrases it.

“I could tell it was eating him up,” Gattis told the podcast. “He didn’t like it one bit . . . He’s played so long, and he just understands what it takes to get to the big leagues, and he’s got a lot of respect for ballplayers. You could just tell.”

But you can also just tell that a man making his objections known at least a couple of times isn’t quite the same thing as a man in McCann’s position—a veteran with respect in the clubhouse, whose voice would be heeded assuming he puts more weight into it than a couple of objections made known—pushing a little further within his particular boundaries to turn mere objections into a needed confrontation.

And Gattis isn’t exactly ready to lay the Astrogate onus as heavily as others upon Beltran, whose standing as so respected a veteran, with a Hall of Fame-worthy playing resume, is said often enough to have felt just a little omnipotent among his younger teammates.

“[N]obody made us do [spit] — you know what I’m saying?” Gattis said. “Like, people saying, ‘This guy made us do this’ . . . That’s not it. But you have to understand, the situation was powerful. Like, you work your whole life to try to hit a ball, and you mean, you can tell me what’s coming? What? Like, it’s a powerful thing. And there’s millions of dollars on the line and shit? And what’s bad is, that’s how people got hurt. That’s not right; that’s not playing the game right.”

The Astros weren’t exactly overcome with remorse when Manfred’s Astrogate report was released in January. They weren’t exactly allergic to (depending on your viewpoint) non-apologetic apologies or apologetic non-apologies when spring training opened. Owner Jim Crane persists in his delusion that the Manfred report “exonerated” him and his ignorance that, when you lead, you assume responsibility for what’s done by your subordinates.

Now it’s only to lament that Gattis couldn’t have said upon his retirement what he finally said to 755 is Real. It might have made a far larger difference. Still, the fact that Gattis was willing to go on the public record as he now has to 755 is Real is staggering enough. Whether he saw the light, felt the heat, or came up somewhere in between.