The Astros, Jeff Luhnow and misplaced values


In reading Winning Fixes Everything by Evan Drellich, the Houston Astros’ corporate culture is exposed as a toxic time bomb. The organization’s focus on getting to its desired destination regardless of the human cost is facilitated by owner Jim Crane, implemented by general manager Jeff Luhnow, and put in action by the obsequious underlings whose primary function is to serve the needs of the master.

The players? Eh. Who cares what they think?

Luhnow comes across as a truly terrible person — the embodiment of putting results over humanity; achieving one’s objectives no matter how it is accomplished; shifting blame to others; and using gray areas to shield oneself from the negative while taking full credit for the positive.

Despite that, it’s difficult to cast all the blame on him for doing what he was hired to do. He was hired to do a job and he did that job. There are plenty of horrible people in sports. There are worse people than Luhnow could ever be in the corporate sphere, politics and society in general. Does that alter how he should be perceived when assessing his tenure with the Astros and his work in baseball in general?

Maybe it should.

Luhnow was a self-promoter who was flexible in accurately relaying what he did and didn’t do.

But is that any different from Billy Beane or Theo Epstein?

His treatment of those who were below him on the food chain took the tone of a Terminator-like machine that did not care about humanity in the quest to achieve its mission. There was no concept of baseball and people at a cellular level, exemplified with his attempts to change how relief pitchers were used and not understanding or caring that they’re human beings who might not be able to do the things he was asking them to do and outright ordering his staff to implement no matter the physical toll it exerted and careers it damaged. His views came across as someone who had never watched a baseball game without a spreadsheet in front of him as if simply watching would somehow impact his ability to analyze.

His personality was a significant problem that likely superseded how he did his job. Invariably, he is shown to be condescending, arrogant and cold-hearted. That might work in an industry where he’s running a website or consulting with fellow corporate types who couldn’t care less if a guy could tell or take a joke, but it cannot work in a people-oriented industry that is directly in the spotlight like sports.

As time passed and the club came closer and closer to its goal, the weeding out of people who had some semblance of decency put the amoral acolytes in greater positions of power. David Stearns was seen as a positive influence on the club and once he left for the Milwaukee Brewers, the likes of Brandon Taubman took on a greater role. Taking his cue from Luhnow, the ends always justified the means. It was a survival of the fittest with less honor. Most of Luhnow’s edicts took on the tone of threats. If you don’t give me what I want, I’ll fire you.

There were instances where Luhnow was unfairly castigated. The Brady Aiken draft selection where the high school pitcher’s medical reports showed him to be too great an injury risk turned out to be accurate. With former first overall pick Mark Appel, the pitcher was struggling mightily in the minor leagues and the front office brought him to Minute Maid Park so the big league staff could have a look at him to try and find solutions. Not telling manager Bo Porter about it? Irritating journeyman major leaguers who were not going to be around when the team was set to contend was somehow a problem? He was under no obligation to tell anyone anything. Could he have? Sure. Was it an issue that he didn’t? No.

Regarding his changes to how players were drafted and developed, it’s not as if there was already a successful formula in place that could not be questioned. The number of players drafted and signed as amateurs who make an impact in the majors is frighteningly low. There is nothing wrong with making fundamental changes to a system that doesn’t work all that well to begin with.

The real problems for Luhnow arose when he tried to cover up these relatively minor disputes by asking people to lie outright or commit lies by omission. Going back to Watergate and beyond, the cover-up is always worse than the crime itself.

This extended to what eventually got Luhnow fired by the Astros and blackballed by baseball: the sign-stealing program.

He claims to not have known about it. Absurd given how his thumb was on every aspect of baseball operations.

Even after they were caught, the club continued its rampant prevarications, childlike “everyone was doing it” shrugs and passing the buck.

In his initial portrayal long before he became a star GM and later pariah, he was cast as a pure outsider who entered the game as its foundation was being shaken by new methods in which to analyze players and construct teams. In truth, he used various connections through his work at McKinsey and as an entrepreneur — along with family links — to be interviewed and hired by the St. Louis Cardinals.

With the Cardinals, he was viewed as an interloper with a pipeline to the owner like he was a nepotism case. To longtime baseball people like then-Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty and manager Tony La Russa, he was the owner’s mole who was untouchable because of that connection. Unlike an owner’s son or daughter who was installed in a key position in an organization, he was just some corporate asshole who sold cat toys and was parachuting in to tell lifelong baseball people how to do their jobs.

From his perspective and holding to the McKinsey modus operandi, he was hired to accomplish what the owner wanted. The idea that McKinsey and other prominent consulting firms are giving evenhanded analysis is idiotic. They are hired to achieve what ownership, shareholders and others in an entity’s positions of power want. The end result is detailed and they need to find a way to get there while providing information that justifies it. They want to downsize by firing 25,000 people? Ok. Here’s how you do it. They want to reduce costs by sending fewer advance scouts on the road or find ways to maximize the MLB draft capital by using financial sleight of hand? Here you go.

In short, he did his job as he was asked to do it.

After joining the Astros, he rebuilt the team in the image he wanted with financial constraints, brutal fact-based decision-making and turning baseball into a microcosm of the corporate world that people watch sports to escape. A clash was inevitable.

The success bred increased ruthlessness and the refusal to be questioned. More and more, the GM isolated himself by either willful ignorance or by simply not being there. This was not solely based on the sign-stealing scandal that led to his ouster. It was the case with his strangely timed vacations to Mexico, notably when the Aiken signing deadline was upon them and Aug. 31, 2017 when the club was trying to get Justin Verlander before the waiver trade deadline. He put assistants in charge to oversee both key moments and no explanation as to why he needed vacations then has ever been presented.

I wasn’t there and didn’t know about this.

This epitomizes plausible deniability, no matter how preposterous it is on its face.

There are endless villains large and small in the Astros’ tale.

Manager AJ Hinch seems overwhelmed; reluctant to openly challenge the veteran players, especially about the sign-stealing operation; and afraid to speak out beyond a certain limit due to his past managerial failure with the Arizona Diamondbacks and that he was well aware of how the Astros operated in that the manager was largely irrelevant to the point of being a near inconvenience that Luhnow needed to hire one at all.

Bench coach Alex Cora comes across as insubordinate and a borderline alcoholic lunatic nearly getting into physical confrontations with Hinch and broadcaster Geoff Blum.

Brent Strom is caught outright lying to Cora when Hinch had been ejected and Cora was managing in his stead.

Brandon Taubman is cast as Luhnow’s Sith apprentice. At age 30 and immersed in a corporate culture that was indifferent to people behaving like douchebags if it produced the desired results, it encouraged it. He treats people horrifically and gets himself fired for his verbal attack on female media members by defending the team’s ill-advised trade for Roberto Osuna after Osuna had been charged with physically abusing the mother of his son.

Is “just doing what I was told” justified? For most, it sort of was as everyone involved — save for Luhnow and Taubman — now has a job in baseball.

Carlos Beltran is now a special assistant to the GM with the Mets, the same team (albeit under different ownership) that fired him as manager before he steered a game after the Astros scandal exploded.

Hinch is the manager of the Detroit Tigers and now has power exponential to what he had in Houston.

Cora is the manager of the Boston Red Sox, rehired by the club after being fired in light of the Red Sox own sign-stealing scandal following its 2018 World Series win.

Mike Elias, Sig Mejdal, Mike Fast, Kevin Goldstein — all assistants under Luhnow who were servile in acquiescing to his bullying wishes are in baseball in varying capacities.

The key question about the Astros is whether it was what they did under Crane and Luhnow that was the problem or the way they did it? Had they been more gentlemanly in their viciously pursuing their goals, had a system in place that prevented going so far over the lines of propriety, treated people with respect and not been so despised throughout the industry, would this have been as huge a story and would Luhnow still have a job somewhere in baseball?

Purely transactional relationships are unsustainable for the long term. In sports, people have generally known each other for decades or have mutual friends and acquaintances. There’s an unspoken bond of trying to beat the competition without trying to fuck them. Even hard core criminals have lines they won’t cross. A clear example is the scene in Casino when Nicky Santoro pushes back on Ginger Rothstein’s cavalier entreaty to kill her husband Sam “Ace” Rothstein. Stone cold gangster Santoro responds angrily, “I know the guy thirty-five years, I’m gonna fuckin’ whack ‘im for you?!?”

Would someone like Luhnow do the same?

The Astros, under Luhnow, abandoned the pretense of any honor whatsoever. If you essentially tell your underlings that they can not only behave like dicks to fulfill their mandates but will be rewarded for it, what’s going to happen?

Even Crane, whose history in business is pockmarked with outrageous behavior and allegations of wrongdoing, accepted the Astros’ previous methods were wrong by hiring high-quality people with sterling reputations within baseball like Dusty Baker.

Ironically, of all the cast members in this saga, it’s Taubman who seems to have truly changed in the aftermath by taking part in domestic violence awareness programs and personally apologizing to the reporter over coffee after meeting by happenstance.

Part of the blame certainly falls on outside influences like the fans and media who have stoked the partisanship between those who adhere to stats above all else and old-school baseball observers who trust their eyes and history. Every executive is seemingly trying to have a Moneyball-style book written about them and this affects their behaviors no matter who is run over to get to the destination.

None of that excuses the Astros and Luhnow, but it is useful to look at it from a different perspective and ask why was this able to happen in the first place.

Luhnow still denies wrongdoing. He sued the club to be paid his contract after his termination. He’s never getting a job in baseball again. He sought to radically update the game to suit his aesthetic. And he did. The result was him winning a championship, showing that reaching the logical conclusion is about as good a thing as acknowledging one’s mortality, and getting himself canonized as the change agent who exemplifies what not to do.

Like his entry into baseball, he achieved his goal. Just not the way he envisioned. It’s not like he didn’t ask for it.

On Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania


Apart from Spider-Man: No Way Home, Marvel’s outings since the conclusion of Phase Three have been niche films with reviews that ranged from lukewarm to outright negative. This was inevitable. As evidenced by Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, the transition from one blockbuster storyline to another is a difficult one. Without the major characters who are easily recognizable even by non-fans — Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Spider-Man — and without A-list stars as attractions for ancillary characters like Ant-Man, Marvel is essentially in a retool mode where it is simply trying to bridge one phase to the next without alienating its hard-core “I’ll watch anything Marvel produces” fan.

Those who are responding negatively to Quantumania have lamented its relentless CGI, characters brought from the back to the front, difficult to follow narratives and absence of clear-cut resolution. Bluntly, those who enjoy Marvel and know these characters will take affront at the criticism, but looking at it from a different perspective gives clarity to the negativity. 

I have never seen one episode of Game of Thrones. If you dropped me in the middle of season three, episode five (this is random; don’t look it up to nitpick), I would mock the sets, the script and that I have no clue who any of those people are, nor do I care about them. The same can be said for any long-term, interlocked project where the minutiae is a large part of the entertainment in recognizing minor characters. This is what Marvel has relied on since it started the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man in 2008. 

The films and television shows of Phase Four have been gateway films to the next phase. This is where Marvel needs to regain its footing or run the risk of hitting a wall from which it cannot recover its lost luster. In the long run, small Easter eggs that were dropped in Black Widow, Shang-Chi, Eternals, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder and Wakanda Forever were the entire purpose of the films. Had they not been part of the MCU with a guaranteed, built-in audience even if the film itself was objectively atrocious, they might not have been made as standalone films at all, let alone at the massive budgets allotted. 

Marvel’s current predicament can be compared to a sports dynasty that is moving on from its core group of players and integrating newly developed talent to the roster without burning it to the ground. Comparing what Marvel is doing with how erstwhile Marvel star director James Gunn is rebooting DC and making difficult decisions such as removing Henry Cavill from his role as Superman, apparently moving on from Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and torching Zack Snyder’s beautiful cinematography and ponderous plots for the greater good. DC is tearing it down to expansion team-level status while Marvel is trying to remain competitive until it gets to the next phase of star-level characters ninety-five percent of the planet recognizes by name. 

Quantumania is entertaining. The characters and actors are likable, but they’re basically furniture — there to complete the decor. Jonathan Majors’ introduction as Kang shows a charismatic, weirdly likable and profoundly dangerous antagonist who will be a key who Fantastic Four, X-Men and the new roster of the Avengers (however it is comprised) must confront. Still, the criticism — when looked at on its own merits — is fully justified as viewers who parachute in without prior knowledge of the comic books and an intermittent interest in the prior films wonder why there are so many characters that look like rejects from the Star Wars cantina scene, the Terminator, Ed Wood and a really bad acid trip. 

As Marvel moves forward with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, The Marvels, Captain America: New World Order (apparently without Steve Rogers/Chris Evans), Thunderbolts and Blade, it must-must-must make sure that it nails Phase Six starting with Deadpool 3 and Hugh Jackman entering the MCU as Wolverine in what one would hope is more than a brief cameo. To ensure Marvel returns to its glory, the studio cannot miss as it finally gets its hands on Fantastic Four and has the opportunity to reboot the cornerstone team that was a critical piece of Marvel Comics from its early days. Next come the Avengers taking on Kang and a highly-anticipated big screen version of Secret Wars.

Like many worthwhile destinations, getting there is the problem. 

Phase Five has not been a disaster. It does show hallmarks of Marvel fatigue predominately because the backups are being asked to carry the team and have run into the catch-22 of showing precisely why they were backups to begin with.