Why anger is boiling behind the scenes about Houston Astros' sign-stealing punishments

Astros undergoing an enormous change after firing Hinch, Luhnow (1:41)

Jeff Passan reacts to the Astros' firing AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow and breaks down some of the fallout for the franchise going forward. (1:41)

The kneecapping of the Houston Astros went off Monday in exquisite fashion. Big names were fired. Draft picks were revoked. A record fine was levied. Pounds of flesh were exacted from egregious cheaters. The optics worked. The Astros' comeuppance was here, and it was severe. Major League Baseball was righting an obvious wrong.

As the day rolled on and people around baseball pondered exactly what had happened, a less obvious version of the story emerged. It was all so tidy, all so clean, so carefully orchestrated and meticulously calibrated -- like something the Astros, ever lauded for their efficiency and ruthlessness, might concoct.

Gone were general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, first suspended by the league for a year, then fired by owner Jim Crane, even as MLB's investigation into Houston's sign-stealing scheme determined it was "player-driven." Gone too were their first- and second-round draft picks for 2020 and 2021, painful but not crippling. And that record fine? All of $5 million, couch-cushion change for every owner in baseball -- and the most commissioner Rob Manfred can levy under the MLB constitution, which speaks to the limitations of the position.

It is a job of extreme compromise, of politicking, of figuring out how to appease the 30 billionaires who are his bosses, and Manfred's handling of the cheating scandal -- the biggest of his commissionership so far and one that cut to the heart of the game's integrity -- offered remarkable insight into how he runs the sport. As much as MLB played the big, bad monolith in delivering the ruinous news from on high, this was not some unilateral punishment for the Astros. It was a sneak peek inside the sausage factory of power and the anger that Crane's relative acquittal caused across the league.

Multiple ownership-level sources told ESPN that dissatisfaction with the penalties had emerged following a conference call with Manfred, in which he explained how the Astros would be disciplined, then told teams to keep their thoughts to themselves.

"The impression," one person familiar with the call told ESPN, "was that the penalty for complaining would be more than Houston got."

The concern over any possible discipline for breaking ranks didn't entirely silence teams. At 12:30 a.m. ET on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost the 2017 World Series in seven games to an Astros team that MLB's investigation confirmed cheated during that postseason, released a statement that read: "All clubs have been asked by Major League Baseball not to comment on today's punishment of the Houston Astros as it's inappropriate to comment on discipline imposed on another club. The Dodgers have also been asked not to comment on any wrongdoing during the 2017 World Series and will have no further comment at this time."

Run through a passive-aggressive translator, the Dodgers' words mirrored what a team president had said earlier in the day.

"Crane won," he said. "The entire thing was programmed to protect the future of the franchise. He got his championship. He keeps his team. His fine is nothing. The sport lost, but Crane won."

On a day when a well-regarded manager and a successful executive lost their jobs and the 1919 Black Sox were invoked as comparables, it was easy to miss how MLB soft-pedaled Crane's punishment. In the first paragraph of Manfred's nine-page statement outlining the league's investigation, he addressed the original report by The Athletic that spurred the controversy. How there was "significant concern" that what the Astros were alleged to have done violated "the principles of sportsmanship and fair competition" and how he treats such threats to the game with "the utmost seriousness." He continued: "I believe in transparency." And then, after that on-point thesis, came two completely out-of-place sentences.

"At the outset," Manfred wrote, "I also can say our investigation revealed absolutely no evidence that Jim Crane, the owner of the Astros, was aware of any of the conduct described in this report. 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."

The absolution of Crane so early in the document came as no surprise. Crane said he saw details of the league's punishment over the weekend. It allowed him to introduce himself as a do-something organizational shepherd. He announced the firings of Luhnow and Hinch on live TV, generating maximum effect. He promised "the Astros will become stronger -- a stronger organization because of this today." Months of misery -- beginning with former assistant GM Brandon Taubman's post-ALCS outburst at three female reporters that led to his firing, continuing with the revelation of cheating and culminating in this -- had made it fairly evident that for all of the strength Crane tries to project, fundamental weaknesses exist throughout the Astros organization.

Much of Manfred's document was incriminatory, particularly the details of the scheme as laid out by MLB investigators and a section in which the commissioner referred to the Astros' organizational culture as "problematic" and blamed it on "an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred." The words were necessary and important -- and entirely dismissed by Crane, who said: "I don't agree with that."

"Did you notice," another team president said, "he never said 'Sorry'?"

Crane didn't, though it also took him six days to say the word to the Sports Illustrated reporter whom the organization tried to smear after she wrote how Taubman had gloated that he was "so f---ing glad we got Osuna," a reference to closer Roberto Osuna, who was acquired while still under a lengthy suspension for domestic violence. On Monday, Crane did apologize to fans, sponsors and the city of Houston. Not the teams the Astros beat while cheating or the sport his franchise's actions put in this position.

For Crane to offer anything beyond the hollow and perfunctory would have been an upset. While MLB's standard for the punishment was reasonable and rational -- the league targeted violations after the Sept. 15, 2017, memo Manfred distributed that said violations of the league's technology policy would fall on teams' general manager and manager -- Crane said he fired them because "(n)either one of them started this, but neither one of them did anything about it."

The same, of course, could be said of him. Either Crane did not know that the business he owns and operates was cheating or he did know and did nothing about it. Neither is good.

None of this, actually, is good. Baseball is far from done with sign-stealing scandals. The league has launched an investigation into the Boston Red Sox after The Athletic reported they used a video replay room to decode signs in their championship-winning 2018 season. Boston manager Alex Cora was previously the bench coach for the 2017 Astros and was implicated by Manfred's report as a central figure in Houston's adoption of a system in which players used an illegal camera feed to crack sign sequences and feed pitch types live to hitters via banging a baseball bat against a trash can. Between the evidence incriminating Cora and Hinch's firing paving the way for managerial dismissals, the end of Cora's time in Boston could be coming, two sources with knowledge of the team's thinking told ESPN.

If Hinch and Cora are both out, the onus then shifts to the New York Mets and Carlos Beltran, who must decide whether they want to be the only team standing by a manager whose name shows up in a report that details rampant cheating. Manfred's report named Beltran as one of the players involved in the scheme, though the league did not discipline him because it gave players immunity in exchange for their testimony.

That choice registered publicly as another curious part of Manfred's ultimate decision. What sort of disciplinary action clears players for a "player-driven" scheme? The answer is a practical one. Between the well-defined lines that held GMs and managers responsible and the fear of the Major League Baseball Players Association defending any discipline against active players and sending the cases into grievance hell, Manfred's pragmatism here, though not satisfying, is understandable.

Already this has stretched beyond his level of comfort. Initially, Manfred planned on limiting the investigation to the Astros. Now MLB is looking into the Red Sox -- and considering that their use of an Apple Watch to relay signs in August 2017 was the original sin of modern technological cheating, the penalties for any second offense could be severe. Though they're the only other team with a known investigation pending, Sports Illustrated reported that the Astros named eight other teams they believe cheated in 2017 and 2018 -- and Crane said "the commissioner assured me that every team and every allegation will be checked out."

Astros fire Hinch, Luhnow after MLB suspension

On Jan. 13, 2020, Astros owner Jim Crane announces the firings of manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, saying the team needs to move forward with a clean slate.

That sounds far-fetched, like the sort of politicking a commissioner does to placate one of his bosses. What Manfred can do is fast-track the announcement of a new policy on the in-game use of technology, one that holds players and management accountable and entails the sort of harsh penalties Luhnow and Hinch received. The sport needs buy-in from all parties to actually move on.

Hinch tried. In a statement, he apologized and acknowledged that he could've tried to do better -- to tell players and coaches to stop instead of breaking the video monitor twice in protest. He didn't. There wasn't much sympathy for Hinch's actions around baseball, but there was a willingness to forgive. Executives agreed: He'll manage again after being suspended through the end of the next World Series.

Like Crane, Luhnow apologized to the team, the fans and the city. He said in a statement, "I am not a cheater." That doesn't exactly square with the fact that the team he ran cheated during its championship-winning season and with the information in Manfred's report that "at least two emails sent to Luhnow" informed him of replay-review room sign decoding, about which he did nothing. Luhnow continued to try to clear himself of responsibility while blaming "players" and "low-level employees working with the bench coach." Considering his apparent affinity for throwing people under the bus, let us hope Luhnow's next career does not involve large motor vehicles.

The rest of baseball is bracing for the fallout of the Astros' punishment, and most do believe one purpose was served: that Manfred's disciplinary choices will prompt the rank-and-file to avoid any sort of electronically aided sign-stealing schemes.

"It will scare employees of MLB teams from cheating, at least for a while," one high-ranking executive said, "and the man who owns the team gets to enjoy his ring. He gets off lightly and can start with a clean slate."

This refrain was common inside the game, and it came with a question that was rhetorical-but-not-really, one that illustrated how Jim Crane won the day that his franchise lost. How many owners in baseball would trade $5 million, four high draft picks and the firing of their GM and manager in exchange for a World Series title?

Twenty-five? Twenty-eight? All 30? "I don't know that I would," one team president said, "but I don't know that I wouldn't." It was an honest answer. The decisions made in search of championships, in service of winning, are complicated. Right and wrong blur. It's why Manfred chafes at the complaints of owners. How many are being honest about what they'd do in that same scenario?

Whatever the answer, the remaining two mentions of Crane in Manfred's report do yeoman's work of clearing him. The first said it was "difficult to question" Crane giving Luhnow responsibility of baseball operations. The second stated, as fact, that Crane "was unaware of any of the violations of MLB rules by his club." And that was it. A thorough and impressive whitewashing. Tidy, clean, carefully orchestrated, meticulously calibrated. The Houston Astros, same as they ever were.