On Hinch and Morton and “Codebreaker”

Four weeks.  It’s been almost four weeks now since Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred issued his report finding my Houston Astros guilty of cheating in 2017 and 2018 for using technology to steal signs from their opponents, and only now does former manager A. J. Hinch agree to an interview on the subject.  Coincidentally, it was released the same day we learned more about how the cheating may have gotten started, revealed thanks to that stalwart of baseball journalism, the Wall Street Journal.  No kidding.

The commissioner’s report found that the Astros players were behind the scheme, and that the manager was aware of what was going on but didn’t do anything to stop it.  You’ll get no argument on that point from Hinch, who talked to Tom Verducci of MLB Network.

“I wish I would have,” Hinch said. “I really do. I think that’s a big question that I’m going to process over what’s now a season-long suspension. It’s something I continued to think about certainly through the investigation, when you have to openly talk about it. I wish I would have done more. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and we were wrong.”

(snip)

The Commissioner’s report said that Hinch twice took a bat to monitors that were used to steal signs, an indication that the manager did not approve of the players’ methods. In hindsight, Hinch said, he should have taken further measures to stop what was happening.

“I should have had a meeting and addressed it face forward and really ended it,” he said. “Leadership to me is often about what you preach. Leadership’s also about what you tolerate. I tolerated too much.”

(Note: it is accepted wisdom that there is nothing more powerful in all of baseball than a team meeting.)

Most recent stories want us to focus on the question of whether the Astros’ 2017 World Series title is tainted.  Of course it is.  It’s not invalidated, but short of mass amnesia there’s no way for people not to think that the Astros won, or may have won, because they cheated.  But that’s not the most important question, not to me.  I need to hear Hinch’s explanation for why he tolerated too much, why he didn’t put a stop to behavior of which, we are told, he highly disapproved.

Verducci didn’t press him to answer, at least not in the portion of the interview that was published.

When the question is why didn’t you stop it, the answer is not “I wish I had stopped it,” the answer is to explain to me why you did not, and so far I haven’t seen Hinch’s answer to that question.  I get that it’s not the old days when players didn’t have any power and managers ruled with an iron fist, and that today maybe some managers don’t really have control over their players.  In this case, though, the players reportedly told the investigators that if Hinch had just told them to stop it, they would have stopped; sounds like a group that respects the manager and wants to please.  So why didn’t Hinch take advantage of that dynamic and direct his players to stop this thing that he claims he opposed?  We don’t know.

Hinch has always been comfortable in front of the camera, and he did a good job in this interview of accepting responsibility for his inaction that hurt his team.  Fired Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow seems to have fallen into a deep deep hole somewhere with absolutely nothing to say, beyond a statement last month denying he knew anything at all about this as it was happening.  Hmm.

Keep that in mind when you read the Wall Street Journal story that the “Houston Astros’ front office laid the groundwork for the team’s electronic sign-stealing ploys via a program dubbed ‘Codebreaker’ that was introduced by an intern in the organization in September 2016.”  (If you can’t access the full WSJ story, here’ a link to an ESPN version.)  An intern who worked for Jeff Luhnow says he assumed Luhnow knew the program was being used during regular league games.  Luhnow reportedly told MLB investigators he remembered “the intern’s PowerPoint slide about ‘Codebreaker,’ but said he thought it would be used to legally decipher signs from previous games.”

The team’s director of advance information, Tom Koch-Weser, also alleges Luhnow knew about the system. According to the WSJ, Koch-Weser told MLB that the former GM would occasionally go to the Astros’ video room during road games and make comments like, “You guys Codebreaking?”

Luhnow declined the WSJ’s request for comment but, according to the paper’s reporting, denied Koch-Weser’s accounts to MLB, and investigators could find no definitive proof that Luhnow knew how “Codebreaker” was being used.

Meanwhile, the Astros players are still in hiding, and this is a great example of how a lot of journalism today fails when it comes to covering professional sports, and how the players and other employees of the major league teams aren’t held accountable for their actions in the way that other people who find themselves unfortunately in the news are.  The businessman accused of cheating or of allowing cheating to occur gets grilled.  To use a Houston example, think Enron: Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow were hounded to respond to the charges, and no reporter was satisfied to just let it go if one of them “had not been made available” for an interview.  But that’s what we get from reporters covering the Houston Astros and the findings from Major League Baseball that the team cheated.  Not one current player has had his feet held to the fire to talk about their roles, or the team’s behavior.

I get it that the players don’t want to talk publicly; they do not want to have to admit that they broke the rules.  Of course they don’t; who would?  But it’s the job of reporters to hold the powerful accountable for their actions.  Yet in all the stories about this in the past four weeks since the commissioner’s report was released, I haven’t seen a single reference like “George Springer could not be reached for comment” or “Messages left asking Carlos Correa to discuss the report have not been returned.”  Am I supposed to believe that no one in all of journalism has Yuli Gurriel’s cell phone number?  The Wall Street Journal was able to contact Luhnow for its story, but not one reporter who covers the team has been able to get a player to make a not-for-attribution statement, to give us some insight to what they did and how they feel about it now?

To this point we’ve had to make do with comments from former Astros players, obtained at team-organized off-season events for their new fans.  Two weeks ago it was Dallas Keuchel who apologized without getting into details of which players did what, and yesterday former Astros pitcher Charlie Morton did the same.

…when Morton learned of the scheme his Houston teammates were using to steal signs and tip off their hitters to what pitch was coming, when he heard the actual banging on a trash can to relay the info, he didn’t say or do anything.

And that, he said Saturday in addressing the cheating scandal for the first time, is his primary remorse.

“’I was aware of the banging. … Being in the dugout you could hear it. I don’t know when it dawned on me, but you knew it was going on,” Morton said. “Personally, I regret not doing more to stop it. I don’t know what that would have entailed. I think the actions would have been somewhat extreme to stop it. That’s a hypothetical.”

Extreme because it was widespread, some of his Houston players and coaches actively participating, others complicit by allowing it to continue, all the way to a World Series championship. Extreme because it felt like more than one man could do anything about.

“I certainly have thought about it a lot because it negatively impacted the game, and people’s perception of the game, the fans, opposing players. And that doesn’t sit well with me,” Morton, 36, said during the Rays Fan Fest at Tropicana Field. “Where I was at the time, I don’t know where I was.

“Because what’s wrong is wrong. And I’ll never be absolved of that.”

A couple of weeks ago Astros owner Jim Crane had this to say about the fact that his players had yet to speak on the subject of having cheated, and of being caught at it, and of costing their manager his job:

“A couple of guys that have been interviewed, they’ve been holding back a little bit,” Crane said. “We need to get them a little more time to get together in spring training. Everybody’s split up (geographically).”

(Note: there appears to be no technology available that would let all the Astros players in their various locations have a real-time conversation; that might be worth investigating.)

“It’s a team. We’re going to sit in a room and talk about it and then we’re going to come out and address the press — all of them will address the press — either as a group or individually. Quite frankly, we’ll apologize for what happened, ask forgiveness and move forward.”

OK…Astros pitchers and catchers report on Tuesday, the rest of the players are due one week from today.  We’ll see.

There are good reasons not to run around shouting “Islamic terrorist”

The whining is so tiresome, and the motivation so transparent, that I usually shake my head and ignore it each time the usual suspects launch a new “Dontcha Just Hate Obama” offensive.   Last week when the president talked about efforts to fight back against recruitment efforts by terrorist groups, we all got to see the righteous indignation of true Americans who were appalled, appalled I say, by the president’s refusal to refer to the terrorists as “Islamic” terrorists or extremists or zealots or whatever.

I gotta wonder, what effing difference does it make if the terrorists are Muslim?  Really.  If they’re terrorists, if they’re waging war on America and Americans, we have the right and the responsibility to fight back.  It doesn’t matter why they’re doing it unless we can use that to persuade them to stop.  (I have a similar feeling about “hate crimes:” murder or assault or whatever the crime is, it’s a crime because it’s against the law, not because of why they did it.)

But, haters gonna hate.  And even though I believe that words can work wonders, I’ve long since given up on the idea that valid, cogent argument grounded in demonstrable fact may ever again be persuasive once one has chugged the Kool-Aid of the radical right.  However, when I came across this terrific unpacking of reasons why it makes absolute sense in a reasonable world for the President of the United States to choose his or her words carefully, I wanted to share.

While [Barack] Obama has not used those words, he has acknowledged Islam plays a role in the Islamic State’s strategy. Obama has said that even though the Islamic State uses religion to justify its extremism, its ideology does not mesh with mainstream, modern Islamic thought.

“They try to portray themselves as religious leaders — holy warriors in defense of Islam.  That’s why ISIL presumes to declare itself the ‘Islamic State.’ And they propagate the notion that America — and the West, generally — is at war with Islam,” Obama said at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism last week. “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”

(snip)

Why such a careful choice of words? Experts we contacted offered a few theories.

For one, the Islamic State is just one of numerous jihadist groups that the United States is fighting in the Middle East and North Africa, including al-Qaida and its affiliates. And the Islamic State has several qualities that set it apart from other jihadi groups, such as their desire to immediately create a caliphate. In that sense, it would be misleading to lump these groups into one singular enemy code-worded Islamic extremism, said James Gelvin, a history professor at the University of California Los Angeles.

Additionally, several countries helping the United States fight the Islamic State and other terrorist groups are Muslim nations, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In those cases, it is in the United States’ interest not to be at war with a religion.

(snip)

The Islamic State adheres to strict, literal interpretations of the Koran and Islamic teachings rooted in 18th-century religious philosophy called Wahhabism. This ideology, the dominant faith in Saudi Arabia, is focused on a return to the “truth faith” of the first caliphate established after the death of Mohammed, a time when Islam was not “polluted” by Christianity, paganism or governmental interference, said Richard Brennan, a Middle East expert at the nonpartisan think tank RAND Corporation.

The result is a puritanical practice of Islam that views government as a problem within society, as a man’s allegiance should only be to allah. For some recruits, the Islamic State represents a “fight against the normative world order” of Shia rule, Sunni suppression, and Western colonization and invasion, Mohammed said. “The idea is that after centuries of weakness, some Muslims are fighting back.”

The Islamic State goes even further than traditional Wahhabism by adhering to takfir — which is the belief that some people who say they are Muslim are not truly Muslim, and therefore there is reason to kill them, Gelvin said. The vast majority of the Islamic world tends to believe that if someone professes they are Muslim, then they are, no matter how they specifically practice their faith.

Even al-Qaida and other Islamic extremist groups don’t accept takfir, Gelvin said.

(snip)

Just as Muslims worldwide refused to take up [Osama] bin Laden’s brutal brand of Islam, the vast majority of Muslims are also not heeding the call of the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Tufts University religion professor Kenneth Garden said accepting the terror group’s self-description would amount to “an own-goal” by the United States.

“I am confident that eventually the butchers of ISIS and their like will be roundly rejected and fade away,” Garden said. “But I am afraid this is the work of a generation. There is no quick fix for this, and little role for non-Muslim voices.”

And then, there was Jon Stewart on The Daily Show noticing with exasperation that Obama apparently “still thinks he can persuade us through reasoned argument.”  See for yourself (click the pic):

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