The Astros Don’t Deserve a World Series of Distraction

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The Houston Astros are the most talented team in baseball. They may be the most talented team ever assembled. And the people who put it together are counting on that team to distract you.

They’re hoping that 107 regular-season wins, an American League pennant, and a chance at a second World Series championship in three years will convince you not to pay attention to the angry assistant general manager behind the curtain, who, in an almost comically cruel moment in the Astros’ clubhouse after ALCS Game 6, repeatedly shouted, “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so fucking glad we got Osuna!” at three female reporters, an incident brought to the public’s attention by Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein. Osuna is Roberto Osuna, the closer the Astros acquired from the Blue Jays in July 2018 while he was serving a 75-game suspension after being arrested and charged with assaulting the mother of his 3-year-old son. (The charges were dropped when she chose not to return to Canada to testify against him.) The angry assistant GM is 34-year-old Brandon Taubman, who has worked for the Astros since 2013, rising to his current position in September 2018 and receiving an extension last month.

They’re hoping that the winning will cause you to forget—or, if you’re less online, maybe to never find out—that the team’s first response to Apstein’s report, issued only an hour after her article appeared, was a smug statement that smeared her reporting. The team declined to comment for the story itself, opting instead to wait for the piece to be published and then call a respected, credentialed writer’s work a fabrication, a claim quickly contradicted by two other writers who witnessed the interaction and corroborated Apstein’s account. Not that credentials mean much to the Astros’ PR department; the team previously violated league regulations in August when it barred a reporter from the clubhouse at Justin Verlander’s behest and then defended its actions afterward.

The weight of the evidence indicates that if either version of events was misleading and untruthful, it was Houston’s. The team said Taubman was supporting a player—presumably Osuna, who had blown a Game 6 save—who was being asked questions about a “difficult outing.” But multiple eyewitnesses who spoke to The Athletic and the Houston Chronicle on the condition of anonymity noted that no interviews were being conducted and no players were around when Taubman blew up. The “difficult time” the Astros referenced in their initial statement was in fact a champagne party.

They’re hoping that the prospect of a Verlander–Stephen Strasburg pitcher’s duel or the visions of Commissioner’s Trophies dancing in your head will discourage you from parsing the statements Taubman and Astros owner Jim Crane released on Tuesday afternoon. Because if you do, you might notice that neither one of the men acknowledged or apologized for the first statement’s accusations. You might notice that Taubman said he was sorry “if” anyone was offended by his actions, as though there were any uncertainty on that score. You might notice the extraneous reference to Taubman’s being a family man, as if husbands and fathers don’t do bad things. Actions speak louder than words, but Taubman’s loud words were actions.

You might also try to discern why Taubman would make such a spectacle of supporting a 15-month-old trade for a player who had just nearly lost a big game. And you might dig a little deeper and read David Folkenflik’s NPR report, based on the words of three witnesses, that said Taubman “appeared to be responding to the presence of a female reporter who was wearing a purple rubber bracelet to heighten awareness about domestic violence,” and whose tweets about domestic violence hotlines Taubman had complained about before. Then you might wonder how to square that with Taubman’s contention that Apstein’s report “does not reflect who I am or my values.”

You might also see that both statements mention charity, as if having thrown some money at an issue inherently makes every other action OK. Crane reiterated the Astros’ intention to “create awareness and support,” echoing GM Jeff Luhnow’s statement days after the 2018 trade for Osuna, when he said the “conversation and awareness” provoked by the trade might “turn out to be a positive down the road.” At the time of the trade, Luhnow also said, nonsensically, that the Astros had a “zero-tolerance policy related to abuse of any kind.”

In Crane’s comments Tuesday, he cited a partnership with a domestic violence coalition, mandatory training for employees, and about $300,000 in donations made to local women’s shelters. And if you’re busy looking up World Series start times (8:08 or 8:07?), you might not stop to wonder whether the Astros took those steps because they cared deeply about preventing domestic violence or because of the widespread backlash to the trade, and because it was convenient to hide behind a donation that they could have made without trading for Osuna if they’d felt so strongly inclined. Or maybe whether it could have been a bigger gift, considering that Crane and the Astros are worth billions; $300,000 is what they pay Osuna every 17 or so days.

You might wonder why the Astros’ actions and response seem so familiar. Saying the quiet part loud, gaslighting, blaming the media, and acting unconscionably because the cruelty is the point are practices that have become uncomfortably common at the highest level over the past few years. Now those belligerent tactics have metastasized into baseball’s biggest story in the week of the sport’s signature event. It’s unfortunately not news that the Astros and other teams employ players such as Osuna, or even that a front-office figure would feel this way. The news is that one of them would be brutal or obtuse enough to gloat about it, not just in front of female reporters but to them.

If you do dwell on any of this, you may come across someone who instructs you to stop fixating on off-the-field issues and simply watch the World Series. To which I would answer: We were trying to, man. (I’m assuming this someone would be a man.) The World Series is exciting and José Altuve is adorable and you can’t constantly be pissed off, so the righteous indignation that accompanies a team’s treating a domestic violence suspension as an arbitrage opportunity slowly settles into resigned, sardonic tweets. That’s where we were on Saturday, until a high-ranking Astros executive went out of his way to reignite the outrage and a PR flack fanned the flames, implicating the entire organization. To put this in playground terms: The Astros started it, and they still haven’t faced any external consequences or imposed any discipline themselves.

Did any website, let alone every website, have a Brandon Taubman package planned for World Series week? Does anyone want to be thinking about Brandon Taubman when we could be thinking about Carlos Correa or George Springer instead? No. Media members and fans alike were prepared to grimace when remembering Osuna’s Astros origin story, but otherwise relish the historic rotations, stacked lineups, and charismatic stars on display in the Astros-Nationals series. It’s the same mental gymnastics routine that spectators attempt when Aroldis Chapman or Addison Russell or any number of Bad Baseball Dudes sit out a suspension and then linger like the embodiments of bad memories. They’re allowed to play, but we don’t have to be happy to see them.

Here’s another memory: Luhnow insisting, in another August 2018 statement, that “We welcome being held accountable for all of our personnel decisions.” Taubman certainly didn’t welcome accountability on Saturday. Nor was he welcoming to media members who were entitled to be where they were. He made a point of taunting a trio of reporters who’d had to fight for the right to stand in that clubhouse and be berated by a man flanked by more men, with the biggest bully holding a symbolic cigar.

Taubman runs the Astros’ “pro player scouting efforts,” among other endeavors, which notably involve next to no in-person scouting; the Astros have dismissed all of their pro scouts, trusting that work to technology and in-office analysts. This would seem to suit him: Before he joined the Astros, Taubman built a model to make money on fantasy baseball, plugging and playing day by day based on projected performance. After he joined the Astros, he said, he initially avoided the clubhouse to avoid developing emotional ties to players. (In retrospect, he should have continued to stay away.)

Let’s be honest: The Astros’ approach to player acquisition typically works pretty well. But the Astros erred by treating Osuna as just another combination of salary and stats. Houston has weathered uproars before, about tanking, shifting, deploying tandem starters, hiring internet nerds, pulling their offer to first overall draft pick Brady Aiken in 2014, applying technology to player development, reorganizing their scouting staff, and sign-stealing. Your mileage may vary when it comes to assessing whether those strategies were good or bad for baseball, but most of them worked out well for the Astros. Tanking was a way to get good players and build a quality team, at least in 2012. Shifting and internet nerds are still ascendant. The Astros won the 2017 World Series with a tandem-starter-esque postseason staff. Aiken’s elbow was busted. Player development became baseball’s next frontier, and the Astros planted their flag first. Cutting down on traditional scouting hasn’t seemed to hurt them yet. And their reputation for sign-stealing and picking up on pitch-tipping has made their opponents paranoid.

One can see how the Astros might have started to believe that they could do no wrong—that anything outsiders said was a mistake would eventually be vindicated. That applies internally, too: Much of the Astros’ front office was opposed to trading for Osuna, and multiple members of the club’s baseball operations department have departed partly because of bad blood.

“The Astros are firm in their belief that winning will fix everything,” Evan Drellich, the Chronicle’s former Astros reporter, wrote in 2014. Too firm, as it turns out. After drinking their own flavor of Kool-Aid for years, everything they did began to taste like a title. They traded for Osuna without even needing to on a wins-and-losses level, chasing some fetishized conception of surplus value. But past success is no guarantee of future results, which Taubman, a former investment banker, should know. As often as the Astros have been right about pure baseball decisions, this time they’re in the wrong—as wrong as they were when they drafted Mark Appel over Kris Bryant in 2013 or released a reinvented J.D. Martinez after 18 spring training at-bats in 2014. Yes, the Astros make major mistakes. What Taubman said, and how and to whom he said it, was one of them. So was releasing their first statement and subsequently letting it stand, and so were the watered-down statements put forth on Tuesday.

I told you the Astros are hoping you won’t pay attention to Taubman. That may be giving them too much credit, because it implies that they care what you think. If they did, though, they wouldn’t have traded for Osuna in the first place. “They don’t give a shit, to be honest, what people think of them,” a former Astros staffer told me and Travis Sawchik in The MVP Machine. “Jeff’s gonna do what he wants to do.” And right now, it doesn’t seem as if he wants to do anything. Why would he, as long as the wins keep coming, the fans don’t desert the team, and the financial tap isn’t turned off?

Maybe manager A.J. Hinch’s disappointment will put pressure on the higher-ups, although he hardly took a stand on Osuna’s acquisition last season, saying, “Once he gets here … we’re gonna welcome him on our team,” and, “Domestic violence is bad … and so we have to figure out a way to separate those feelings versus the additional opportunity he is getting on our club.”

Maybe MLB will step in and suspend Taubman, compel a more sincere-sounding apology, or close the loophole that makes players suspended for domestic violence, unlike those who test positive for PEDs, eligible for the postseason, and thus attractive trade chips.

Or maybe not, because this ultratalented 2019 roster makes for a marvelous diversion to draw all the eyes away from the front office’s ass-showing. It’s easy to confuse being good at building baseball teams for being good in a broader sense. Crane, Luhnow, Taubman, and anyone else who sanctioned the Osuna trade and resents being badgered about it will bank on continued quiet (mostly) on the World Series telecasts and another clubhouse celebration—perhaps one with fewer front-office executives—to send their fans home happy and ensure that the baseball world won’t hold them accountable.

The worst part is, there’s a good chance it will work.

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