Rejoicing Over the Fall of the Houston Astros’ Cheating Architect
Jeff Luhnow was a McKinsey Man who did whatever he could to rob baseball of its joy. Thank goodness he's gone.
Author’s Note: Dwight Twilley, the power-pop genius out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, etched into the run-off groove of one of his albums the notation “Recorded Before the Nuclear War.” I suppose for the next month or two online pieces drawn from print magazines will bear the prefatory note “Written Before the Coronavirus and National Lockdown.” As this was.
I suppose it’s a sin to take pleasure in another man’s downfall, but what the hell: it’s only a venial sin. At worst it might addanother hour or so to my expected lengthy stint in Purgatory. So I am rejoicing in the firing, the humiliation, and the de facto banishment from major league baseball of Jeff Luhnow, ex-general manager of the Houston Astros, who has been given the bum’s rush for superintending a team that illegally employed cameras to steal signs from the opposing catcher, a dishonest act that surely assisted the Astros in winning their now-tarnished 2017 World Series title.
I have nothing against the Houston Astros, although naming a team after the once futuristic and forever atrocious Astrodome, forerunner of the anti-sky and anti-fresh air domed stadia, was telling evidence of factitiousness, almost as ridiculous as the hollowly cosmopolitan city of Toronto having an NBA team named after a monster in a Steven Spielberg movie. (And not one of his better ones. Even the Toronto Sugarland Express would have been better than the moronic “Raptors.”)
In 2007, the first year of a six-year affiliation between our Class A Batavia Muckdogs and the St. Louis Cardinals, Jeff Luhnow oversaw the Cards’ farm clubs. He was a McKinsey McPerson, a bright young man of the repellent analytics generation, which sought to extirpate the sacrifice bunt, the stolen base, and laughter and tears and joy from the American game.
Whereas the unhip, graduate degree-less, old-time baseball men believed there to be value in nurturing friendships and camaraderie and team spirit (ick!) by keeping squads more or less intact throughout a season, Luhnow, scornful of the human factor, pulled players up and down like a spoiled-kid puppeteer for the entirety of the 2007 season.
But what did it matter? Only fat old slobs with huge chaws of tobacco in their cheeks—men who’d probably never even taken an SAT prep class!—believed that team cohesion and individual development were linked.
Predictably, Batavia floundered that season, finishing 31-43. And I’m afraid that Luhnow developed a scunner for us hicks. After a while he stopped taking phone calls from the team president. Our team secretary and our town’s baseball historian, the septuagenarian imp Bill Dougherty, took to sending Luhnow postcards bearing such messages as “Having a terrible time. Wish you weren’t here.” Bill never heard back.
Jeff Luhnow soon washed his hands of us. In 2011, he was named general manager of the Houston Astros, building the team that would eventually cheat its way to the World Series.
Fast forward to the late fall of 2019. The minor leagues, heart and soul of professional baseball, are threatened by a major league plan to eliminate 42 franchises, most of them dating back many decades, including Batavia, the birthplace in 1939 of what became the New York-Penn League, the oldest continuously operating Class A circuit.
The idea man behind this massacre of small-town America: McKinsey’s own Jeff Luhnow.
When I read that Luhnow was the brains of this extermination operation, I figured it was Bill Dougherty’s postcards that pushed him over the edge. The cheek of those rubes! Don’t they know that they’re supposed to sit docilely and take whatever their superiors dish out? We’ll show them who’s boss….
Although the league has suspended Luhnow, commissioner Rob Manfred has not abandoned the Luhnow Plan. The evil that men do lives after them, especially if it stands to plenish the coffers of the plutocrat class.
Bill Dougherty died last year. A large board in our outfield fence honors him with his initials and birth and death dates. To robots like Luhnow, such a gesture makes no sense: why, the team could be making money by selling advertising on that outfield panel! You’re placing sentiment over revenue! Why not install a high-tech device out there to steal signs and thereby boost the all-important weighted on-base averages of our top prospects?
Shoeless Joe Jackson was banned from baseball for helping to throw the 1919 World Series, yet he became a folk hero. Jeff Luhnow’s shoes probably cost four figures, but maybe he could scuff ’em up a little by coaching a Little League team or selling beer at a concession stand in the low minors or just sitting in the stands in one of the Palookavilles he so despises. No one will ever write a novel placing Luhnow in an Iowa cornfield, but at least he might remember, or come to know for the first time, why the sport he did his best to exsanguinate once had such a hold on the affections and imaginations of so many Americans.
Bill Kauffman is the author of 11 books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America.