Astros history will never be the same
Assessing the fallout of the Astros' Black Monday
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.