On January 13, 2020, Major League Baseball handed its punishment down to the Houston Astros for using a garbage can banging scheme to steal signs in 2017 and early 2018. In addition to losing multiple draft picks and getting hit with a multimillion dollar fine, MLB decided to suspend Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow for one year.
Astros owner Jim Crane then took it one step further, and he decided to terminate the employment of both men. So within a matter of weeks, Hinch and Luhnow had gone from being the architects and caretakers of one of the best modern title windows in baseball to the unemployment line. Hinch did a sit-down interview not long after his firing. Luhnow, though, until Monday, had remained silent, aside from a statement issued shortly after his departure denying his knowledge of the cheating scheme.
On Monday, though, a sit-down with Luhnow and KPRC's Vanessa Richardson aired, with the full interview posted to the station's website, and Luhnow gave his full side of the story. I highly recommend going and watching the full interview, as there are some fascinating moments, including Luhnow getting choked up when discussing his reflection on the roster he had so skillfully and shrewdly assembled in his eight years with the team.
Here are my four biggest takeaways from Richardson's very compelling sit-down with the former GM of the Astros:
Luhnow wasn't really super accountable
While Luhnow's version of the truth is perfectly believable, including his flying to New York to present MLB commissioner Rob Manfred with a 150-page, 14-tab binder with thousands of pieces of evidence that Luhnow knew nothing of the trash can scheme, there needs to be some degree of a mea culpa merely for him being in a position of authority in a "ball club gone wild" scenario. Luhnow didn't really do that. Instead, he did a lot of finger pointing and blame dodging:
"I’ll take my punishment for being the general manager because what happened, happened while I was there. But, think about for a second, all of the people who are with the organization that...no one questions why they didn’t know. My special assistants, Biggio, Enos Cabell, Reid Ryan, Jim Crane, all the marketing people, they’re all around the clubhouse, they’re all around the players. None of them knew. Why is it all on me? And to read, I mean, everybody likes to boil things down to soundbites, or Twitter, or tweets. ‘Luhnow’s the mastermind,’ ‘Luhnow was behind this,’ ‘this is Luhnow’s culture.’ It’s not. It couldn’t be further from the truth. And I have to let people know that. My integrity is being questioned here. Everything I worked for for the past 16 years is being questioned here. And it’s wrong. I was accused of something I didn’t do. I’ll take my punishment because I was the general manager. But I’m not going to let people label me as a cheater. I didn’t have anything to do with it. And so I want people to know that.”
If we believe the big reason Luhnow did the interview was to cleanse his image for a future employer, I'm not sure how impressed the other major league sports teams were with Luhnow playing the sad victim in all of this.
Luhnow revealed that the Astros had an Apple Watch situation
Back in September 2017, MLB found the Red Sox guilty of using an Apple Watch to help relay signs to hitters, and proceed to send a memo to all MLB teams to make sure they had their house was in order, and warn them of possible punishments. Here is Luhnow on his reaction to that warning from MLB:
"I did a lot to try and prevent us from doing anything wrong. After the Red Sox and the Yankees were punished in 2017, I had a conversation with our manager, and I asked him if anybody in our dugout was using Fitbits or Apple Watches or anything that would be remotely considered against the rules. He told me that someone, one of our coaches, had been using an Apple Watch, but after the incident with the Red Sox had stopped wearing it because clearly we weren’t supposed to be doing that. He did not tell me anything else about trash can banging or any impropriety."
WOW, this is the first we've heard of possible cheating outside of the trash can banging scheme. Now, Luhnow doesn't make it 100 percent clear that the Apple Watch was part of a sign stealing scheme — to be fair, it could have been Brent Strom or somebody trying to get in all their daily steps — but the mere mention of it leads to a logical assumption that the Apple Watch wasn't exactly there for noble reasons.
The story of how the Brandon Taubman incident was handled is infuriating all over again
As a female reporter, it would take sense for Richardson to ask Luhnow about his role in the horribly botched team response to the accusation that former assistant GM Brandon Taubman flaunted the acquisition of alleged domestic abuser Roberto Osuna to a few female reporters (at least one of whom was openly critical of the team acquiring Osuna in 2018) in the clubhouse following the ALCS. In statement, the team quickly accused the reporter (a female) who recounted Taubman's behavior of fabricating her story. Luhnow, who claims to have known the team's statement was bunk, recalls the position the team allegedly put him in:
"Two days later, we’re in Washington D.C. and that morning I had fired Brandon, and I was asked if I would talk to the media about firing Brandon. I agreed to do it, no one else was willing to do it. About 20 seconds before I walked into a room filled with baseball reporters who were all looking to attack somebody, I was instructed by one of the people that wrote the response not to disclose who wrote it, and to make everybody understand it was an Astros response, but not to talk about the people who were involved. I followed those instructions. I sat there for 20 minutes and was attacked by every media outlet in the country and I know I didn’t handle it as well as I could have, but I didn’t want to lie, so I told them I had seen the response before it went out. Which, essentially made me the face of the response because no one else was willing to face the music. When that interview was over, I received a text message from the other person who had been involved in writing it and crafting it thanking me for ‘taking one for the team.’"
If Luhnow's claims are true, this one falls squarely at the foot of owner Jim Crane, who would be the one person with the authority to tell Luhnow to "take one for the team." Man, for a really good baseball team, the Astros have been a mess P.R.-wise the last few years.
Could Luhnow become a GM in another sport?
When getting around to what's next for Luhnow, here is what he had to say:
"I’m taking a hard look at the NFL, at the NBA, little bit at NHL, I didn’t grow up around hockey so that one’s a little tougher, E-Sports, soccer, both in our continent and in Europe. And what I realized is that the opportunity to apply business practices and analytics and technology and to really modernize a sports organization the way I helped modernize the Cardinals and the Astros, that exists in every sport. So my skills aren’t stuck in baseball. I could easily transfer them to another sport, so I’m considering all my options at this point. There’s some projects I’m currently working on, some projects I have been working on, and I’m hopeful in the next couple of months… I mean, at some point, I’ll have to get a job. So we’ll figure something out.”
I'm not sure if Luhnow is aware, but there is a certain football team in town in need of a very astute and patient general manager, someone who can perform a rebuild on the fly. As many PR pimples as Luhnow has, I would welcome his acumen in the Texans' front office.