The Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal has come to a conclusion. Just to recap: During the 2017, via a live feed from an on-field camera, the Astros decoded the signs exchanged between opposing catchers and pitchers. Then, using the crude method of banging on a trash can, they shared that information with their batters, who then knew what pitch was coming and could prepare themselves. It is safe to say that the Astros were able to radically improve their chances of winning thanks to this technology-enabled cheating. In fact, they won the World Series.
And what will they lose as punishment now that their methods have been revealed? A couple of draft picks. They are also fined $5 million for their transgressions, and the two guys on the top — general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch — are suspended for the year. There will be no punishment for the players, the organization, or — most importantly — owner Jim Crane.
Ultimately, Luhnow and Hinch were fired, but that was at Crane’s discretion. Alex Cora, another former managerial staff member, will get a more severe punishment. He has already lost his job managing the Red Sox. But overall, it’s too little and too late for those, like the 2018 Tampa Rays, who lost out to the cheaters.
Paint me cynical, but this strikes me as the MLB version of sweeping things under the rug. The $5 million fine is less than half a percent of total revenues for the Houston Astros in 2017, 2018 and 2019. They get to keep their championship. The next guys in line — the assistant GM and bench coach — are likely to slide into the top spots, and then it is business as usual. The whole scandal and its aftermath is theater, and MLB Chief Rob Manfred is nothing but a puppet of the team owners. I read several pieces — this one in The Ringer is particularly good — but, I’m sorry to say, nothing in them surprised me in the least.
Why am I not surprised that we have players who didn’t speak up about cheating? It’s the same old answer. They are going to make a lot of money for their postseason performances. They are reviving and rejuvenating their careers at the Astros, which use advanced technologies, data, and machine learning to tweak the players’ actions — and to institutionalize cheating and bad behavior. Every one of the players, from Justin Verlander to Jose Altuve, owe it to the Astros’ front office and the nerd cave. They are getting and will get paid.
They didn’t speak up for the same reason senior executives at Juul don’t speak up and leave. They are turning the blind eye just like Facebook employees, who know the extent of damage their platform is doing and yet behave as if it is just normal business and Mark is a mahatma. It is why we have politicians who go along with flagrant lies and half-truths. They are all getting paid, and if you are getting paid, you don’t care about the larger consequences.
Writing for FiveThirtyEight, Travis Sawchik captured how this absence of caring permeated the Astros organization and shaped its culture:
The Astros have been mired in controversy before for firing scouts, and their radical analytical approaches left some worried that they were “dehumanizing” baseball.
“They don’t give a shit, to be honest, what people think about them,” one former Astros staffer told Ringer staff writer Ben Lindbergh and me in reporting for our book published last year that in part focused on the Astros’ player development practices.
This lack of empathy and humanity is not an isolated problem. It is just as pervasive in board rooms, C-suites, and tech offices — anywhere you have a group of people who think they are the “smartest guys in the room.” I saw it at Enron. I saw it at WorldCom. It was evident at Lucent’s C-Suite. I saw it at Netscape. You can see it at Facebook. And we will see it again. Even (and maybe especially) from those who insist that they are the good guys.
Crane, the Astros owner, was happy to dismiss the manager and the general manager and make some mealy-mouthed statements, knowing very well that he doesn’t need those two. Luhnow was a public relations liability anyway, and frankly, there are many replacement level players in the Astros front office. Oh, the irony!
“Although these punishments are hurting Houston now, Crane probably believes that the title was worth the blow to the team’s reputation,” writes Ben Lindbergh for The Ringer. And he is right. And don’t forget that, like everyone else, Crane got paid. Big time.
Over the past six years, Astros have gone from a bottom-dwelling team to the tenth most valuable baseball franchise. By cheating their way to a World Series win, the entity saw its franchise value jump almost three times to $1.8 billion in 2019. Given the size of the reward relative to that of the punishment for lying, cheating and bad behavior, there is little incentive for others not to imitate their actions. What’s good for Facebook is good for every startup that wants to cut corners and grow fast. What’s good for WeWork, is good for others. What’s good for the Astros is good for the Red Sox — and trust me, pretty much every other team. Possible even my beloved New York Yankees.
The Ringer piece is pretty explicit in pointing out the hypocrisy of the MLB, its commissioner, and everyone else involved in the scandals and cheating.
Yet not until Fiers went on record in The Athletic’s initial report did MLB grudgingly launch an investigation. Even then, Manfred stated, “I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time,” which was far-fetched at the time, considering that The Athletic’s report cited a source who described the practice as “pervasive.” And not until The Athletic linked the 2018 Red Sox to sign stealing did MLB acknowledge that publicly. Tom Verducci reported that when Manfred called Red Sox owner John Henry to inform him of the investigation, Manfred said, “I’ve got no choice here,” which doesn’t make it sound as if Manfred was eager to follow the sign-stealing trail.
The MLB management is as compromised as the FDA that ignored the threat of Juul and vaping. They are as compromised as the financial watchdogs that ignored the avarice and greed that enveloped the housing bubble. Those whose job is to watch the industry are good at offering hollow words, mostly because eventually they might want to work for those they are supposed to monitor.
Let’s face it: We are living in a culture where lies and half-truths are normalized, mostly because there aren’t many people who can look beyond their own selfish needs. We are all just looking to get paid.
01.15.2020. San Francisco