By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) – The Houston Astros fired Manager A.J. Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow on Monday after Major League Baseball suspended them each for a year for a cheating scandal that involved stealing pitch signs from opposing catchers during their World Series-winning 2017 season.
Announcement of the firings was made by Astros owner Jim Crane about an hour after MLB announced the suspensions and sanctions against the team, which also included a $5 million fine and the loss of first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021.
Crane announced his decision to fire one of the game’s most highly regarded GM-manager combinations during opening remarks at a news conference inside the Astros’ Minute Maid Park in Houston, where he addressed the sign-stealing scandal.
“We need to move forward with a clean slate and the Astros will become a stronger organization because of this today,” said Crane. “You can be confident that we will always do the right thing and will not have this happen again on my watch.”
According to MLB, the sign-stealing scheme evolved during the 2017 season. At the outset, it involved employees in the Astros’ video replay review room using a live game feed from the centerfield camera to attempt to decode and transmit opposing teams’ pitch sign sequences.
At one point, then-Astros bench coach Alex Cora arranged to install a monitor displaying the centerfield camera shots near the Houston dugout so players could watch, figure out the signs and hit a trash can with a bat to signal to their batter what type of pitch was coming, MLB said.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said Cora, who now manages the Boston Red Sox, “implicitly condoned” the Astros players’ conduct. He said MLB would withhold any disciplinary action against him until after completion of a separate investigation of allegations that the Red Sox engaged in sign-stealing in 2018, when they won the World Series in Cora’s first year as their manager.
“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 said in his written decision handing out the suspensions and sanctions.
“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,” he added.
If either Hinch or Luhnow engage in any future material violations of MLB rules, they will permanently banned from baseball, Manfred said.
PLAYERS OFF THE HOOK
No discipline was assessed to any players, although Manfred said most position players on the 2017 squad either received sign information from the banging scheme or participated in it by helping decode signs or telegraphing them.
Manfred said disciplining players for this type of conduct is difficult as he could not determine with any degree of certainty every player who should be held accountable. He also felt it was impractical given the large number of players involved, and because many are now with different teams.
“Many of the players who were interviewed admitted that they knew the scheme was wrong because it crossed the line from what the player believed was fair competition and/or violated MLB rules,” Manfred said.
“Players stated that if Manager A.J. Hinch told them to stop engaging in the conduct, they would have immediately stopped,” he added.
Under Luhnow’s tenure, the Astros went from a team that lost more than 100 games each season from 2011-2013 to one of the game’s powerhouse clubs with more than 100 wins every year from 2017-2019, including a World Series title in 2017 and another trip to the World Series in 2019 in which they lost to the upstart Washington Nationals.
In five years as Astros manager, Hinch compiled a record of 481-329, a winning percentage just shy of .600.
(This story has been refiled to fix typo in year in penultimate paragraph)
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Bill Berkrot)