One of the harder-to-believe tales in American sports over the past decade involved the stunningly rapid transformation of the Houston Astros from a historically lousy baseball team to World Series winners and an emerging dynasty. The impetus behind the American League club’s dramatic reversal of fortune was the 2011 appointment of general manager Jeff Luhnow amid a three-year stretch where the Astros lost a combined 324 games. A former McKinsey consultant and University of Pennsylvania graduate with dual degrees in engineering and economics, Luhnow expanded on the advanced sabermetric groundwork popularized by Oakland A’s executive Billy Beane to rebuild the organization into a forward-thinking, analytics-driven powerhouse. He installed a former Nasa rocket scientist as the team’s director of decision sciences and marshaled a wholesale overhaul of the scouting department, synthesizing traditional methods of player evaluation with advanced statistical analysis into a proprietary system that guided the club’s decision-making. And it worked. A mere four years removed from a 111-defeat season, Houston captured the first championship in the team’s 56-year history – and came within a game of winning a second only three months ago.
The story of the Astros’ unconventional turnaround was packaged, canonized and peddled not simply as a sports narrative, but a pop business-management mantra for CEOs and thought leaders that like so many entries in the genre promised lessons for people in all walks of life.
Until this week, that is, when Astroball was shown to be roughly as legitimate as Theranos – and Houston’s remarkable success rendered incredible in a literal sense. A wide-ranging investigation by Major League Baseball concluded the club was using cameras and video monitors to steal the signs of opposing catchers, transmitting the information through an elaborate system engineered to inform Houston’s batters at the plate which pitches were coming. The damning report, delivered on Monday by baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, confirmed the system was in operation throughout the Astros’ championship season and at least part of the following year, casting suspicion over the team’s entire body of work.
This was a sensational undressing of the smartest guys in the room – a room which incidentally was populated by some profoundly shitty people – and a comedown thick with irony: the very success which the self-styled disruptors in Houston’s front office attributed to hypermodern, cutting-edge methodology was, in fact, engendered by an older-than-dirt means of subterfuge. “[While] no one can dispute that Luhnow’s baseball operations department is an industry leader in its analytics, it is very clear to me that the culture ... has been very problematic,” Manfred wrote. “At least in my view, the baseball operations department’s insular culture – one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led, at least in part, to [the] environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.”
The discipline handed down by Manfred including the suspensions of Luhnow and Houston manager AJ Hinch for one year apiece, though both were promptly relieved of their posts by the team’s owner. Additionally, the Astros were stripped of their first- and second-round picks in the next two drafts and hit with a $5m fine, the maximum sum permitted under the MLB constitution. Alex Cora, who steered the Boston Red Sox to a World Series title as a rookie manager in 2018, and Carlos Beltrán, who was named the New York Mets’ skipper in November, were both terminated by their teams for their roles in the conspiracy while members of the Astros organization.
Collectively, the discipline is the most severe meted out for in-game misconduct in baseball history. But it didn’t go nearly far enough – and why that is is worthy of inspection.
Truth is, the Astros should vacate all titles and individual awards that were amassed during the period the system was confirmed to be in place and suspend every single player on those rosters for a full season. That won’t recompense the teams undercut by Houston’s fraud on the field of play, who rightfully feel hard done, but might at least pass as lip service toward the perception of honesty and a deterrent for compromising the integrity of the game. That, of course, was never going to happen in a society where cheating is not merely tolerated with a wink and a nod but often rewarded outright. Manfred’s report, while repeatedly using terms like “player-driven” and “player-executed” in laying out the operation, described the prospective disciplining of players as “difficult and impractical”.
We’re drilled from a young age that cheating is never worth it, but the absurdities of late capitalism puncture and expose the fantasy with one message after another. Take a look around. A culture of fraud on Wall Street separated millions of Americans from their homes, their jobs and their life savings and not one top official of a major financial institution or bond rating agency went to jail under Obama’s department of justice. His successor built a business empire by stiffing contractors, creditors and stockholders by deftly gaming bankruptcy law, citing tax evasion as a credential of intelligence. We see it every day: Cheaters not only do prosper, but are often treated with a grudging respect borne from those particular strains of audacity and individualism deeply embedded in America’s spiritual DNA. If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.
These cues transpose neatly to the cutthroat world of professional baseball, where front offices have rapidly come to resemble arbitrage desks teeming with Ivy League brains like Luhnow and co in the nearly two decades since Moneyball kicked off baseball’s sabermetric revolution. The outcome is what’s known to economists as Gresham’s dynamic: when an incentive structure becomes so perverse that cheaters are rewarded, bad ethics will drive out good ethics from the market. I’m quite sure that everyone involved in this Texas-sized conspiracy would have rather not been caught, but the risk-assessment experts at the Astros’ helm were keenly aware of the worst possible outcome and deemed it a chance worth taking relative to the reward. After all even in this doomsday scenario, the banners will remain, the memories are intact and far-reaching economic impact of a championship-winning team cannot be undone by an asterisk.
The Astros are hardly the first sports team to play fast and loose with the rules in search of a competitive advantage. The New England Patriots, widely regarded as one of the great American sports dynasties of this or any generation, were alleged to have recorded opposing teams’ signals from 40 different games from 2000 through 2007 in a scandal known as Spygate, then incredibly found themselves under scrutiny a couple of years later for a separate ploy involving the deliberate deflation of footballs, and absorbed long-forgotten slaps on the wrist for both episodes. Baseball’s record book has been largely rewritten by countless users of performance-enhancing drugs, whose bogus statistical achievements will remain long after their punishments fade from memory. Even Bobby Thompson’s epochal Shot Heard ‘Round the World at the Polo Grounds to clinch an improbable National League pennant for New York Giants in 1951, which produced one of the most famous broadcasting calls in baseball history, was helped by a stolen-sign operation eerily similar to the Astros’ system nearly six decades later. The sobering ethical reality of competition at the highest levels was laid bare by famed UNLV men’s hoops coach Jerry Tarkanian in the foreward to his 2005 memoir: “In major college basketball, nine out of 10 teams break the rules. The other one is in last place.”
Sport holds a mirror up to society and the reflection isn’t always pleasant, but baseball’s toothless response to its biggest scandal since the steroid era offers up a particularly uncompromising map of our flaws: proof positive that cheating in our society, while frowned upon, is ultimately accepted.