Houston Astros: A.J. Hinch fiddles while the Astrogate espionage still burns

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 30: Manager AJ Hinch #14 of the Houston Astros walks into the dugout before Game Seven of the 2019 World Series against the Washington Nationals at Minute Maid Park on October 30, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 30: Manager AJ Hinch #14 of the Houston Astros walks into the dugout before Game Seven of the 2019 World Series against the Washington Nationals at Minute Maid Park on October 30, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

While A.J. Hinch sort of apologized for his role in Astrogate, the Houston Astros scandal is becoming more and more damning.

A.J. Hinch told Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci and an Astrogate-troubled baseball nation that he was sorry he didn’t do more to stop the Astro Intelligence Agency’s extralegal high-tech cheating operation. And even as he did, we learned the Houston Astros front office developed their own espionage application for use stealing opposition signs at home and on the road during 2017 and at least part of 2018.

While preparing to listen to Hinch and Verducci on camera from the former manager’s home Friday, we discovered The Wall Street Journal‘s Jared Diamond revealing former general manager Jeff Luhnow knew bloody well enough that the Astros were going rogue, by way of an algorithm called “Codebreaker” in house aimed at decoding opposition pitch signs.

It’s probably as close as baseball can get to the kind of smoking gun that once revealed, once and for all, Richard Nixon’s kinda-sorta authorization of the Watergate cover-up. (Nixon may well have been duped into it, actually.) The Astros looked bad enough when Mike Fiers first blew the whistle on Astrogate and the details emerging since went from bad to worse. There may not be a word to describe the look now that Codebreaker’s been exposed.

Commissioner Rob Manfred’s Astrogate bloodhounds couldn’t find definitive proof that Luhnow knew about Codebreaker, but Manfred sent Luhnow a note a week before dropping the Astrogate nukes saying he knew based on investigators’ reporting that Luhnow at least knew his team had any extralegal sign-stealing operation up and running at all.

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Now we know that intern-turned-senior team operations manager Derek Vigoa delivered Luhnow a PowerPoint presentation that described the Excel-based Codebreaker algorithm and how it could and would be applied for home-and-away espionage. We know now, too, that Luhnow may have told Manfred’s bloodhounds he thought it would be used to decode signs from previous games, but that Vigoa told the bloodhounds he assumed Luhnow knew Codebreaker would do its breakings in live performances.

You wonder what would have happened between Hinch and Verducci if Hinch had known about Codebreaker at all or that it was about to be exposed in the Journal as the two sat down to talk. As it was, without Codebreaker in the conversation Hinch was a mixed package at best and either evasive or baseball’s Nero fiddling while the espionage still burns at worst.

Asked whether the Houston Astros 2017 World Series championship was now tainted, Hinch called it a fair question but that we’d have to draw our own conclusions. He pleaded to the team’s talent and hoped that would prove the Series wasn’t tainted. But as ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle observes, “The only way we could really bring this question back into the objective is to replay the 2017 season all the way through the World Series without the sign stealing.”

Houston Astros
Houston Astros /

Houston Astros

Hinch’s hope springs infernal. Especially since we know some of the most talented teams in baseball history went rogue, whether tanking a World Series (the 1919 White Sox) or cheating their ways to pennants (the 1940 Tigers, the 1948 Indians, possibly the 1959 White Sox) or cheating their way to once-unheard-of comebacks from thirteen games out of first to force and win pennant playoffs. (The 1951 Giants. The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!)

Asked whether the Houston Astros got any real advantage from the AIA operation, Hinch replied, “I can’t pinpoint what advantages or what happened or exactly what happened otherwise. But we did it to ourselves.” Maybe he couldn’t, but we knew at least a week before he sat down to talk to Verducci that a particularly enterprising and dismayed Astro fan named Tony Adams broke 2017 down to every known instance of banging the can slowly to send the electronically pilfered signs to Astro hitters, including to the team’s no-questions-asked top of the heap.

We watched Adams’s analysis go absolutely viral, painting a picture of a team that was talented enough not to need the AIA’s help and leaving the 2017 Astros at least and the 2018 Astros perhaps as irrevocable cheaters. But we also know that if Hinch can’t pinpoint the advantages or disadvantages afforded by the AIA, he’s not reading The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark and Eno Sarris, who outlined the advantages as vividly as possible a week before Hinch’s interview aired.

And what about Fiers, the whistleblower who’s seen as a Serpico-like hero on the one hand and a rat fink traitor on the other? Give Hinch credit for at least not wanting to see Fiers thrown off a cliff or into a meat grinder. But stop right there: “I wish I would have had an environment and a culture that was better for him to have come to me in real time. I wish I could have done better, to maybe get that nudge to make better leadership decisions.”

This is the manager who said he’d busted a couple of AIA clubhouse monitors but otherwise didn’t lift a finger to bring the spies in from the cold. This is the manager who knew his dugout and clubhouse were crawling with espionage agents playing baseball in his uniform and did nothing to otherwise to arrest, frisk, and arraign them. This is the commander who looked the other way while his subordinates and his superiors committed the atrocities that handed or at least led him to the spoils of victory.

And this is part and parcel of the culture Luhnow fostered during his tenure administering, building, and fortifying the Astros. The culture that put conquest so far first that human beings became expendable if they didn’t get with the program no matter how far the program carried into the swamp of dishonour, if not grotesquery.

Next. Hinch and his non-answer about buzzers. dark

Once upon a time, the poet/political theorist/historian Peter Viereck observed, “Any attempt to scrape the barnacles off an excellent if aging ship is never seen as an attack on the ship itself. Except by the barnacles.” If at first they thought Astrogate was just an attack on their excellent ship, the more that comes forth the less the barnacles have to cling to.