Astros history will never be the same

Assessing the fallout of the Astros' Black Monday

Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Black Monday is typically the name given to the day following the conclusion of the NFL's regular season, the day many teams announce the firings of head coaches as a result of disappointing performances. There is no equivalent of that in the MLB, as managers and members of a club's front office typically come and go sporadically throughout the year. Still, whether you agree with the events that transpired or not, Monday, January 13, 2020, will go down as a stain on the Houston Astros franchise.

MLB levies severe penalties

Many expected the MLB and its commissioner to send a message through their punishment of the Houston Astros once they completed their investigation into 2017 sign-stealing. Nonetheless, the reports that surfaced on Monday afternoon still sent shockwaves through the sport.

The penalties included 1-year suspensions of Manager A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow, along with the loss of first and second-round draft picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts, and a fine of $5 million, the most allowable in the sport's current constitution. The spectrum of reactions to the news was broad, ranging from being too harsh towards Houston to not being severe enough.

It came as no surprise, given Manfred's stance that he would hold a team's General Manager and Field Manager accountable for infractions of this kind, that he dealt the disciplines specifically to Luhnow and Hinch. It was a way to make a statement while avoiding the nearly impossible task of trying to narrow the scope of the investigation to individual players and the complexity that would come with trying to enforce those penalties.

Did Jim Crane act too hastily and harshly?

Shortly after the MLB announced commissioner Rob Manfred's statement and the subsequent actions, Astros owner Jim Crane called for a press conference to expand things further. He went several steps farther than the MLB, firing both Hinch and Luhnow for their lack of intervention into the scandal, which had the team in turmoil.

While Crane was rightfully displeased with his GM and Manager, completely severing ties with them was a drastic statement, especially considering the commissioner's report which concluded that neither directly took part in the sign-stealing, and in fact, had this to say about Hinch's involvement:

"Hinch neither devised the banging scheme nor participated in it. Hinch told my investigators that he did not support his players decoding signs using the monitor installed near the dugout and banging the trash can, and he believed that the conduct was both wrong and distracting. Hinch attempted to signal his disapproval of the scheme by physically damaging the monitor on two occasions, necessitating its replacement."

In regards to Luhnow, the investigation did not find any evidence that he directed or was involved in the team's cheating, and instead spoke to the mishandling of his GM duties:

"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 Brandon Taubman incident, the Club's admittedly inappropriate and inaccurate response to that incident, and finally, to an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred."

You can read the full report here: Commissioner Rob Manfred's Report on Astros 2017 sign-stealing

Things escalated rapidly for the duo of Hinch and Luhnow, who went from learning about and starting to deal with an upcoming year of being suspended from their team to not having a team at all as Crane decided to clean house. It's no question that while the "it starts at the top" approach is valid, completely ending the tenures of two of the most influential members of franchise history is startling, to say the least.

Despite a lack of punishment, the rest of the team still has a burden to bear

Yet, although no current or former Astros players will receive formal discipline from the league, the damage has been done. Like it or not, the 2017 championship season has been disgraced. Whether it materially affected the outcome of the season is no matter, the league confirmed the cheating, and that will be enough to alter the story surrounding the year that brought the city of Houston it's first long-awaited World Series victory.

While we may never know the extent any specific player took part in the cheating, the league and its fans will now question the integrity of each player and judge them in the court of public opinion. The team formerly regarded as the feel-good story of 2017 by putting a city on their back after the wake of Hurricane Harvey will now be known as the team that cheated their way to a championship.

Still a strong group of players, but will start the season working uphill

While many will want to get back to baseball after these events, that may not be easy for the 2020 Astros. Not only will they have to find someone to be Manager and GM, but they will have to go up against potentially hyper-motivated opponents looking for revenge from years past.

Outside of the opposing players themselves, the Astros will also undoubtedly face harsh terrain in road stadiums, where fans will be vocal about their newfound opposition to the team. Does the roster have the ability to overcome that and still put together a strong season? Yes, but they now face uncharted territory as they assume their role as the new villains of the MLB, a role that few would have expected during the euphoric parade on the downtown streets of Houston a little over two years ago.

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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