Minute Maid Park.

Monday will likely be remembered as the darkest day in Houston Astros history. Within an hour of Major League Baseball handing down its punishment to the Astros for violating the rules regarding electronic sign stealing, Astros owner Jim Crane responded with an immediate teardown of the organization's leadership, firing general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch.

Yeah. So how did we get here? Well, here's a recap of everything that happened leading up to Monday, what the events of Monday mean, for the both the 'Stros and their fans, and what we should look for, and think, going forward.

The context

Last November, former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers alleged in an article at The Athletic that the Astros had been stealing signs electronically, which is against Major League Baseball rules. (Teams can learn signs that opposing catchers use to signal their pitchers using their own eyes, but going any further to figure out what is being communicated between these members of an opposing team is expressly forbidden.) Major League Baseball, led by commissioner Rob Manfred, opened an investigation into the allegations shortly after the Fiers' accusations became public, interviewing dozens of people including players, coaches, and staff members. 

The findings

According to Manfred's investigation, the sign stealing started in 2017. At first, staff watching the game in the replay room would tell Astros bench coach Alex Cora in the dugout what an opposing team's catcher was signaling to the pitcher, revealing what pitch was about to be thrown. Cora would then gesture to a runner on second base what the batter should expect, and the runner would relay the information to the batter at the plate. All of this would happen quickly as to get the information to the batter before the pitch was thrown.

Later in the 2017 season, Cora "arranged for a video room technician to install a monitor displaying the center field camera feed immediately outside of the Astros’ dugout," continued Manfred. A player near the monitor would determine what pitch was being thrown, then bang a trash can one or two times to communicate what pitch was about to be thrown. Sometimes they would whistle or clap. Cora was the only staff member to participate in this initiative, though manager AJ Hinch was found to be aware of it. Then-player Carlos Beltran (now manager of the New York Mets) was also involved in this practice.

Manfred punished the Boston Red Sox in September 2017 for communicating stolen signs using smart watches, then issued a memorandum "reiterating the rules regarding the use of electronic equipment to steal signs." But the Astros continued breaking the rules into the 2017 postseason (including during the World Series that the Astros won), and for part of the '18 season.

Further, general manager Jeff Luhnow denied knowing anything about the sign-stealing processes, and the investigation found no evidence that he took part in the dugout's relaying of information. But Manfred's investigation found that Luhnow was aware of the replay review staff communicating information to the dugout and did nothing to stop it. Also, the investigation revealed that owner Jim Crane had no idea his team was participating in the initiative.

Finally, Manfred said he found the Astros to have a "very problematic" culture in baseball operations. That was brought to public light after assistant general manager Brandon Taubman made inappropriate remarks to female journalists in the clubhouse during the celebration following the 2019 American League Championship Series. Per a report, Taubman bragged to women about pitcher Roberto Osuna, who in 2018 was arrested for allegedly assaulting the mother of his child, though charges were withdrawn months later. After the clubhouse incident, the Astros initially claimed reporter Stephanie Apstein fabricated her story, but then the team backtracked while firing Taubman.

The ruling

After announcing his findings, Manfred levied punishments:

  • General manager Jeff Luhnow suspended from Major League Baseball for one year
  • Manager AJ Hinch suspended from Major League Baseball for one year
  • Forfeiture of first- and second-round draft picks in the 2020 and 2021 First-Year Player Drafts.
  • Fine of $5 million.

Manfred also placed Taubman on the ineligible list (meaning he is unable to work in baseball) through the end of the 2020 World Series.

The fallout

Minutes after Manfred announced his punishments, Crane fired Luhnow and Hinch.

Now what?

Crane said he will conduct a search for a new general manager and manager. "We need to move forward with a clean slate," he said in a press conference Monday. 

As for Astros players, it's getting back to baseball. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball is still investigating if Cora—now the manager of the Red Sox—was engaging in the same kind of sign-stealing scheme during the 2018 season in Boston. By the way, the Red Sox won the World Series that year.

As for the fans?

It sucks, and it isn't even 24 hours since the Texans ripped out the hearts of Houston sports fans everywhere. It just sucks.

The Astros were one of the best stories in sports: the franchise that dared challenge convention and stay really bad for a few seasons so it could replenish its talent, modernize, and become the class of Major League Baseball. This was a franchise that lost 106, 107, and 111 games in 2011, '12 and '13 respectively, with Luhnow engineering an organization-wide process that led to the franchise's lone world championship. 

But that 2017 title will forever be accompanied by an asterisk, and if not to us, then at least to fans and talking heads elsewhere. If they never cheated, would they have won the World Series? Maybe? Possibly? Maybe not? Who's to know?

Still, the Taubman incident and subsequent revelations of a "problematic" organizational culture are worse (not to mention you might still feel disgusted that the Astros acquired Osuna to begin with). And while you can hire new people and start over, you can't simply shake the swaggering toxicity and ignorance that showed with the rule-breaking, with Taubman putting women in an uncomfortable situation, and with the organization slandering one of those women in a show of victim blaming. That won't be going away any time soon.

As fans, we're conditioned to root for the name on the front of the jersey. It's our home and our team, and that shouldn't be taken away from us. We should want to smile tears of joy every time we watch the final out of the 2017 World Series. It's not so simple now, and maybe that's how the world works more often than we want to believe.

But while this day does unequivocally suck (for Houston sports fans, for baseball, for fair play), it's a day that had to happen, if only to find us better off on the other side.

Hang tight, Astros fans. Hang tight. 

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