Los Angeles, Jan 14 (AFP/APP): Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch and team boss Jeff Luhnow were banned for the 2020 season and sacked by the club on Monday after a Major League Baseball investigation into allegations of cheating during the their 2017 World Series-winning campaign.
In sanctions that sent shockwaves through baseball, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said the Astros had effectively ignored a league warning against illegal sign-stealing issued in September 2017.
“The conduct of the Astros, and its senior baseball operations executives, merits significant discipline,” Manfred said in a nine-page ruling.
The Astros’ conduct had “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 added.
“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 said.
Shortly after the suspensions were announced, Astros owner Jim Crane said Hinch and Luhnow had been sacked.
“I have higher standards for the city and the franchise, and I am going above and beyond the MLB’s penalty,” Crane told a press conference.
“Today I have made the decision to dismiss A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow. We need to move forward with a clean slate. We will not have this happen again on my watch.”
– Multi-million dollar fine –
In addition to the suspensions, the Astros have been fined the maximum $5 million allowed under MLB rules.
The team has also forfeited its first- and second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts, the league said.
The penalties are among the stiffest ever handed out to a team by the MLB.
The Astros — who defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games to win the 2017 World Series — had been under investigation since November after former pitcher Mike Fiers lifted the lid on tactics used by Houston to illegally steal signs from opposing teams.
Sign-stealing in baseball is the act of observing signals by opposing teams, most commonly between pitchers and catchers, in an attempt to gain a tactical advantage by identifying what kind of pitch is likely to be thrown.
Major League Baseball forbids teams from using electronic assistance — such as a camera — to help steal signs. Sign-stealing by players in the field is allowed but generally frowned upon.
Fiers told The Athletic the Astros had decoded signs with the assistance of a camera positioned in the outfield.
The team had access to a video feed from the outfield relayed to a television monitor positioned near the home dugout to decipher signals.
– ‘Extraordinarily troubled’ –
The Athletic report said an Astros employee would watch the opposing team’s catcher’s signals on a video monitor, and then bang a trash can loudly to let hitters know what pitches were being thrown.
Footage of the practice apparently taking place — with loud banging clearly audible — has since been widely shared on social media.
In a separate sanction, the league has also banned former Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman for one year.
Taubman was sacked by the Astros in October after taunting a group of female reporters about domestic violence.
The league said Luhnow and Hinch would be barred from performing any role with the Astros or any other club, whether Major League, Minor League or at spring training.
They are also banned from stadiums and are not allowed to travel with the Astros.
Any breaches of the suspension would risk them being banned for life.
Manfred’s ruling however cleared Astros owner Crane of involvement, saying there was “absolutely no evidence” he was aware of what had taken place.
“Crane is extraordinarily troubled and upset by the conduct of members of his organization, fully supported my investigation and provided unfettered access to any and all information requested,” Manfred said.
The MLB ruling said that while the Astros sign-stealing in 2017 was “player-driven”, former bench coach Alex Cora — who guided the Boston Red Sox to the World Series in 2018 — had been involved in setting it up.
The report warned that Cora could face penalties when the league completes its investigation into allegations of illegal sign-stealing by Boston in the 2018 season.
Manfred said that in interviews, Hinch had told investigators he was opposed to the sign-stealing scheme, believing it to be “wrong and distracting.”
The Astros manager had twice damaged the video monitor used to implement the practice to signal his disapproval.
However Manfred said Hinch deserved a heavy sanction for failing to stamp out the practice.
“As the person with responsibility for managing his players and coaches, there simply is no justification for Hinch’s failure to act,” Manfred’s report said.
“Although I appreciate Hinch’s remorsefulness, I must hold him accountable for the conduct of his team.”