Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Books: "Winning Fixes Everything" On The Houston Astros' Rise & Fall


Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball's Brightest Minds Created Sports' Biggest Mess

By Evan Drellich

Harper; hardcover, 368 pages; $32.00; available today, Tuesday, February 14th

The Houston Astros won the World Series last fall, their second in franchise history, and the first one, in 2017, gained a lot of notoriety, if not shame, when a scandal erupted after they were found to have cheated during that season.

Evan Drellich, who was the Astros beat writer for the Houston Chronicle and is now a national writer for The Athletic, broke the story of how the Astros stole the opposing teams' pitching signs using a camera in center field, which was transmitted to the dugout so they could  bang on a trash can to tell their hitters what pitches were coming. 

In the new book, Winning Fixes Everything, Drellich examines how the Astros built themselves up into a contender, but it quickly became a corrupt operation. There are never-before-told details of a management culture that became broken, the once-revered leaders who enabled it, and how it all came crashing down with the scandal.

This deeply researched book, told through years of extensive interviews, is the definitive account of how baseball's most controversial franchise and how a modern baseball team truly works. 

The culture change at the Astros, led by their former General Manager Jeff Luhnow, came about as Moneyball-type thinking, with a focus on analytics, and Ivy League graduates took hold of the sport, and they set out to built a cost-efficient winning machine on the principles of the outside business world, based on squeezing every penny out of every transaction, player, and employee.

They were the model of how to build a team, as they suffered the worst seasons in franchise history, the first time the Astros ever lost 100 games, and with prized prospects like Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer, made the playoffs in 2015 and won it all in '17. Since then, they have won three more American League pennants and that second World Series title last fall, and have beaten the Yankees four times in the playoffs.

However, the whole thing is clouded by the cheating scandal, and will always be viewed as such by fans in New York and Los Angeles, if not all over. The ramifications of that scandal were felt all over baseball, as not only were the Astros' General Manager at the time, Luhnow, and Manager, A.J. Hinch fired in January 2020 right after MLB released their report, but Alex Cora, who was the Houston bench coach in 2017, was fired as Manager of the Boston Red Sox (he was brought back for the 2021 season after his one-year ban was served), and Carlos Beltran, the ringleader among the players, lost his new job as manager of the Mets, and fell short of induction on the Hall of Fame ballot last night because of his ties to the cheating scandal. 

Drellich writes in this excerpt: "The Astros were an experiment. Playing in a stadium that once bore Enron's name, the team was built around innovation, on out-smarting the competition. When a wheeling-and-dealing billionaire with a checkered history in his outside logistics business, Jim Crane, bought the team in 2011 and installed ex-McKinsey consultant, Jeff Luhnow, as general manager, the messaging around the Astros was that they were going to be a franchise built the right way - with patience and discipline and an adherence to a still-nascent area in the sport, analytics.

The last decade was a period of rapid change in Houston and the sport overall. But Houston's transformation was not a well-thought-out program of change management. The substance of the Astros' pursuits, the core calculations as to what could sustain a winning team, were almost always sound. Yet the implementation, the ability to win hearts and minds, lacked to the point that it amounted, at times, to blatant disregard.

To make changes, the Astros were convinced, feelings would be hurt; people would be unhappy. What great empire was built otherwise? So long as the team eventually won, then everything would be fine. Everything would be fixed.

'Perception will change when we succeed,' Luhnow told me in 2014 when I was reporting on the Astros' industry reputation. 'When we win a division, all that perception will turn from negative to positive. That's how it works. You think if Oakland didn't have success - how many people hated Moneyball, the idea of Moneyball? But Oakland has proven over and over again how successful they are, but being creative, by being innovative. So they're heroes.'

The Astros were right to believe they had to push. But they didn't know which boundaries amounted to a bridge too far, and their culture suffered for it. Sreadily, and in different ways, the Astros were blowing through stop signs, or running right past accidents that should have led them to erect some. Not even winning the 2017 World Series was enough to protect the team when the world learned what they had done along the way.

We'll look at how Luhnow built his career, and how Luhnow and Crane built a franchise. We'll see them reach the height of on-field success and enough falls and hubris to stock a Shakesperean tragedy. 

Through these stories, I want to explore two ideas.

First, that all players and fans want, and should want, is the champagne spray of postseason wins. There has been a simple formula in sports narratives for ages: win, and they'll write glowing things about you. Change the game, take the glory. And the full-steam-ahead worship of innovation in the sport that arose almost two decades ago, when Moneyball was published, set up a carrot so big for these aspiring executives - and writers who wanted to be the next Michael Lewis - that you can hardly blame the participants for their rush to the top.

This book does not find that analytics are bad, or its practitioners dim-witted. It highlights the many questions too few people were asking in the throes of massive change. What attention should be paid to not just the result, but the means? To the impact on key stakeholders, like the fans and the players themselves, or even the average workers who make average salaries in the industry, like scouts and coaches and back-office staff?

Indeed, change came with an ugly side, and often came without full context in the press. What was sold as good for baseball teams - tanking, finding cheap players - really was good for owners' pockets above all else.

The second issue runs parallel: How did one of the great scandals in baseball history develop? How did we arrive at a cheating scheme that was still creating jeers and back-page stories years after the fact?

Electronic sign-stealing, the undertaking that ultimately brought down Luhnow's Astros, rose in baseball through negligence - not just that of Houston management, but baseball's central office. But to understand how the Astros operated in the years prior to and during electronic sign-stealing leaves no surprise that the Astros would push too far, that they would be the ones to cross the line, and dramatically so."

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