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.

One piece is still missing

Two days.  It’s been two days 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.  Guilty of violating an official, written rule that applies to all teams, and having continued to do so after all the teams had been directly warned not to do this very thing.  Guilty of action that potentially effected the outcome of games, a threat to the integrity of the sport not so far removed from the one posed by players gambling on baseball, the thing that led to the Black Sox Scandal and the creation of the office of the commissioner and any number of suspensions and “banned for life”s of players and managers and coaches over the years.

The team will pay a very large fine, lose its top two draft choices this year and next year, and proceed without the general manager and field manager who are credited with turning the worst team in baseball into the 2017 World Series Champions.  That’s a pretty stiff penalty.  The manager admits knowing what was going on and regrets not doing enough anything to stop it; the general manager claims not to have known what was going on, but the report’s conclusions indicate he did, at least to some extent.  They were both suspended by the league, and then fired by the team’s owner, because leaders are responsible for the actions of those they lead, and this time the leaders are taking the fall.

For the Houston Astros players.  Who, as best as I can tell, have so far said absolutely nothing about the report that labels some of them cheaters.

The report finds

The Astros’ methods in 2017 and 2018 to decode and communicate to the batter an opposing Club’s signs were not an initiative that was planned or directed by the Club’s top baseball operations officials. Rather, the 2017 scheme in which players banged on a trash can was, with the exception of [then bench coach Alex] Cora, player-driven and player-executed. (Emphasis added.)

(snip)

Most of the position players on the 2017 team either received sign information from the banging scheme or participated in the scheme by helping to decode signs or bang on the trash can. Many of the players who were interviewed admitted that they knew the scheme was wrong because it crossed the line from what the player believed was fair competition and/or violated MLB rules. (Emphases added again, with regret.)

Then why didn’t baseball punish the players?  This is Manfred’s answer:

I will not assess discipline against individual Astros players. I made the decision in September 2017 that I would hold a Club’s General Manager and Field Manager accountable for misconduct of this kind, and I will not depart from that decision. Assessing discipline of players for this type of conduct is both difficult and impractical. It is difficult because virtually all of the Astros’ players had some involvement or knowledge of the scheme, and I am not in a position based on the investigative record to determine with any degree of certainty every player who should be held accountable, or their relative degree of culpability. It is impractical given the large number of players involved, and the fact that many of those players now play for other Clubs.

We, each of us, may choose to argue the commissioner’s rationale (or perhaps, rationalization), but there it is.  Players will not be assessed fines or suspensions or the like.  But they will suffer, justifiably, in the court of public opinion.

Grown men, some very young and some a bit older, but all adults who should have known better; men who told the investigators they would have stopped cheating if only their manager had told them to stop.  He didn’t, and I still don’t understand why he didn’t, but the players who for years had nothing bad to say about their skipper (at least not in public) have cost him his job and maybe his career.  And not one of them has had anything to say.

No one has denied that they cheated.  No one has claimed they exercised bad judgment, or felt peer pressure to break the rules, or tried to explain that they didn’t think that what they did was really so bad after all.  Not a single one of them has said “I’m sorry,” at least not that I’ve been able to find.

Today’s professional athlete has plenty of ways to communicate with the fans, even in the off-season, and they don’t have to wait until a reporter from a local outlet runs them down to get a comment.  I checked around to see if any of the the big names of the 2017 Astros have “reached out,” as they like to say.  Altuve, Bregman, Correa, Springer, Gurriel, and Reddick; Verlander and Keuchel and McCullers and McHugh; Marisnick and Beltran and Marwin and Evan Gattis; even Max Stassi!  Not a one of them has peeped since Manfred lowered the boom Monday morning or since owner Jim Crane fired GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch Monday afternoon.  Crane has had his say; Luhnow and Hinch have released statements; but from the players, nothing.

Surely none of them thinks he is going to be able to dodge this forever, or even for long.  There will be no getting away with sitting on the dais at “the facility” and proclaiming “I’m not here to talk about that today, I’m here to talk about the new season.”  And if I get even a whiff of “the team did not make the players available for comment,” I will surely open a vein, or send a sternly-worded letter…somewhere.  Jeez.

Fellas, you owe it to the fans.  We may not forgive you and get over it right away even if you mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa all over the place, but I can promise you that a hell of a lot of us will never get over it if you don’t even try.