Jeff Luhnow, the disgraced, suspended, and fired general manager of the Astros, has finally spoken publicly, giving a 37-minute interview to Houston NBC affiliate KPRC. And the man who ran the team responsible for baseball’s biggest scandal in a century would like the world to know that it wasn’t his fault.
“I mean, everybody likes to boil things down to soundbites, or Twitter, or tweets,” Luhnow said. “‘Luhnow’s the mastermind,’ ‘Luhnow was behind this,’ ‘this is Luhnow’s culture.’ It’s not. It couldn’t be further from the truth. And I have to let people know that. My integrity is being questioned here. 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. I didn’t have anything to do with it. And so I want people to know that.”
That quote alone, from the next-to-last question of the interview, puts it all together. For every part of the story where Luhnow may be right, he’s also dead wrong, even if he’s telling the full truth now, and for the sake of argument, let’s say that he is.
So, Luhnow isn’t the mastermind. Luhnow wasn’t behind this. But this was Luhnow’s culture. He was the general manager of the Astros. He hired the manager and the coaching staff, assembled the roster, and was empowered to make personnel decisions. You don’t get to be a genius when it all works out and avoid any blame when it doesn’t. That’s part of the accountability that goes with the job. So, yes, Luhnow’s integrity is questioned, and yes, everything he worked for is questioned. It’s not wrong. That’s exactly what should happen, because even if he wasn’t running the video cameras and banging the trash cans, everyone who did that was working under his direction.
If the cheaters thought Luhnow wouldn’t approve, but did it anyway and successfully hid it from him, that means he’s a pretty awful manager who can’t control his workspace. That’s his culture. That’s something he’s responsible for, and he even says it: “I’ll take my punishment because I was the general manager.” The punishment isn’t just getting suspended from baseball and fired by the Astros, it’s also a punishment from the court of public opinion: Luhnow is branded with this scandal and will always stink from it.
“I didn’t have anything to do with it.” That’s just not true. And Luhnow understands that the one person above him in the organization is the owner, and “they weren’t going to punish Jim [Crane].” Because in addition to being Luhnow’s old boss, Crane is one of Rob Manfred’s bosses.
In noting that, though, Luhnow further showed how wriggly he can try to be with technicalities. Here’s that quote in greater context, from a question about why Manfred wouldn’t have Luhnow take a lie detector test:
“I think the investigation was not attempting to really uncover who did what, and who was really responsible. The goal of the investigation was to deliver punishments that Rob could feel good about and would calm the panic. There was a drumbeat for punishments and so they weren’t going to punish Jim, like I said, they weren’t going to punish the players. I didn’t have an assistant GM; we have a very thin front office in terms of layers, so there wasn’t [sic] too many places to go. So they had to create a case they felt good enough about in order to punish me.”
A lot of that sounds really good and rings true! Manfred wasn’t interested in doing a real investigation, but rather in delivering punishments that he could feel good about to calm the panic. The commissioner is not a hero in this at all. And, yes, a lot of it came down to having a good enough case to punish Luhnow along with manager A.J. Hinch, who also got suspended for a year and fired by the Astros. But the missing point is that building a good enough case to punish Luhnow wasn’t that hard, even for the bumbling commissioner, because he was the one in charge.
Also, that bit about not having an assistant GM, that’s weird, isn’t it? The reason that the Astros didn’t have an assistant GM wasn’t because “we have a very thin front office in terms of layers,” it was because they did have an assistant GM, Brandon Taubman, who was fired during the World Series for an incident during Houston’s American League pennant celebration in which he yelled toward female reporters, with a stream of expletives, about how glad he was to have acquired relief pitcher and domestic abuser Roberto Osuna. Lest we forget, all of that was part of Luhnow’s culture, too.
Luhnow wants to act like the Astros’ whole cheating scandal got pinned on him because he was the easy target and that by making him responsible, MLB could make it all go away. The problem is, he was responsible. No, he never operated a video camera or banged a trash can, but he was the guy who was supposed to be in control of an organization that was out of control. That’s why MLB punished him for what happened with the Astros. If it was just a fall guy that Manfred was looking for, he could have found one, as he did with the Red Sox’s video replay operator in the Boston cheating scandal.
“During the season in 2018, about five different times, either because I noticed it myself or because MLB called me [and] said ‘we think there might be a potential violation here,’ I followed up quickly,” Luhnow said. “I followed up vigorously. I talked to the coaching staff, I talked to the video room staff. And I told them, ‘we’ve been accused of a violation, let’s make sure we’re doing everything right.’”
There are two possibilities here. One is that Luhnow gave orders that there wasn’t to be any cheating, and everyone in the organization just ignored him, on multiple occasions, in which case, he’d be an ineffective manager who needed to be held responsible for the organizational culture that he installed and couldn’t control. The other possibility is that he’s lying. Either way, Luhnow lacks the charisma to have Jack Nicholson play him in the movie version, and other teams have shown themselves to be perfectly capable of putting some Wall Street dork in charge to build a winner.