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Jeffrey Luhnow seems to think the rules of upper management don’t apply to him.
The disgraced former general manager of the Houston Astros, fired for fostering the frat boy culture that spawned the cheating scandal involving the 2017 World Series champions, is now whining about how unfairly he was treated. Luhnow didn’t know about the trash can banging or the text messages, he insisted in his first interview since he was fired, and he’s only the fall guy because Major League Baseball and Commissioner Rob Manfred wanted a high-profile head to roll.
Well, yeah. That’s how it works.
When you run a team, or a company, you get to take credit for its successes. “Taking a terrible organization and turning it into a dominant organization,” as Luhnow himself put it in the interview, which aired Monday night.
The flip side is that when things go south, you own that, too. And Luhnow, despite his tone-deaf attempt at revisionist history, owns every bit of the toxic mess that disgraced baseball.
Contrary to how Luhnow is trying to spin it, he wasn’t suspended and subsequently fired because the Astros were caught cheating in 2017 and 2018. Or because of the aggressive misogyny of his underlings. Or the win-at-any-cost arrogance that turned pretty much everyone in baseball outside of Houston off the Astros.
He was fired for all of it.
“It is very clear to me that the culture of the baseball operations department … has been very problematic,” Manfred wrote in his January report on the sign-stealing. “At least in my view, the baseball operations department’s insular culture – one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led, at least in part, to (this).”
Luhnow’s attempts to evade responsibility are, simply, laughable. He acknowledges that someone at MLB reached out to him twice – not once, twice – in 2018 to raise the possibility that the Astros were stealing signs.
“But, I wasn’t asked to follow-up on it, they weren’t asking me to do anything,” Luhnow said. “It was sort of a heads up, and I didn’t think we were doing anything so I didn’t pursue it.”
Now that just begs credibility. Houston’s success stemmed from its parsing of the tiniest morsel of data, and we’re to believe Luhnow would just ignore something like this? Of course not.
Sure enough, Luhnow contradicted himself. While still answering the same question, no less.
“During the season in 2018, about five different times, either because I noticed it myself or because MLB called me said, ‘We think there might be a potential violation here,’ I followed up quickly, I followed up vigorously, I talked to the coaching staff, I talked to the video room staff,” Luhnow said. “And I told them, ‘We’ve been accused of a violation, let’s make sure we’re doing everything right.’”
That’s the problem with thinking you’re untouchable. The lies feel like truth and the moral compromises seem more like starting points in the negotiations.
That Luhnow is portraying himself as the victim, throwing everyone else under the bus, is not a surprise. He and his team might have been the smartest people in the room, taking their analytics, technology and operations know-how from the business world and applying them to baseball. But that cut-throat world view left no room for introspection. For anyone to raise their hand if and when he or she saw a problem with how the Astros were doing things.
It also created a permissive atmosphere where no one below Luhnow would have felt the need to inform the boss about the sign-stealing caper, figuring he’d be OK with their any-means-necessary approach.
“They just did it,” Luhnow said. “Whether it’s the players or the video staffers, they just decided on their own to do it and that’s a shame, because had they come and asked me for permission I would have said no. Had they gone and asked (owner Jim Crane) for permission, he would have said no. There’s just no reason why that should have happened.”
He’s right. But that is the culture Luhnow created. Celebrated, really.
The Astros did things differently and if you didn’t like it, that was your problem, not theirs. If they got caught skirting the bounds of decency, well, surely their success would protect them. That, or they’d find someone else to take the fall.
Either way, the damage would be minimized and it wouldn’t be long before everyone moved on and Luhnow and his crew could go back to doing what they did best.
Luhnow still doesn’t seem to understand that that is what got him fired. It wasn’t the sign stealing. It was that the Astros actively and enthusiastically undermined the integrity of the game.
“My integrity is being questioned here,” Luhnow said. “Everything I worked for for the past 16 years is being questioned here. And it’s wrong. I was accused of something I didn’t do. I’ll take my punishment because I was the general manager. But I’m not going to let people label me as a cheater.”
He might not be a cheater. But he is more than deserving of the punishment he got.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.