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This is not the blog I planned for today. Ever, for that matter. But it is such a compelling story regarding the rules of the game, and how important it is for your organization, the city you represent and for your career, to follow them.
It is also a story about a colossal failure in leadership.
Yesterday Major League Baseball announced the completion of their investigation into the alleged cheating by the Houston Astros, the 2017 World Champions. To my shock and enormous disappointment, — I am a native Houstonian and this is my team, one that I have followed since I saw my first game in the Astrodome in 1966 — MLB investigators concluded that Houston was stealing the signals for the type and location of the next pitch from the opposing team’s catcher illegally using a replay camera in center field and then signaling to their batters what to look for. In short, they broke an important rule of the game.
But here is the gut-wrenching part: That 2017 team, which is largely intact today, was generally considered to be made up of really nice guys who were extraordinarily talented and committed to supporting the community in which they played. But it was not Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow or Manager A.J. Hinch who concocted this hot mess, it was the players with the support of now Boston Red Sox Manager Alex Corra who served as the bench coach in 2017.
Baseball teams have tried to steal signs for decades. Runners on second would use their own signals to the batter to relay what they saw the catcher signal. Coaches would carefully watch pitchers for “tells” – did the pitcher change his delivery for a certain type of pitch – yes, some do. These efforts to achieve an advantage have been part of the game for all time.
To put this in context, just because a batter knows what the pitcher is going to throw is no guarantee he will get a hit. There is a big gap between knowing what to look for and being able to hit the ball in a game that is measured, in a way, by failure. A batter who fails to get a hit 7 times out of 10 is considered a star. But, using a camera with a clear view of the catcher’s signals connected to a monitor in the hallway from the dugout to the clubhouse so that the Astros could then signal the batter is beyond the pale. It is a serious breach of the rules of the game. It is cheating.
MLB’s penalty was epic. The General Manager, Mr. Luhnow, the architect of Houston’s resurgence using savvy draft choices and investing heavily in analytics, and the Astros’ highly regarded Manager, Mr. Hinch, were suspended without pay for one year. The team forfeited important draft choices and were fined $5 million. Mr. Cora, now the manager of the Boston Red Sox who won the World series in 2018, is awaiting an announcement regarding his punishment. No players were singled out for fines or suspensions by MLB because the league reported it was not clear that it helped the players.
The Astro’s ownership, which reportedly cooperated with the MLB investigation, immediately fired Luhnow and Hinch. Jim Crane, who bought the team in 2011, had previously instructed Luhnow and Hinch to be sure there was no inappropriate activities regarding electronic sign stealing after the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees were outted for using Apple watch technology to communicate signs to their players, also in 2017. Today Crane is described as “deeply troubled” by the action of his managers.
Here is the stunning truth about this sordid mess: the Astros did not need to cheat. In 2017 they were arguably the most talented team in baseball, from top to bottom. Their World Series with the LA Dodgers was close. Either team could have won. It is doubtful the sign stealing scheme decided the outcome. In fact, Houston clinched the series in Los Angeles where, presumably, they had no advantage in stealing signs. All of this makes this revelation and penalty all the more demoralizing for Houston’s loyal fans.
Here is the tragic side story to this sad affair: Hinch, a Stanford graduate and admired throughout the game as being one of the brightest and best in the business, reportedly told investigators that he knew what the players were doing was wrong but he did not take a stand to stop it. His failure to act, his failure to be a good leader for a team of young players, is what cost him a year’s suspension, termination by the team and quite possibly his career in baseball. Americans love stories of redemption, but this will be a big hurdle to overcome in a game where there are only 30 Manager positions.
Hinch did not need to steal signs to be a good manager. He was praised by the players and observers of the game for how he handled his team of young stars through success and adversity – losing streaks, and then the devasting effects of the massive flooding from Hurricane Harvey which forced the team to play several “home” games on the road. But when it came to the big one, the tough decision to take a stand against this scheme and risk alienating his players, Hinch dropped the ball and in doing so cast a cloud over the accomplishments of his players, the city and its millions of adoring fans.
He was not a good leader. Neither was Mr. Cora
Executives in the corner office who believe they are above the rules should pause and take note. Being the best, bright and clever, is no insurance against discovery. Why take a chance you do not need to take. Even if you did not conceive of or support an illegal act, you are just as responsible if you do not stand up and say no.
First baseman Logan Morrison chided MLB for their crushing penalty against the Houston Astros saying New York, Boston and other teams are using questionable tactics to steal signs.
© 2021 John Gregory Self