How the Houston Astros are Handling a Cheating Crisis

Jan 21, 2020

Major League Baseball is in the midst of one of the largest cheating scandals in the history of professional sports. It’s a crisis of epic proportions, and teams, players and the league are rushing to control the narrative.

The league and commissioner Rob Manfred issued a report last week revealing widespread cheating by the Houston Astros during its 2017 World Series championship season. The report details how the Astros stole pitcher signs from opposing teams at Minute Maid Park by sending a center field camera feed to its bullpen. There, an Astros staffer would signal to the batter by banging on a trash can. If the batter heard banging, he could expect an off-speed pitch. No banging meant to watch for a fastball.

Baseball’s History of Stealing Signs

Not all sign-stealing is cheating. A catcher being careless with his signals and a runner on second base relaying that to the batter is completely fair game. Still, the cheating kind like the Astros engaged in is nothing new in pro baseball. Even Bobby Thomson knew the pitch before his famous “shot heard round the world” in 1951 thanks to a spyglass and buzzer system used by the New York Giants.

For this current scandal, the league has issued harsh penalties. Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch were suspended for the upcoming season – the second-longest management suspension after Pete Rose’s lifetime ban from the sport.

Following the suspension announcement, the Astros organization fired both managers. Owner Jim Crane (who also happens to be the commissioner’s boss) is not implicated in the report and has denied knowledge of the sign-stealing scheme.

Image via SBnation.

At the outset of any crisis, no matter the size, it’s critical to ask “who owns this crisis?” Too often, organizations rush to react before their role in an ongoing issue has been fully defined.

In this case, the Astros worked to distance themselves from owning this crisis by firing the two individuals the league blamed. Other teams have since followed suit. Anticipating its own MLB investigation, the Boston Red Sox “parted ways” with Manager Alex Cora, who was with the Astros for the 2017 season. The New York Mets “parted ways” with Manager Carlos Beltran, who was a player on the Astros during the 2017 season.

It’s common for organizations to terminate or discipline individuals involved in scandals in an attempt to show that those actions are out of line with the company’s values and policies. 

Crisis Response Monitoring Can Last Years

For these teams, it’s a good first step. But this crisis is far from over. These owners and teams, along with their players, will undoubtedly face more much-deserved scrutiny and criticism in the coming weeks and (most likely) years.

Any good crisis response plan demands closely monitoring the story for new information or changes in the narrative and anticipating how you’ll need to adjust your message.

Long story short: Every crisis is different, but taking steps to keep from unnecessarily  “owning” the crisis is part of a solid approach early on. From there, you have to diligently watch how the story unfolds for signs that a shift in strategy is warranted.

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