Nancy Armour, USA TODAY
Published 7:27 p.m. ET Jan. 13, 2020 | Updated 7:45 p.m. ET Jan. 13, 2020
Jeff Luhnow should never work in baseball again. Any sports league, for that matter.
Harsh as the punishments were for Luhnow and his former sidekick Brandon Taubman, they didn’t go far enough. A single season in time out doesn’t reflect the damage they did to the game with the renegade, frat boy culture that permeated the Houston Astros.
This isn’t about stealing signs, any more than Deflategate was about Tom Brady liking footballs with less air pressure. Those are, in the grand scheme of things, minor hijinks that probably weren’t even worth the considerable effort they took.
This is about the integrity of the game, and what happens when an organization sees it as something to be manipulated rather than something to be respected. Every result, by that team and every other, becomes suspect, undercutting confidence in the entire game.
Think that’s an overreaction? The Astros were quickly dubbed the Asterisks after Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred released his damning report on their sign-stealing scheme Monday. And since it occurred during the 2017 season, when Houston won the World Series, that title will forever be viewed with suspicion.
“The conduct described herein has caused fans, players, executives at other MLB Clubs, and members of the media to raise questions about the integrity of games in which the Astros participated,” Manfred wrote. “And while it is impossible to determine whether the conduct actually impacted the results on the field, the perception of some that it did causes significant harm to the game.”
There is a reason every sport has rules. Fans need to trust that the product they’re watching is legit, especially when that interest translates into billions in revenue. Players need to trust that they’re on a level playing field with their opponents or they might as well be back in kindergarten, where there’s always a kid who changes the rules mid-stream to suit himself.
If you cannot trust what you’re seeing, it’s not worth watching. If you cannot trust that you’re getting a fair shot, there’s no point playing.
Luhnow and Taubman, both of whom are now former Astros employees, might not have imagined the sign-stealing scheme. They might not even have known about it – though I have my doubts about that claim.
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It doesn’t matter. Their at-any-cost brashness, as well as their contempt for anyone who didn’t share it, created the culture in which cheating was seen as simply part of the game. It created the culture that cowed anyone who might have wanted to raise objections. It created a culture that emboldened Taubman to harass female reporters, and the club to then lie about it and slander a reporter to try and cover it up.
“It is very clear to me that the culture of the baseball operations department … has been very problematic,” Manfred wrote. “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 (this).”
Those aren’t people you want around your game, and certainly not in positions to shape the mindset and values of an organization. Not now, not ever again.
As for now-former manager A.J. Hinch, he at least has shown a glimmer of a conscience.
He reportedly destroyed the monitor used in the sign stealing scheme – on more than one occasion, no less – and was the lone member of the Astros organization to acknowledge that Taubman’s brutish behavior was unacceptable. Yet he was culpable in his complicity, and is deserving of his season-long suspension – and loss of his job.
Whether there will be room for Hinch in baseball when his banishment ends will be up to him, and whether he recognizes that mild objections aren’t enough when someone is compromising the integrity of the game right in front of him.
Luhnow, Taubman and Hinch lost their jobs and, for at least the foreseeable future, their place in baseball. But baseball was robbed of its integrity, and that is the greatest loss of all.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.