The smartest guys in the room: How the Astros failed on the biggest stage

October 24, 2019

The Houston Astros have what is widely considered to be the smartest front office in baseball. They’ve built a near-perfect team, loaded at every position, with one title already in hand and reason to expect more to come.

And they’ve undone all of the credit for that through the bizarre mishandling of an executive’s aggressive statement in what should have been a time of celebration, casting a pall over a World Series their team shockingly trails to the Washington Nationals two-games-to-none.

Let’s start at the beginning. Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein reported late Monday night, on the eve of the World Series, that more than an hour into the postgame celebration following the Astros clinching the AL pennant the prior Saturday, assistant GM Brandon Taubman directed an expletive-filled screed to a group of female reporters regarding the reliever his team had acquired in 2018.

“Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so f—— glad we got Osuna!” he reportedly yelled, repeatedly.

Osuna is Roberto Osuna, whom the Astros got on the cheap from the Toronto Blue Jays while he was serving a 75-game MLB suspension for allegedly assaulting the mother of his child. Notably, one of the reporters at whom Taubman shouted was not merely wearing a purple domestic violence awareness bracelet, but she has also repeatedly tweeted the domestic violence hotline number when Osuna has entered games. (This is, incidentally, one of the best practices for journalists when covering domestic violence issues; that number is 800-799-7233.)

Also notable is the fact that Osuna had just blown the save in that game, allowing a two-run, game-tying home run to D.J. LaMahieu in the top of the ninth, only to be bailed out by José Altuve’s own two-run shot in the bottom half, to win the game and the American League Championship Series.

Despite some early corroboration from other reporters in the clubhouse that night, the Astros’ official response Monday night was to refute the story wholesale, creating a subtext that nobody else present has agreed existed, denying its intent, and, generally, calling it fake news.

After a fierce backlash, the team entered step two of its failed damage control phase, offering a non-apology from Taubman (“my overexuberance in support of a player has been misinterpreted”) and a reminder from team owner Jim Crane that the club has donated $300,000 to domestic violence initiatives, or less than they gave Osuna per nine days of MLB service time this season. As Jane McManus put it in the New York Daily News, like a carbon-offset program for violence.

Taubman’s framing of the situation was, again, according to multiple people present, not accurate. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, who reportedly was not in the clubhouse during the celebration, said in a Wednesday radio interview with a team-affiliated station that “we may never know” Taubman’s intent, saying simply that Taubman and the reporters “have different perspectives.” He was only asked one question about the incident.

Luhnow did apologize generally, promising to do better and saying that “this situation should never have happened.” But at no point did Taubman or anyone in the organization apologize for how they treated Apstein, for calling her reporting “misleading and completely irresponsible,” for charging SI with an “attempt to fabricate a story,” as serious a professional accusation as you can make against a journalistic entity.

They also did not discipline Taubman, causing MLB to step in.

WTOP reached out to the Astros public relations staff about whether or not they had already apologized to Apstein and SI or planned to do so publicly. We also asked whether they planned to discipline Taubman in any way, as general manager Jeff Luhnow had said upon trading for Osuna that “we welcome being held accountable for all our personnel decisions.” The questions were sent shortly before 1 p.m. Eastern on Thursday. Four hours later, Taubman had been fired.


“If you drew up a playbook of how to screw it up, the Astros are following every rule,” said San Francisco Chronicle sports writer and columnist Ann Killion, who spoke with WTOP Thursday afternoon before the firing. “It’s about as ham-handed an attempt as I’ve seen.”

Killion covered the San Francisco 49ers during the successful years Jim Harbaugh was head coach and witnessed similar attempts to question reporters for bringing off-the-field issues up, like the team’s decision to let Aldon Smith practice just hours after his release from jail for a DUI, and to not rule out Ray McDonald from playing just days after his own domestic violence arrest.

“I think that there’s an arrogance that comes with successful teams,” she said. “Sports organizations make decisions, and we know why they make the decisions, then they get very aggressive with people who question those decisions.”

For Killion, sadly, that’s nothing new. But she was hoping incidents like these, especially involving a group of women trying to do their job, had been relegated to decades past.

“That is also super loaded with sexism,” she said. “There can still be this implied message when a male sports executive takes issue with something a female writer has written that, ‘you don’t know what you’re doing.’”

As the media is painted increasingly as the enemy, rather than the public accountability protectors that they are, there has grown this idea that every relationship between journalists and the entities they cover must be contentious. John Maroon, who spent five seasons in public relations with the Cleveland Indians and five more with the Baltimore Orioles and who now runs his own PR shop, balks against that.

“Everything doesn’t have to be lawyers and phone calls and strategy,” he said. “If you have a relationship with the media members and a respect for the press.”

If the Astros had shown that respect, from the very first call for comment, the story might never have been written in the first place. Instead, as this debacle unfolded over the course of the week, they were left with no reasonable choice but to publicly fire one of their top baseball executives in the middle of the World Series.

“If the team doesn’t do anything and the league doesn’t, what message does that send to every female journalist, every female employee, every female fan of the team?” asked Maroon. “Even if morally it doesn’t ring a bell, look at what it will do for your business moving forward.”

Firing Taubman quells the immediate crisis, but it doesn’t solve the much bigger institutional issues this scandal exposed within the organization, both in terms of its treatment of the media and of women.

***UPDATE: Shortly after this column was published, Luhnow held a press conference at Nationals Park in which he not only admitted to being part of the vetting process for the initial statement, but acknowledged he still hadn’t apologized to Apstein, citing his busy schedule. She was sitting in the room.***

***UPDATE: On Sunday, finally, Crane sent Apstein a formal letter of apology, retracting the original statement.***

It doesn’t say much that the only person to get it right on the first try was the field manager, A.J. Hinch.

“It was clear that the bizarre behavior by the AGM was inappropriate,” said Maroon. “I’m stunned by the lack of a PR voice. It’s either ineffectual or neutered.”

Killion agreed.

“To call the reporter a liar and just to trash the story like that is so embarrassing,” said Killion. “And it feels like a page out of Trump’s playbook.”

No matter your political persuasion, the tactics are undoubtedly Trumpian: When confronted with a damaging story, attack the credibility of the reporter, obfuscate the message, move on to the next news cycle and hope everyone forgets.

But the Astros are not the White House, and the only relevant news cycles they will be a part of for the next two to six days involve them being under the brightest spotlight in the sport. It’s simply not a story they could wish away.

Ironically, the Astros got themselves into this mess by thinking they’d struck gold, acquiring a “distressed asset” for pennies on the dollar. Now, they blew themselves up, grasping to protect another distressed asset — an assistant GM with an entirely unacceptable action who doubled down by lying about it. They devoted time and energy and resources to protecting and defending him, rather than simply apologizing and suspending him, allowing their team to focus on baseball and shine on the biggest stage in the sport.

By outthinking themselves and overvaluing their own judgment, they’ve exposed themselves for all to see.

That title up there at the top, as some may remember, is a reference to Enron and the documentary about the company that was fueled by its own hubris until it collapsed. The company slogan to which those on the inside never paid enough attention? “Ask why.”

If only the Astros had done so in the first place, they wouldn’t be in this mess.

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