Think back to Before, in the Era of Offices: Now imagine your boss took a baseball bat — he has one hanging on the wall in this hypothetical, along with other sports memorabilia, and maybe even one of those mini golf putting sets — and started smashing your monitor. Or your coworker's monitor. Or maybe the printer. That would be alarming! You would certainly notice it. Once the dust had settled, you’d have a whole bunch of questions. Or at least one: Why?
Either that man really loves “Office Space,” you’d think, or he’s unhappy about something in the workplace.
The 2017 Houston Astros players must’ve figured manager A.J. Hinch for a huge fan of the 1999 Mike Judge classic.
A year ago Wednesday, Major League Baseball announced the results of its three-month investigation into allegations that the Astros illegally stole and relayed signs during their 2017 championship season. At its most egregious, the illicit enterprise involved a monitor positioned near the Astros’ dugout that showed a real-time feed of the opposing catcher’s signs from a center field camera. A player watching the live footage would decode the signs and bang on a nearby trash can to communicate the upcoming pitch to the batter on the field.
The 10-page report, written (ostensibly at least) by commissioner Rob Manfred, is a rollicking read. It was a fantastic source of content that ran the gamut from serious to silly to speculative. In that way, it was the perfect sports story. It was a self-contained drama — encompassing the highest possible baseball stakes but without much influence from beyond the ballpark. And in that way, it was the last of its kind for a while.
The fallout was swift — Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow were suspended and then fired that day — and then sustained. There was so much to react to, and the baseball world obliged. But even as the news cycle has since given way to far Bigger Things, I can’t stop thinking about what is, ultimately, an inconsequential detail.
In a section describing the culpability of different members of the Houston organization, Manfred wrote that many of the players, who were not punished because to do so would have been unfeasible, “admitted that they knew the scheme was wrong.”
In fact: “Players stated that if Manager A.J. Hinch told them to stop engaging in the conduct, they would have immediately stopped.”
Mmmhm. About that. A few sections later Manfred wrote:
“Hinch attempted to signal his disapproval of the scheme by physically damaging the monitor on two occasions, necessitating its replacement. However, Hinch admits he did not stop it and he did not notify players or [bench coach Alex] Cora that he disapproved of it.”
I’ve been a human person for some time now and I simply cannot imagine this. Not because the means are a mystery. (Baseball bat, go figure, Hinch explained in an interview on MLB Network with Tom Verducci.) And not because I can’t fathom a baseball man getting physical with any available gear as an unhealthy outlet for his frustration. (David Ortiz made plain that very real possibility with the unwilling assistance of a dugout phone.)
Specifically: What next? Hinch, angry about the sign stealing by his team and having apparently never conveyed that verbally, silently grabs a baseball bat and starts wailing on a clandestine monitor and then … everyone just shrugs and someone offers to swing by Best Buy on the way to the ballpark before the next game? No one asks the manager what’s wrong or why he did that, and he never explains? No one deduces anything from the object of his outburst despite its direct connection to a carefully premeditated cheating system?
AND THEN THAT WHOLE THING HAPPENS AGAIN???
Maybe the third time would have done the trick.
In his MLB Network interview, Hinch explained this part of the saga saying, “My mindset at that point was to demonstrate that I didn’t like it.”
Asked to elaborate further, he offers only: “I hit it [with] a bat. I didn’t like it. In hindsight I should have had a meeting.”
Sure, at their best, sports can be candy-coated vessels for life lessons, of which “use your words” is a classic that apparently applies here. But in Hinch’s defense, it sounds like he demonstrated loud and clear that he didn’t approve of the sign-stealing scheme. What else did everyone think was going on? On the flip side, what was Hinch doing during the other 80 or so games that his team was knowingly, wantonly, and without his approval, cheating? Rolling his eyes and sighing heavily, unsure how to more pointedly telegraph his objection?
Set aside, if you can, any knee-jerk judgments about the 2017 Astros and join me in obsessive confusion at the sheer narrative inconsistency here. Picture the scene, play it out in your head: How does it end?
Perhaps it’s naive to take the commissioner’s report and Hinch’s strategically somber sit-down a month later at face value, as the complete story. But that’s sort of the point: In the midst of a scandal that shook public trust in baseball, and cast doubt on the ability of the sport to self-police, came an account from the commissioner himself with at least one glaring plot hole. He introduced a gun in the first act that never goes off, a shattered monitor that fails to alter the course of the cheating or the accounting of guilt.
“I believe transparency with our fans and our Clubs regarding what occurred is extremely important, and this report is my attempt to achieve that objective,” Manfred wrote in the intro to the report. And yet, he presented a version of events that lacks the internal logic to withstand scrutiny. I’m not saying it’s a cover-up or some kind of conspiracy. The result is a nagging mystery in my own mind, and a lingering testament to the unreliability of a league-run investigation.
Perhaps the missing details are as silly as the rhetorical hypotheticals I’ve imagined here. But without any additional evidence, something doesn’t add up.
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