Baseball, you have a Houston problem.
The most tantalizing story of your offseason is not which free agent will cash in, or which team will make the big trade.
It’s not even how super agent Scott Boras could turn his three-headed free- agent monster of Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg into a dialogue about the intensifying grudge match between players and owners as the next collective bargaining agreement looms.
Even Boras and his infamous binders belong in the backseat compared to this Astros pitch-stealing scandal.
This story is mushrooming. It builds day by day, headline after headline.
What started as whispers about the Astros seeking more than a hard-earned edge jumped out into the public realm when former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers went on the record.
The Athletic’s report of the 2017 World Series winners using an outfield camera and a trash-can-banging method to alert hitters of incoming pitches during home games broke the seal.
People are talking.
The presence of a camera-holding Astros staffer in the camera-well next to opposing dugouts in the 2018 postseason, previously looked into and shrugged off by MLB, now sits a bit differently, doesn’t it? The Astros said then that they were trying to prevent sign stealing. That’s rich.
A 2017 request from an Astros front office member to scouts asking them to study opposing dugouts for tips and tells, with the help of a camera if needed, since has been shared.
Joel Sherman of the New York Post, citing conversations with scouts and executives, raised the question of electronic bandages — not just trash-can banging and whistles — possibly alerting hitters to pitches.
Each twist opens eyes to the kind of trouble former Cardinals front office member turned Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow could face.
I’m afraid a certain portion of scorned Cardinals fans will be forced to find a new favorite opposing front office member to covet.
The Cardinals in 2017 were punished by Major League Baseball for former scouting director Chris Correa’s repeated online hacking of the Astros’ database. The Astros were then sprinting from their tank phase toward a World Series championship. Everything was coming up Luhnow.
The combination of Cardinals angst and Astros success created quite the pro-Luhnow camp in The Lou. Some convinced themselves their team made a massive mistake by letting Luhnow leave the payroll in 2011. I know, because my email inbox often was the recipient of requests to write more about how Luhnow was the one the Cardinals let get away.
Those emails stopped this month.
Luhnow’s mangling of this postseason’s Brandon Taubman disaster turned off some of his supporters. He managed to step on every landmine possible before finally cutting ties with an assistant general manager who had hurt Houston’s image. Luhnow seemed more concerned about Taubman than the women Taubman’s clubhouse jeers targeted during the team's celebration of winning the American League Championship Series.
That was a public relations nightmare.
It’s a big baseball asterisk. Maybe worse. Luhnow’s greatest accomplishments now are in question.
Here’s one way to think about it. How comfortable would you be with your team signing a free-agent hitter who just put up good numbers in Houston? How would you know what is real?
Recall for a moment Correa’s explanation of his illegal hacking into Houston’s database. He said he wanted to prove former Cardinals staffers took proprietary information to Houston when they made the move. He said he found that proof.
Was he wrong to hack? Of course he was. Was his theory proven correct? That remains unclear. A claim that was laughed out of the courtroom at the time might carry more weight if made today.
This sign-stealing scandal won’t help Correa shake free of his lifetime ban from baseball. Could it land Luhnow with one?
"If Jeff Luhnow knew about this, he should be banned for life," one general manager told Andy Martino of SportsNet New York.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and his team are working through an investigation aimed at determining what, exactly, the Astros were up to in 2017 — and since. That same season, the league attempted to make an example out of the Red Sox in the infamous Apple Watch incident. Any tech-aided sign theft that occurred after that Red Sox punishment cannot be shrugged away. Teams knew the rules, and those rules have become more strict since.
The tentacles of Manfred’s investigation continue to spread, reaching out toward Red Sox manager Alex Cora, the Astros’ former bench coach, and new Mets manager Carlos Beltran, the former Astros designated hitter.
The finger-pointing has started.
Only question is how high up it points.
Cardinals fans who used to long for Luhnow should change their pitch.