WHEN JEFF LUHNOW took over as Houston Astros general manager in December 2011, the organization dedicated itself to building a franchise for the 21st century, even if that meant dismissing more than 125 years of baseball orthodoxy. The long-accepted practice of belief without proof no longer would suffice. Luhnow demanded more. More critical thinking, more innovation, more logic and reason. At the root of those changes was what informed them: more information.
Luhnow loved information. If the Astros were going to upend baseball, it would happen only with a meticulous faith to evidence. They would ask questions, seek answers and iterate accordingly. Bad information leads to bad decisions, so the Astros built practices to obtain only the highest-quality kind. This was their ethos. This was their culture -- the renegades who disregarded what the rest of the industry thought because they were getting it right.
They determined that baseball's trove of data rendered better information than what humans gathered and slowly gutted their scouting department. They believed high-speed cameras delivered superior knowledge to pitchers and installed them in bulk across their minor league affiliates. They stuffed their analytics department with the best minds they could find, regardless of background -- a writer, an engineer, a derivative analyst. They blinkered themselves from outside disparagement and wedded themselves to the creed that information would guide them.
On the field, it did. The Houston Astros, as a baseball team, are a rousing success story. They have won more than 100 games in three consecutive seasons. Two years ago, they captured a championship. The industry has tried to copycat their methods. A man went to prison for stealing their information. Tonight they will play in Game 3 of the World Series against the Washington Nationals, trailing 2-0 but fielding a team still well capable of erasing the deficit.
They will do so amid a controversy now entering its fourth day -- each appreciably worse than the previous. An Astros assistant general manager has been fired amid an investigation into his mistreatment of female reporters. Major League Baseball is weighing further discipline against him as well as the organization, sources tell ESPN. The Astros' reputation has suffered deep damage. All of it has sullied their attempt at another coronation.
Around the game, shots of schadenfreude have been chased by I-told-you-so's. Contempt for the Astros runs deep -- and has well before this incident. Jealousy breeds some of it. The organization's arrogance accounts for the rest. The Astros painted themselves as a disrupter and reveled in the commotion. They lived with the perception that they didn't understand people. They fed their process, followed it with fealty, doubled down. They believed in it, and they never had much of a reason not to, not until a week ago, when the assistant GM high on the feeling of winning the pennant opened his mouth, and two days later, when Luhnow and the Astros forgot to abide by that essential principle that has guided them for so long: Bad information leads to bad decisions.
IN THE MIDDLE of a celebration still raging well past midnight, a reggaeton song blasting through the speakers on repeat, a 25-year-old baseball star locked eyes with a 34-year-old front-office official. Alex Bregman and Brandon Taubman leaned in and hugged each other.
"You got us here," said Bregman, the Astros' third baseman and MVP candidate.
Taubman demurred. No, he said. You -- the players -- got the Houston Astros here, through the regular season with 107 wins, over the scrappy Tampa Bay Rays in a hard-fought division series and, on this night last Saturday, past the New York Yankees in the sixth game of the American League Championship Series.
Puffing a cigar, wearing a grin of satisfaction, Taubman did not realize that minutes earlier he had likely ended his career in baseball and exposed the Astros to a stress test of their principles. Amid the festivities, Taubman found himself near a group of three female reporters, one of whom wore a purple domestic violence awareness bracelet. Taubman started yelling. At first, it was unclear at whom. Once the women heard him repeat his words, half a dozen times, it was evident he was directing his words at the reporter wearing the bracelet.
"Thank God we got Osuna!" Taubman said. "I'm so f---ing glad we got Osuna!"
Roberto Osuna is the Astros' closer. They acquired him from the Blue Jays a day before the July 31 trade deadline in 2018. He was in the middle of serving a 75-game MLB suspension for alleged domestic violence against the mother of his child. Canadian prosecutors dropped charges against Osuna after the woman returned to Mexico, their home country, and refused to testify, but the length of the suspension -- it remains the third longest MLB has levied on a player for violating the domestic violence policy -- and the fact that Osuna declined to appeal it spoke to the severity of the case.
Dealing for Osuna was a classic Luhnow-era Astros move. While a significant number of front-office employees opposed the trade, sources said, Luhnow overruled them with the support of Astros owner Jim Crane. Osuna was one of the game's best closers, a difference-maker, and the incident had depressed his trade value. Luhnow saw him as a distressed asset; whatever public-relations hit the team took would be far outweighed by what he could bring to the team on the mound.
On a conference call the day of the deal, Luhnow tried to square acquiring Osuna with the so-called zero tolerance policy the Astros had regarding domestic violence. "Quite frankly," Luhnow said, "I believe that you can have a zero tolerance policy and also have an opportunity to give people second chances when they have made mistakes in the past in other organizations. That's kind of how we put those two things together."
The logic gap in his words did not deter Luhnow from trying to sell it with conviction and assuredness. In a statement announcing the deal, Luhnow had claimed: "The due diligence by our front office was unprecedented." When pressed for specifics, Luhnow said he had spoken with Osuna, his past teammates and players on the Astros.
Less than six weeks after the trade, the Astros promoted Taubman, then a senior director of baseball operations, to assistant GM. His ascent since joining the Astros in 2013 after working on Wall Street had been rapid: from low-level analyst to No. 2 in the baseball operations department in half a decade. Like Luhnow, a former consultant with McKinsey & Co., Taubman's love of fantasy baseball provided a conduit into the sport. They shared, sources said, an unsparing view of the industry that manifested itself in an air of superiority. Taubman was widely disliked outside of Astros circles, eight sources who interacted with him said; most of them referenced his lack of "feel," or people skills. But around the sport there had always been a grudging respect for Luhnow. His single-mindedness was impressive, if not admirable.
Nothing to that point illustrated it quite like the Osuna trade. The Astros had earned a reputation as an organization that lacked a conscience, though that was more because of their reliance on data, drastic personnel turnover and willingness to almost entirely forgo traditional scouting. The Osuna deal felt different -- particularly the flimsiness of Luhnow's attempts to rationalize it.
"We believe that this environment -- the Houston Astros clubhouse, the players on our team, the staff that we have, the support system that we have, the influence that we can have going forward and our community in general -- is a great environment to hopefully turn this from a negative story into a positive outcome down the road," Luhnow said on the conference call. "It won't be overnight. It won't be easy. But we do hope that down the road there will be an opportunity to reflect on this in a more positive way."
ON MONDAY NIGHT, the eve of Game 1 of the World Series, Sports Illustrated staff writer Stephanie Apstein published a story with Taubman's comments from the ALCS celebration. She was one of the three women at whom he had directed them. When reached by Apstein, the Astros had declined to comment through a spokesman. At 9:25 p.m., she tweeted a link to the story. Almost exactly an hour later, the Astros released a statement.
"The story posted by Sports Illustrated is misleading and completely irresponsible," it said. "An Astros player was being asked questions about a difficult outing. Our executive was supporting the player during a difficult time. His comments had everything to do with the game situation that just occurred and nothing else -- they were also not directed toward any specific reporters. We are extremely disappointed in Sports Illustrated's attempt to fabricate a story where one does not exist."
In 74 words that oozed with aggression, the Astros had loosed an attack on the story's veracity and Apstein's credibility. It read with a similar belligerence to Luhnow's words on the day of the Osuna trade: defensive, stilted, nevertheless awash with certitude. They were the Astros. They were right.
Earlier in the day, Apstein had called Gene Dias, the Astros' media relations director, to inform him that she was writing a story about the incident. Dias already knew about what Taubman had said. On the night of the incident, ESPN.com reporter Bradford Doolittle had heard Taubman referencing Osuna. Though he had not observed Taubman turning toward the women, after talking with one of them, he believed Taubman had directed the words toward her. After speaking to the reporter again on Monday, Doolittle asked Dias if the team wanted to comment or make Taubman available to speak. Dias asked to call Doolittle back. When he did, he said Taubman had been speaking loudly in support of Osuna.
The context made little sense. Osuna had come on in the ninth inning of Game 6 to record a save that would have sent the Astros to the World Series and instead surrendered a game-tying home run to Yankees first baseman DJ LeMahieu. If there was any night Taubman was bound to be "so f---ing glad we got Osuna," that was not it.
On Monday, Dias repeated that explanation to Apstein. She said she planned to publish her version, and if the Astros wanted to give an official comment she would include it. Dias declined. From there, sources say, the Astros started to craft a strategy, aware of the potential impact the story would register with Game 1 of the World Series less than 24 hours away.
When asked by the Astros about his behavior, Taubman had vociferously denied targeting the women. Another Astros employee backed his version of the story, sources say. The organization found the information compelling enough to forgo any further examination of the comments and their context, even though Taubman's story contained clear logic gaps. It was, as one league source says, "the Astros being the Astros. They trust their people."
For nearly eight years, Luhnow had fomented a culture that pitted the Astros against the baseball world. This cocoon protected Taubman, even if it meant ignoring the tenet of information that stabilized the operation. They believed him, with no proof beyond his word.
Less than 10 minutes after Apstein's tweet Monday, Yahoo Sports' Hannah Keyser, one of the other women standing in the group, confirmed SI's version of the story. It did not dissuade the Astros from releasing the statement anyway. More accounts substantiating Apstein's description followed the team's statement -- first from the Houston Chronicle's Hunter Atkins, then from a Chronicle story citing three eyewitnesses.
The corroboration was damning. The statement would not stand. The Astros scrambled Tuesday morning to craft two new statements -- one from Taubman, the other from Crane. Though they struck a more apologetic and conciliatory tone, both shared the tone-deafness of the first.
Taubman said he was "deeply sorry and embarrassed" -- because he "used inappropriate language." He did not admit to targeting the women. He said his "overexuberance in support of a player has been misinterpreted." After deeming himself a "progressive and charitable member of the community" and a "loving and committed husband and father," Taubman offered one final apology: "I am sorry if anyone was offended by my actions." Crane's statement offered no contrition but highlighted the team's financial contributions to local domestic violence support groups. It ended: "We fully support MLB and baseball's stance and values regarding domestic violence."
The ham-fisted statements, sent about four and a half hours before Gerrit Cole threw the first pitch of the World Series, were distributed as MLB was scrambling too. League officials were horrified that the most important games of the season were being played under the specter of a completely preventable incident that was made actively worse twice by the Astros. Officials from baseball's Department of Investigations were on their way to Houston, and the league was trying to firm up times to interview witnesses. They wanted to know what happened. It wouldn't take long to get the truth.
BY WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON, Brandon Taubman's story was crumbling. Starting that morning, Bryan Seeley and Moira Weinberg, both former prosecutors who help lead MLB's investigations, had questioned witnesses -- at least four Astros employees and multiple reporters, sources say. As the interviews ended before Game 2 began, it was clear to MLB as well as the Astros, whose general counsel sat in on interviews, that Taubman's information was bad.
The Astros made the decision Wednesday night to fire Taubman. His words started the mess. He lied about his intent. Astros vs. the world could go only so far.
At 4:33 p.m. ET on Thursday, the Astros issued their fourth statement in less than 72 hours. The second paragraph began: "Our initial investigation led us to believe that Brandon Taubman's inappropriate comments were not directed toward any reporter. We were wrong. We sincerely apologize to Stephanie Apstein, Sports Illustrated and to all individuals who witnessed this incident or were offended by inappropriate conduct." In the third paragraph, they announced Taubman's firing.
What the statement never addressed was the Astros' active participation throughout. They believed Taubman without bothering to ask witnesses not affiliated with the Astros. They smeared Apstein unnecessarily. The Houston Astros put their name, and by extension their approval, on a statement in which Brandon Taubman -- who weaponized another man's domestic violence and used it to target and harass women -- denied that truth and hid behind the fact that he's a husband and father.
On Thursday evening, Luhnow held a news conference in Washington, D.C. He used the word "inappropriate" 13 times and "wrong" 10 times. He took 25 questions. He didn't answer nearly that many. He admitted that he had seen the original statement before its distribution but would not say who wrote it.
"There were a lot of people involved in reviewing it, looking at it, approving it," Luhnow said.
It was, he said, on behalf of the Astros.
"We take accountability for it," Luhnow said. "We take ownership of it. And it was wrong."
Saying the team takes accountability and taking accountability are entirely different things. Saying it involves talking. Actually taking accountability would involve action. For more than a year, Luhnow could have taken some sort of action to prevent this -- to turn Osuna's signing from a negative story into a positive outcome down the road. It wouldn't have been overnight. It wouldn't have been easy. But he hoped that down the road there was an opportunity to reflect on this in a more positive way. Instead, one of the highest-ranking officials in the organization did the opposite. "It's devastating," Luhnow said Thursday. "It's not something I'd wish on anybody in this room -- just like I don't wish any of you to be standing up here having to answer these questions either."
Astros manager AJ Hinch had already been in that same position. The day after Apstein's story broke, Hinch answered these questions at his scheduled Game 1 media availability. He was the only Astros official who spoke until Luhnow's news conference three days later. He said he was "very disappointed for a lot of reasons. It's unfortunate. It's uncalled for." He said, "We all need to be better across the board in the industry." At a moment when the organization still was backing Taubman, Hinch was trying to be accountable.
"This is not something that's endemic," Luhnow said at his own news conference. "This is not a cultural issue. We have a lot of really good people in our front office, in our coaching staff, on our team. And that's really much more representative of who we are than comments of an individual who, quite frankly, this is out of character for that individual as well."
In practically the same breath in which Luhnow said the Astros do not have a culture problem, he said that multiple people in the team's front office read the first statement before it was released. As many good people as there might be, there are multiple, himself included, willing to sacrifice others to protect a lie, he admitted without admitting it. The last question asked Thursday was simple: "Have you personally reached out to apologize to any of the women who were impacted by this?"
"I have not," Luhnow said. "I've been traveling up here. We've been -- I had to have a pretty tough conversation this morning with someone that's worked with me for a long time. But I will, as soon as I can."
Stephanie Apstein had to travel up there too. She was at the news conference.
BEYOND THE STATEMENT in which he essentially said nothing, Astros owner Jim Crane has remained silent throughout the Taubman mess. He has not addressed whether he was part of the cadre to vet the first statement. He has not attached his name to an apology. But he is the one who ultimately answers the question of whether this was an isolated incident or something that speaks more to the core of his franchise.
Other consequences are coming. Taubman is likely to receive a suspension from MLB, sources say, which would go into effect if he ever gets another job in baseball. The organization could be handed a fine too, according to sources -- for Taubman's behavior, for the first statement, or both.
Controversies with the Astros are nothing new. They were victims of a hacking scandal that saw former Cardinals scouting director Chris Correa, a co-worker of Luhnow's during his years in St. Louis, go to federal prison for stealing information from Houston's proprietary database. Correa maintained he entered their systems only after the Astros stole information from the Cardinals' database two weeks after Luhnow was hired in Houston.
As has been the case with other allegations against the Astros, nothing has stuck. Last year, when a low-level Astros employee was caught using a cellphone to take pictures of the Cleveland Indians' dugout during a postseason game, Houston avoided discipline. Same with this October, when the Yankees believed the Astros were relaying signs -- a frequent charge of opposing teams -- through a system of whistles. Such incidents only serve to feed the baseball industry's derision toward the organization.
Since well before this story broke, there is no more polarizing franchise in baseball than the Houston Astros. And up to this point, that has been how the Astros like it.
Will they change? If Luhnow's news conference is any indication, no. An incident like this warrants transparency; the Astros traffic in opacity. For days, the Astros spun and hid, spun and hid, not because of some flawed public-relations strategy. Bad as it was, their tack was simply an extension of what has found such great success on the field: We can do this our way.
For all the other questions -- Will they ever reveal who crafted the first statement? Who backed up Taubman's initial lie? And is that person, someone willing to smear an innocent, really the sort who contributes to a healthy culture? It always does go back to the field. Astros players know the story. They've known it since Osuna showed up. Building a great baseball team never has been their problem.
"Forget about the a--holes in the front office," one player said this week. "This is about us."
The World Series restarts tonight at 8:07 ET. Anibal Sanchez will pitch for the Nationals and Zack Greinke for the Astros. Everyone from the Astros will be there except Brandon Taubman, who weathered the outside disparagement and wedded himself to the creed that information would guide him, only to find out that even with the Houston Astros, it's not always true.