Like most American kids, I played baseball when I was little. To be honest, I always hated playing the sport. It is just painfully slow. Games take hours, and about half the game you are sitting down next to the field, bored. When you’re standing, you are mostly by yourself, waiting for something to happen. Even as an adult, I have always struggled to watch even the most historic playoff games. I know that if you are reading this, you are likely a European businessperson, which means you probably aren’t familiar with “America’s pastime”. Don’t worry, even if you know nothing about the sport, the story I am about to tell you is the opposite of baseball: it’s fascinating. That’s because it has little to do with baseball, and everything to do with deception, spying, hubris, secret codes, internet sleuths, codes of silence, whistle-blowers, literally whistling, ruined careers, and a Cinderella story turned completely wicked. This article tells the story of the disgraced Houston Astros, an organisation worth $1.8 billion, and the lessons that any businessperson can learn from the team’s scandal.
Shooting Down a Phoenix
It is difficult to explain just how awful the Houston Astros were in the early 2010s. From 2011 to 2013, the Astros won exactly one-third of their games (162 wins and 324 losses). During this time, they were ranked 30th in Major League Baseball (MLB), and there are only 30 teams in the league. But in baseball, terrible teams do not always stay terrible, and this is by design. The league rewards losing teams by giving them the most money to spend on amateur talent, and they also get first pick of the best new talent. Thus, if a team is a bad team, it is often better for them to lose, and lose badly, so they can rebuild their team in the upcoming years. The rationale for this is clear: the league wants the sport to be interesting, and if the same teams are dominant year after year, then the sport becomes predictable and boring. A boring league loses compelling storylines, which leads to a loss in value. So, in baseball, the best teams are not simply the richest teams.
The Astros organisation and their fans of the early and mid-2010s had to weather a pretty severe storm. Because they were the laughingstock of the league, their ticket sales slowed, and the value of the organisation decreased considerably. But this was all part of the bigger picture: they had to sacrifice in the short term to succeed in the long term. And succeed they did! By 2015, the Astros actually made the playoffs, and in 2017, their roster, which was now stacked with talent due to drafting and an increased payroll, made it all the way to the World Series. The World Series is a best of 7 series, and the Astros won a dramatic Game 7 to take home the first championship in in team history.
Some debated whether this dynamic, talented Astros team should be ranked among the greatest teams ever. Thus, the story of the Astros was the story of perseverance, sacrifice, and delayed gratification; they were the team that rose from the ashes to soar to the greatest heights, and they continued to soar quite high. In 2018, the Astros made it to the semi-finals of the league championships. In 2019, they lost a heart-breaking Game 7 of the World Series, but from 2017-2019, the team had clearly established themselves as a baseball powerhouse. As the 2020s approached, it looked as if the Houston Astros could be a dynasty in the making. All that changed on November 12, 2019.
The Athletic, an online sports magazine, released an article in late 2019 that dropped a bomb on the Astros organisation as well as Major League Baseball. In that article, Mike Fiers, who pitched for the Astros in 2017 but later played for other teams, revealed that the Astros had engaged in a dramatic, effective cheating scheme. There had been rumours throughout the league that the Astros were up to something. One executive from another team that faced the Astros during the playoffs was quoted as saying “The whole industry knows they’ve been cheating their asses off for three or four years. Everybody knew it”. Some articles had even been published in 2018 about the Astros cheating, but no one had exact information about it before The Athletic’s article. So how did the Astros cheat, exactly?