/Fired Astros Manager AJ Hinch Opens Up About Failure to Stop Sign Stealing – Sports Illustrated

Fired Astros Manager AJ Hinch Opens Up About Failure to Stop Sign Stealing – Sports Illustrated

HOUSTON – As baseball players, including those who were participants in the 2017–18 Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, return to spring training ballfields next week, former Houston manager AJ Hinch will be home for the first time in 24 springs. He is here because on Jan. 13, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred banned him for a year for failing to stop his players from cheating. Astros owner Jim Crane subsequently fired Hinch.

Three weeks after losing his place in the game, Hinch became the first person associated with the scandal to admit to it in detail and explain how wrong it was. Regretful, apologetic and briefly teary-eyed, Hinch this week, in an exclusive interview with SI and MLB Network, talked about when he knew about the scheme, his biggest regret, his emotional meeting with Crane, the whistleblower Mike Fiers, and his future plans.

In exploring each layer of the scheme, Hinch repeatedly steered the conversation back to the same place: taking ownership for his failure to act.

“I’m the man up front,” he said. “As the manager I always feel responsibility for everything that happens in and around the team. I was in a position of knowledge, and that’s been mentioned. I’m going to serve a pretty stiff penalty, and I just want people to know I’m sorry for being a part of it.

“I regret so much about that and it’s so complicated and so deep and there are parts that are hard to talk about but taking responsibility as the manager … it happened on my watch. I’m not proud of that. I’ll never be proud of it. I didn’t like it. But I have to own it because I was in a leadership position. And the commissioner’s office made it very, very clear that the GM and the manager were in position to make sure nothing like this happened—and we fell short.”

Asked to identify his biggest regret, Hinch said, “I should have had a more forceful interaction at the appropriate time, which would have been right when I found out.

“I look back on all the different things I’ve had to do in the course of my career: playing, managing, and front office—so many sort of crisis moments, or big moments that feel like it’s the moment for leadership—and I feel good about it. In this one I feel like I fell short. As a leader what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown and the bigger stages that I’ve been on, I know how I would respond today. But there aren’t a lot of second chances in real time like that. And I regret that.”

Asked what he wanted fans to distill from his willingness to answer questions, Hinch replied, “One, that I’m really sorry. For everybody. My personality is to try to take the burden for everybody else. I want everybody around me to be better. This happened on my watch, and I take it really seriously.

“I’ve had unbelievable conversations with major league managers and some of my players, players around the game, executives … and I want people to know that I care. That I’m not just, I guess, blowing it off and shrugging my shoulders and saying that I’m upset because we got caught. It’s much bigger than that.

“I want my daughters to see me hold up my accountability and take responsibility for being in this position. I want my family, my wife and kids, to be proud of how I handled this.

“But more importantly, for the Astros fans and the baseball fans, the supporters, the detractors, I just want to be real and be relatable in this situation that I made a mistake. I wish I could do it over again, like many of us in life wish we could do something over again, and that I will work tirelessly to restore the integrity that’s needed in this game, and the integrity that’s already in this game. And I believe in baseball. I love baseball. And I can’t wait to see what’s next for this sport.”

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Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Asked directly whether the Astros’ 2017 world championship is tainted, Hinch replied, “It’s a fair question. And I think everyone is going to have to draw their own conclusion.

“I hope over time and the demonstration of the talents of this team and the players, the careers that are being had—these are some of the best players in the entire sport, all together on the same team—I hope over time it’s proven that it wasn’t.

“But I understand the question. It’s a fair question. People are going to have to draw their own conclusions. Unfortunately, we opened that door as a group. And that question … we may never know. We’re going to have to live and move forward and be better in the sport. But unfortunately, no one can really answer that question. I can’t pinpoint what advantages or what happened or what exactly would have happened otherwise. But we did it to ourselves.”

A three-month investigation by the commissioner’s office determined that the Astros began stealing signs in home games at the beginning of the 2017 season via the misuse of cameras and monitors—first as a means of decoding sign sequences with a runner at second base. The runner at second would then rely the sign to the hitter. At the time all teams had access to a centerfield camera video feed in real time, though it was allowed only for training purposes. Its use to steal signs was expressly forbidden.

About two months into the season, the scheme grew into a larger, more systematic one in which the Astros misused the technology to steal signs even with no runners on base. Players communicated to the batter that an off-speed pitch was coming by banging on a trash can near the dugout. No banging meant a fastball was coming.

Bench coach Alex Cora and designated hitter Carlos Beltrán were the only named participants in the commissioner’s report. The report specified that Hinch did not participate in the scheme and in fact late in the 2017 season signaled to his players that he disapproved of their behavior by twice damaging the monitor they used to steal signs.

“I did,” Hinch confirmed. “I didn’t endorse it, but I was the manager. And there’s a responsibility when you are in a position of authority to end it. My mind-set at that point was to demonstrate that I didn’t like it.”

How did he damage the monitors?

“I hit it. With a bat. I didn’t like it,” he said. “In hindsight I would have a meeting. I should have had a meeting and addressed it face-forward and really ended it. Leadership to me is often about what you preach. Your pillars of what you believe in. Leadership is also about what you tolerate. And I tolerated too much. And that outburst … I wanted to let people know that I didn’t like it. I should have done more. I should have addressed it more directly.

“I mean, it’s complicated when you’re talking about a team and all the inner workings of a team, but in reality I just feel like I could have done more looking back, especially feeling like the leader I am in 2019 vs. where I was in 2017 and where I’ve grown. But it’s always easier to look back and wish you could have done more.”

Asked when he learned his players were stealing signs systematically, Hinch replied, “I don’t know the exact date. I would say it’s the middle part of the year, June or July. You get into that part of the season …

“And this is not justifying it … the biggest concern when you do an interview like this is I don’t want to come across like I’m making excuses. The monitors or any sort of technology … that was legal, in areas in and around the dugout—behind the actual dugout but down in the hallways. It’s what you do with them when that gray area turns into wrong.

“So when there’s TVs around and player stations and the technology that has grown gets closer and closer to the dugout that was fine. It was the use of it. So when I found out about the competitive advantages—trying to get the signs—it was not something that was rolled out, ready-made, ‘this is what we’re using TVs for.’

“There’s a lot of reasons to use TVs … in footage, trying to get your timing, trying to do different things. When it crosses the line is when it’s wrong. And that’s what we have to own: when you cross the line.”

He added: “Sign stealing has been around forever, and there are certainly legal and permissible ways to do it. And when you cross the line, it’s wrong. It’s important for all of us to take away from this that lesson. We shouldn’t have had these experiences to have that lesson. But the sport will be better having addressed this.”

Around the time the Astros were using their trash-can scheme, the Red Sox were using their replay monitor and a smart watch to steal and communicate signs. Manfred fined Boston for its actions. In doing so, and in tacit acknowledgement to sign-stealing paranoia around the game, Manfred issued a Sept. 15, 2017 memo to all club officials (not to players) that the misuse of technology to steal signs would be met with harsh penalties.

Six days after the distribution of the memo, in a game at Minute Maid Park, White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar figured out the Astros’ trash-can scheme after hearing the bangs every time he threw his changeup. He called time and asked to talk to his catcher to change signs. “A sense of panic” arose among the Astros, according to the report.

Hinch admitted by then he knew the players were using a trash can to relay stolen signs. (“I heard it. I don’t think you process it right away. You hear a lot of things. But I heard it,” he said.). But he said in this particular instance he did not notice Farquhar’s reaction or how the players scrambled to remove the monitor for fear of being found out. (It soon went back up.)

“I wasn’t [aware],” he said. “I learned a lot about this through the process of this investigation. Looking back, I think you see things a little bit different than you do when you’re kind of on the treadmill, so to speak, or running the race. So now it’s kind of hard to distinguish what you knew then and what you know now and the conversations that have all happened over the past three years. But I learned about it in the report.”

When asked to watch a clip of that game with the audible bang preceding every Farquhar changeup, Hinch appeared visibly shaken. Asked how much it hurt to watch that clip, Hinch replied, “A lot. That was wrong.”

If Hinch were bothered enough to twice swing a bat at the monitor, why when he first learned about the scheme at least two months earlier didn’t he simply tell his players to knock it off? Was it because he didn’t want to confront players, especially those as influential as Beltrán, at the risk of upsetting the trust he had gained from them? Hinch was first hired as a manager in 2010 by Arizona at age 36 with no managing or coaching experience. He was fired two years later with chords of some clubhouse discontent. When the Astros hired him, Hinch said he needed to improve his communication with players. He prides himself on being fiercely loyal to his players.

Was it the level of paranoia around the game that normalized sign stealing before the Sept. 15 memo? (Hinch’s roster had several veterans acquired from other clubs.)

Why didn’t he step in?

“I wish I would have. I really do,” he said. “I think that’s a big question I’m going to process over what is now a season-long suspension. It’s something that I’ve continued to think about … certainly through the investigation when you have to openly talk about it. … I wish I would have done more.

“Right is right and wrong is wrong, and we were wrong. And we have to live with that and we have to move forward with being better at keeping the integrity of the game. Better at addressing issues straightforward. And from a leadership position, how to do that comes with experience. Unfortunately, this experience is a bad one. But I have to learn from that to handle it differently given a chance again.”

Because Manfred chose to hold accountable managers, coaches and front office executives for how technology is used, no players were disciplined for their actions. Astros players largely have remained silent. Hinch said he was speaking out now in part because he knows players will be asked about it when camp opens. He regards being the first to meaningfully address it as part of his responsibility as a leader.

“I think players and anyone involved is going to have to handle it as they see fit,” Hinch said. “I know in time everyone’s going to have to address this. Everyone is going to go to spring training and players, coaches, managers and executives, everybody is going to have to address this in their own way.

“Obviously some of the players that have come out in the fan fests and around the league have weighed in. And others haven’t. And I just know as the manager I have to hold myself to that high standard and that accountability and that apology as well. Because I was the manager.

“So I don’t know how everyone is going to handle it. I haven’t spent a lot of time on others. I’ve been so focused on making sure that I stand up as the manager that while it was on my watch and truly let people know that I am sorry.

“I’m going to miss being with them. They’re going to miss having me. The game will move on. The players with adjust. But those relationships are real.

“And I think everybody involved has a responsibility to address this is their own way. I don’t know what that’s going to be. But I know as the leader, I have to apologize. I have to stand out front as I always have with players and try to unite the message that we took it too far. And it didn’t need to happen.”

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Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Astros players told investigators that if Hinch had told them to stop stealing signs, they would have ceased the activity.

“That’s hard to hear,” Hinch said. “I hope so.”

But even after Hinch damaged two monitors, according to the investigation, the Astros continued to steal signs “throughout the postseason.” Taking a bat to the monitors wasn’t enough to deter them.

“Clearly it wasn’t,” Hinch said. “It’s something what I look back at as something I could have done better.”

The commissioner launched his investigation in response to a November story published by The Athletic in which A’s pitcher Mike Fiers, who threw the most innings for the 2017 Astros but was left off the postseason roster, revealed the sign-stealing scheme.

Former Astros teammate Dallas Keuchel criticized Fiers for breaking a “clubhouse rule” by speaking out against cheating. Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez called Fiers “a bad teammate” for waiting until he left the Astros to speak out against the scheme.

“I haven’t spent a lot of time focusing on the emotional side of the reaction to Mike telling the story and getting his message out,” Hinch said. “I wish I would have had an environment and a culture that was better for him to have come to me in real time—and others. I look at it like, ‘How could I have made it better or more open?’”

On Jan. 13, Hinch, who lives 30 minutes north of Houston, happened to be around the clubhouse at Minute Maid Park when the commissioner’s office informed him to expect an email with his disciplinary letter.

“I felt responsible from the beginning, so I knew there was going to be punishment,” he said. “If you read the [Sept. 15, 2017] memo as an example, and you feel responsible as a leader, punishment is going to happen.

“I didn’t know to what extent … When I got the news that it was a full year that … that was a tough blow. That’s taking me away from the sport that I love, the sport I’ve been around for two decades.”

Shortly after Hinch received the email, Crane called Hinch from his office at Minute Maid Park.

“Hey, can you come down to Houston?” Crane asked.

“I’m already here.”

“Can you come up?”

Hinch said the two of them had a face-to-face meeting in which “both of us got emotional that it had gotten to that point.”

At that meeting Crane fired Hinch, who in five years had brought the franchise to its only World Series title and a second World Series in 2019, when a franchise-record 107-win team came within five outs of another title. It was in recalling Crane firing him that Hinch broke down.

“That was tough. … It was tough news to hear,” he said as tears welled.

Upon composing himself he said, “We had to move on. As a leader you go into a frame of mind of protection. Make sure your coaches know. Make sure your family knows. Make sure my wife and children know. Make sure the people closest to me know. I was more focused on that. I really didn’t think about me. And then I contacted a few players to let them know. I don’t really like news breaking on your phone or on TV to the people close to me. So I texted my buddies, my coaches, a few of the players I’m close with and then just came home to be with my people.”

The commissioner’s investigation covered 2016-19. The Astros were found to have misused technology to steal signs only in the 2017 regular and postseasons and in the 2018 regular season (in a more limited manner and window). MLB security protocols since the 2018 postseason made the misuse of technology more difficult.

Before Game 4 of the 2019 ALCS in New York, Hinch responded angrily when asked at a news conference about allegations that Astros players were stealing signs from the Yankees and relaying them via whistling from the dugout.

Hinch at the time called such allegations “a joke.” He added then, “And then when I get contacted about some questions about whistling, it made me laugh because it’s ridiculous. And had I known that it would take something like that to set off the Yankees or any other team, we would have practiced it in spring training. It apparently works, even when it doesn’t happen.”

Since the commissioner issued his report, critics have portrayed that response from Hinch as hypocritical. The commissioner’s office looked into the whistling charges then and found no infractions and again in this past investigation, again finding nothing of concern.

As early as Game 1 of that ALCS, Yankees coaches had complained from across the field that the Astros were whistling in their dugout while their team was hitting. Between early innings in that game, Hinch left the dugout to complain to the umpires about the Yankees’ complaints.

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Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Why had Hinch objected so stridently to the line of questioning before Game 4?

“In 2019 I felt like we had gotten past that sign-stealing part,” he said. “Major League Baseball had completely changed the look and feel of the video process. There are different protocols. There are people around and they are everywhere.

“And we had already gone through a series against Tampa. We had played a couple of games against the Yankees. … Because this team is a completely different team, a different group of players, but the same organization. I did take offense to being accused of something that we weren’t doing. It’s almost like reliving, scratching that old wound. We had already gotten past ’17.

“And we weren’t [stealing signs]. That’s how I felt and how I feel today. The whispers, the conversations behind the scenes before this investigation … we had heard them. We heard them in ‘17, we heard them in ‘18, we heard them in ‘19, where people … the paranoia around the league …

“When I sat at that podium I’m going to defend this group of players, and that’s my job. And that’s how I felt. I didn’t like the line of questioning. I wasn’t comfortable. It came out firm. It was talking about 2019, and when the investigation started and we started getting investigated about 2017. I know it looks bad because it kind of gets blurry about the organization over the course of a few years. But I believed in what we were doing in 2019, and I wanted to make sure I defended that as the manager.”

Until Jan. 13, this was the weekend that Hinch planned to leave for spring training. Instead, he is home. He cannot be in attendance at any major league ballpark or training facility nor any minor league ballpark. He cannot travel on behalf of any club (such as scouting amateur players). Any violation would place him on the permanently ineligible list. (With an abundance of caution, he recently called the commissioner’s office to seek permission to watch a college game at a minor league ballpark.)

His ban expires with the conclusion of the World Series. He wants to manage again.

When asked what this year might be like for him, he replied, “I have no idea. I don’t know. I know my suspension and termination happened January 13. I really feel like it starts almost officially this weekend, when I’m supposed to leave for spring training. And some of my actions and inactions contributed to that, and that’s what I’m here to own.

“But I’m all about baseball. I love baseball. My goal is to contribute back to baseball again. I don’t know what that means. I think it’s going to be such a unique year, to gain a little balance, to gain some perspective, to learn from this entire thing, and come out better for it.

“I’m very proud of what I’ve done in baseball. I’m going to miss it terribly. I’m going to watch as much baseball as I can because that’s what I am. I’m baseball 24/7, but I’ll take it seriously the fact that I’ve been suspended based on the position I was in and what went on under my watch and I will come back stronger for it. I will come back a better leader, and I will be willing to do whatever it is to make the game better.”