Houston Astros GM and manager suspended — then fired — for stealing signs

After MLB announced penalties against Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch, the team terminated their employment.
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By Elisha Fieldstadt and David K. Li

Houston Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were suspended by Major League Baseball for the upcoming season on Monday — and then fired by the Astros — for stealing opponents' pitching signs during their team's World Series-winning 2017 season.

The team was also fined a $5 million, the maximum allowed, and will forfeit its first- and second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts, according to the MLB.

About an hour after MLB revealed findings of its investigation and suspended Luhnow and Hinch for the 2020 season, Astros owner Jim Crane announced he had fired both of those employees.

“We need to move forward with a clean slate and the Astros will become a stronger organization," Crane told reporters. "We will always do the right thing and will not have this happen again on my watch."

Crane said he accepted MLB's punishments.

"We broke the rules, we accept the punishment. It's very unfortunate," Crane said. "Neither one of these guys implemented this ... but neither one them did anything about it. That's unfortunate and the consequences are severe."

Four people associated with the Astros during the 2017 season — when the Astros won their only World Series titlesaid the team used a camera in the outfield to steal pitching signs during home games, the sports site The Athletic reported in November.

The Athletic quoted Mike Fiers, a pitcher who threw a no-hitter for the Astros in 2015, and three other unidentified people affiliated with the Astros as saying that during the 2017 season, players and other employees would monitor opposing catchers' signals using a camera in center field of the team's stadium, Minute Maid Park.

Signals were then relayed to the hitters by someone banging on a trash can.

By knowing the upcoming pitch type, batters could adjust their timing. For instance, batters would know to swing early if a fastball was coming — or sit back and judge the location for a breaking ball or changeup.

"Witnesses explained that they initially experimented with communicating sign information by clapping, whistling or yelling but that they eventually determined that banging a trash can was the preferred method of communication," according to the MLB report.

"Generally, one or two bangs corresponded to certain off-speed pitches, while no bang corresponded to a fastball."

While using the human eye to steal an opponent's signs is a time-honored ⁠— and even celebrated ⁠— art in baseball, employing technology is forbidden.

Though Luhnow said he accepts responsibility for rules broken under his watch, he contended in a statement Monday that he is "not a cheater." The former general manager said that he did not plan or oversee the sign stealing.

"I am deeply upset that I wasn’t informed of any misconduct, because I would have stopped it," Luhnow said. "I agree with Mr. Crane that our baseball operations team has achieved far more positives beyond this significant negative."

Hinch apologized to Crane and the Astros organization in his own statement Monday, in which he accepted the commissioner's decision.

"As a leader and Major League Manager, it is my responsibility to lead players and staff with integrity that represents the game in the best possible way," Hinch said. "While the evidence consistently showed I didn't endorse or participate in the sign stealing practices, I failed to stop them and I am deeply sorry."

The MLB said it interviewed nearly 70 witnesses and combed through tens of thousands of emails, text messages, photos and video clips during its investigation, which was summarized in a nine-page ruling.

“I find that the conduct of the Astros, and its senior baseball operations executives, merits significant discipline,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said as part of the ruling.

Manfred noted that the "investigation revealed absolutely no evidence" that Crane, the Astros owner, was aware of any misconduct.

While MLB's report called the sign-stealing scheme "player-driven," the findings named a former Astros player and coach who are now big league managers — Carlos Beltran and Alex Cora.

Beltran was in his final year as a player in 2017 and is now manager of the New York Mets. Cora was Hinch's bench coach in that title-winning year, before he was hired as a skipper of the Boston Red Sox — leading his team to the world title in 2018.

"Approximately two months into the 2017 season, a group of players, including Carlos Beltran, discussed that the team could improve on decoding opposing teams' signs and communicating the signs to the batter," according to the MLB report.

"Cora arranged for a video room technician to install a monitor displaying the center field camera feed immediately outside of the Astros' dugout."

Manfred said he wouldn't take action against any players because the club's field manager and general manager "are responsible for ensuring that the players both understand the rules and adhere to them," according to Manfred.

That statement appears to let Beltran off the hook, but Cora could still be disciplined after MLB completes a report on suspected sign stealing by his 2018 Red Sox.

"I will withhold determining the appropriate level of discipline for Cora until after the (MLB) completes its investigation of the allegations that the Red Sox engaged in impermissible electronic sign stealing in 2018 while Cora was the manager," according to Manfred.

The Astros and Red Sox beat the same National League champion, the Los Angeles Dodgers, for their world titles.

The Dodgers said in a statement that the league had asked all teams to refrain from comment on the Astros punishment.

"The Dodgers have also been asked not to comment on any wrongdoing during the 2017 World Series and will have no further comment at this time," the team said.

Houston has been one of baseball’s most successful franchises in recent years, having won at least 100 games in each of the past three seasons.

In addition to its 2017 world title, the Astros won the 2019 American League pennant before falling to the Washington Nationals in this past fall’s World Series.

The sign-stealing relay system did not extend past the 2018 season, according to the MLB investigation.

“At some point during the 2018 season, the Astros stopped using the replay review room to decode signs because the players no longer believed it was effective,” according to MLB findings.

Crane insisted the scandal does not taint his franchise's 2017 title.

"Absolutely not," he said. "We've had a very good team for a number of years."

Monday's announcements cap three turbulent months for the American League champs.

Former Astros Assistant General Manger Brandon Taubman, who was fired after making offensive comments about a pitcher suspended for domestic violence to a group of female reporters during last season's playoffs, was also suspended for a year.

While currently not employed in the major leagues, Taubman will not be able to work for any club during that time.

Doha Madani contributed.