Houston Matters

Are The Astros Being Punished More Harshly Because They’re Not The Yankees?

Baseball writers weigh in on the severity of Houston’s punishment and discuss where the team goes from here.

AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow
Manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were fired by the Astros following Major League Baseball’s investigation into sign stealing.

When the news came down of the Astros’ punishment following the electronic sign-stealing scandal, plenty of Houston fans asked the same question that a listener named Jim emailed Houston Matters:

“If the alleged cheating scandal would have involved any other team like the Red Sox, Yankees, or the Dodgers, would they have had the same punishment as [the] Astros got? I think all this came about because the Astros did better than the Yankees in the playoffs.” — Jim, Houston Matters listener

It’s a sentiment that illustrates a theory many Houston sports fans have: Houston teams are always getting the shaft compared to the likes of the Yankees, Dodgers, or Red Sox.
You frequently hear fans in the Bayou City allege the league, television networks, or some other nebulous higher entity secretly don’t want Houston teams to succeed because ratings would be higher if the Yankees or Dodgers were in the World Series and not them. Or that a certain national sportscaster is always just a little more excited when the other team does something good.
Whether there’s any truth to those conspiracy theories or not, they’re a microcosm of our city’s larger inferiority complex, which includes questions like:
  • Why does everyone outside Texas think Dallas is the biggest city in the state?
  • Why doesn’t the rest of the nation know we’re the fourth-largest (and soon to be third-largest) city in the country?
  • Why do major concert acts often stop in Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio — but skip Houston?
Houston Sports Highs and Lows
Houston sports history has had a few dizzying highs, but, sadly, more devastating lows (and sometimes both from the same event).

And, when it comes to sports specifically, our city’s many colossal disappointments and few major triumphs don’t help that internal and external narrative.
So, those were the thoughts already in the back of many of our heads when news of the punishment broke this week. The general manager who turned around the franchise, Jeff Luhnow, and the manager who lead them on the field, AJ Hinch, both gone. Draft picks erased and a $5 million fine.
And, perhaps more than anything, a pall cast on the 2017 World Series championship — making one of our city’s greatest sports moments also one of its worst.
How very Houston.
Jose Altuve and his teammates celebrate during a rally honoring the team’s 2017 World Series victory.
Is Houston Being Singled Out?
But are the Astros getting punished more harshly because they’re Houston and not L.A., New York, or Boston?
In the audio above, our show’s host, Craig Cohen, talks with several baseball writers who’ve reported on this story.
Evan Drellich, a former Astros beat writer who now writes for The Athletic and helped break much of the sign-stealing story, says Major League Baseball came down so hard because not only was this the first violation after the league sternly warned teams about the ramifications of further electronic sign-stealing, but also because of the degree of the Astros’ violation.
Players on the field are allowed to steal signs and relay the information to teammates. But MLB rules prohibit the use of electronic means in the process.
“Inside the industry, what the Astros did is looked at as the most egregious and most flagrant confirmed example of electronic sign stealing, and that’s because of the real-time nature of it,” Drellich said. “They were communicating pitch to pitch — or they had the ability to — even if they didn’t always do it. And it had no pretense of legality.”
Ben Reiter is perhaps best known to Houstonians as the man who boldly predicted on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2014 that the Astros would win the World Series in 2017. He also literally wrote the book on how Luhnow and company turned one of the worst teams in half a century into a champion.
He say’s he’s not surprised MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred came down so hard on the team as a deterrent for future problems.
“It’s certainly in Manfred’s best interest to try to contain this to the Astros and perhaps the Red Sox as well,” he said.
Eyes on Boston
The Red Sox will offer a test case for Houstonians’ conspiracy theories, although the circumstances may not be entirely the same. The investigation is still ongoing regarding potential electronic sign-stealing in Boston. So we still don’t know what the league’s report will bring to light about what happened there. And that, of course, will effect the nature and degree of the punishment.
But, already, the team’s manager, Alex Cora, whom the league says was involved in setting up the sign-stealing operation when he was a coach in Houston, and the Red Sox have mutually agreed to part ways. So far, heads rolling at the top in Boston is on par with what happened in Houston.
But still, Bayou City sports fans will no doubt be watching closely to see what else happens.
Alex Cora - Former Red Sox Manager
Former Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora was previously a bench coach for the Astros.
“Cora’s going to be facing some sort of discipline,” Drellich said. “It’s contingent on what they end up finding in this ongoing Red Sox investigation.”
So, whatever happens there could vary greatly — or match — the Astros’ punishment depending on the severity of the infractions and other unknowns.
However, depending on what happens, I’m sure some Houston fans will still argue that the Astros paid a higher price because they were the first violator after the league issued it’s stern warning (but it still remains to be seen whether they’re the most egregious).
An Unfair Target?
For Reiter, the Astros have put themselves in a lot of people’s cross hairs in recent years. Whether that played a role in the severity of their punishment is hard to say.
“They’ve been perceived as arrogant, they’ve been perceived as brash, they’ve also been begrudgingly respected for being very good,” Reiter said. “So I understand why some in the fan base would think that made them an unfair target. But the truth of the matter is no — I don’t think that the Astros were treated differently than any other team had they done similar things.”
Alex Bregman's 1st Inning Homer, Game 6
Alex Bregman hits a home run in Game 6 of the 2019 World Series.

What has surprised him, however, is the meteoric rise and fall of Luhnow and Hinch.

“They were innovators, they had invented a lot of things that have now spread across the league,” he said. “To see it crashing down in this way was certainly shocking.”

Where The Astros Go From Here

Reiter says the team will still use a lot of the innovations Luhnow and his team instilled — just without him at the top. He sees 30-year-old assistant general manager Pete Putila as a likely replacement for Luhnow. Putila is one of a few who was with the organization before Luhnow took over.

“He’s very well-liked,” Reiter said. “He’s had his hands in the player development side of things.”

Astros bench coach Joe Espada.
Astros bench coach Joe Espada.

For the managerial job, one likely replacement could be bench coach Joe Espada, who arrived in 2018 and was a finalist for several managerial jobs in during the current offseason.

However, USA Today baseball columnist Bob Nightengale writes that such a move could be “a tough sell” for owner Jim Crane:

Business As Usual?

And while Reiter says the loss of draft picks will hurt the team some, and the 2017 championship has been tarnished, things are not all that bad from the organization’s perspective.

“What really has Jim Crane and the Astros lost? He lost $5 million — that’s not very significant,” he said. “He didn’t lose his World Series ring. Really, in many ways, after all this it’s going to be business as usual.”

And for Houston fans, another sports disappointment will also be business as usual.

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Michael Hagerty

Michael Hagerty

Senior Producer, Houston Matters

Michael Hagerty is the senior producer for Houston Matters. He's spent more than 20 years in public radio and television and dabbled in minor league baseball, spending four seasons as the public address announcer for the Reno Aces, the Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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