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Evan Drellich's new book sheds light on the Houston Astros cheating scandal


We now have new clarity on the biggest cheating scandal in baseball since the steroid era. In 2017, the Houston Astros won the World Series. They also cheated. Two years after their win, an investigation by The Athletic detailed how the Astros used live video feeds to steal pitching signs from opposing teams. One of the authors of the investigation was Evan Drellich. He's written a new book called "Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball's Brightest Minds Created Sports' Biggest Mess." He says it starts with the 2011 hiring of general manager Jeff Luhnow, who arrived in baseball with no Major League Baseball experience. Before a short stint with the Saint Louis Cardinals, he'd worked at a business consulting firm.

EVAN DRELLICH: Jeff Luhnow was a fantasy baseball player. He built rosters and competed with his friends. You know, when he arrives in baseball and in Houston, Luhnow really fell in love with the idea of being a disrupter. He wanted to revolutionize baseball in the same way that Billy Beane, who was the general manager of the A's, had done so 20 years ago. And it was Billy Beane who becomes the star of "Moneyball," the famous book by Michael Lewis. And so Luhnow arrives in Houston very much set to do things his way.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, with sports executives like Jeff Luhnow, typically it seems as if they have a great relationship with the numbers but not such a great relationship with people. Was Jeff Luhnow the type that kind of rubbed people the wrong way?

DRELLICH: Jeff Luhnow absolutely rubbed people the wrong way. And I think there's an important distinction. There's no question that analytics and advanced numbers and the arrival of big data inside of baseball produce benefits, created innovation, that they were positives attached to it. Luhnow, though - his management style, the way he would foster conflict in his organization - he withheld promotions; he kept salaries very low - it became a cutthroat culture. And that's not unfamiliar to those who exist outside of baseball. It was very new inside of baseball. And players, agents, stakeholders were really unhappy with how they were being treated in a variety of ways.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So eventually things start to turn around for the Astros. They get a lot better. And then the new commissioner of baseball, Rob Manfred, starts putting an emphasis on more video replay to help cut down on umpires getting the calls wrong. Explain how that tech threatened the in-game communication between the pitcher and the catcher.

DRELLICH: The commissioner, Rob Manfred, you know, rightly looked around and said, well, why can't our players and managers decide to challenge a call on the field? Everybody at home can see a video replay if somebody got it wrong. We should go to a challenge system. But what comes along with that challenge system is a video room - a dedicated video room - for every single team. And inside that video room are different feeds, including feeds directly fixed on the catchers' signs.

Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball apparently forgot that this is a hyper-competitive environment, that these are players and teams that always want to try to get an edge. So players and teams start using those video rooms to look at the catchers' signs. And they do this in game. And Major League Baseball had a long time on the books a rule prohibiting the use of electronic equipment to steal signs.

MARTÍNEZ: So how sanctioned organization wide was this with the Houston Astros? Was it just the players who noticed it and decided to do it, or did it reach all the way to the top where management knew this was something they could use and decided to tell everyone, hey, why don't you use it?

DRELLICH: Jeff Luhnow, the general manager, has denied knowledge of the cheating scheme. Major League Baseball found some evidence that that at least was not believable. There are emails from a lower-level staffer to Luhnow making direct references to what's called the system, and that is a reference to the cheating scheme. Luhnow said he did not read those emails. The culture inside of Houston was really strained. The relationship between Jeff Luhnow, the general manager, and manager A.J. Hinch was contentious and distrusting. The relationship between the players and the front office lacked a lot of trust.

Well, gee, do you think in that kind of environment, the manager, A.J. Hinch, is going to run to Jeff Luhnow, the general manager, and say, hey, Jeff, we got a problem here; we got a cheating scheme, and I think we should stop it? And what you see over time in Houston is how these different culture and decision-making approaches add up to an environment that is really not one that is prepared to handle an ethical breach. The whole focus in Houston is on winning, making money, data efficacy. It is not on everything else, and everything else comes back to bite the Astros.

MARTÍNEZ: So in 2017, the Astros win the World Series. How much of that was due to the sign stealing, in the way they did it?

DRELLICH: I think this is both an impossible and unfortunate question. The manager, A.J. Hinch, has been asked this on the record. He said, we probably will never know, but we did it to ourselves. My book has an anecdote from the bench coach of the team in 2017, who's now the manager of the Boston Red Sox, where he tells people privately after the fact, we stole that bleeping World Series. Whether that's true or not, truly nobody can know. But the fact that the question exists, will continue to exist is really among the tragedies of the whole situation. Nobody knows.

MARTÍNEZ: In the end, general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch lost their jobs, but not a single player suffered any consequences from Major League Baseball. To many fans, it seems like the Astros kind of got away with it. Evan Drellich has a different view.

DRELLICH: This will follow everybody involved for the rest of their careers. It is possible that it will impact Hall of Fame voting. One of the leaders of the cheating scheme, Carlos Beltran, was newly eligible for the Hall of Fame this past winter. He did not get in. It's an interesting question of, would he have at least received more support if he had not been one of the ringleaders of the cheating scheme?

Players continue to be booed. And what underlies this is a lot of these players are incredibly talented. Jose Altuve, star second baseman of the Astros, is an incredibly talented player. But he will, as everybody on this Astros team, will be forever associated with one of the most famous cheating scandals in baseball, if not overall sports history.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Evan Drellich. His new book is called "Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball's Brightest Minds Created Sports' Biggest Mess." Evan, thanks.

DRELLICH: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.