The Houston Astros Dig a Deeper Hole – The Wall Street Journal

Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow departs after speaking at a news conference on Thursday. Photo: Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

The Houston Astros need help, quick. The American League Champions are sinking, entering Friday night’s World Series Game 3 down 2-0 to the upstart Washington Nationals.

The club’s vaunted front office, meanwhile, desperately needs a primer on the basics of human interaction and decency.

A recap, if you’re behind: on Monday, Sports Illustrated published a story from baseball reporter Stephanie Apstein about an incident amid Houston’s ALCS clinching celebration, in which assistant Astros GM Brandon Taubman, taunted a trio of female reporters with loud, profane shouts in support of pitcher Roberto Osuna, whom Houston traded for as he served a 75-game suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy.

The Astros first attacked the Sports Illustrated report, calling it “misleading and completely irresponsible” and saying its executive was merely “supporting the player during a difficult time.”

“We are extremely disappointed in Sports Illustrated’s attempt to fabricate a story where one does not exist,” the Astros said in a statement.

That statement turned out to be cravenly incorrect. In the aftermath, other reporters came forward and corroborated the Sports Illustrated account, so the Astros tried a mush-mouthed do-over in which Taubman apologized for inappropriate language and claimed his intentions were misinterpreted. The Astros added some boiler plate about their commitment to raising awareness and support on the issue of domestic violence—an odd flag to plant by a club that had, you know, traded for Osuna.

This all culminated in a tire fire Thursday, when the Astros released a third organizational statement on the matter which announced: “We were wrong.” They fired Taubman and apologized to Sports Illustrated, its reporter, Apstein, “and all individuals who witnessed this incident or were offended by the inappropriate conduct.” That was followed by an obtuse news conference by Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow in which he underlined his regret and the team’s apology but acknowledged he’d seen the organization’s original, fiery rebuke before it went out the door. He also said he’d been too busy to reach out directly to affected people like Apstein—while Apstein was there in the room, reporting.

A couple of things. First, just broadly: It’s amazing to see once more how an allegedly smart company can bungle what should be a rather straightforward process. Luhnow’s Astros’s front office has been celebrated as a hive of geniuses who weaponized “Moneyball”-style analytics to build one of the best clubs in baseball. That may be true—but this week showed that the same front office is sorely lacking in the fundamentals of crisis management and courtesy.

When the Sports Illustrated report hit, all the Astros needed to express was their organizational commitment to figuring out what happened. That’s it. Instead, they attacked the story, and the publication, and the reporter, and accused them of fabrication. This isn’t a small thing. Accusing a reporter of fabricating a story is about the most serious professional charge you can make about someone in this business. In making this baseless claim, they opened Apstein up not only to further harassment, but also potentially career-damaging scrutiny.

We live in a world where “fake news!” has become a cheap throwaway comment, but this was a direct denunciation of someone’s professional reputation before the Astros had figured out what really happened. The team has still not officially, publicly acknowledged that they wrongly accused Apstein and SI of making something up, and they need to do this. Today. Yesterday. It’s an important detail.

Another regrettable aspect: This story began to turn against the Astros when other reporters, including from the Houston Chronicle, confirmed Sports Illustrated’s account, the suggestion of this momentum being OK, here are multiple people who witnessed it, so the story must be accurate. Except Apstein had already done that herself, in her original reporting: not only was she there, she had other sources who saw and confirmed the same event. She’d done the work. Bravo to the other voices for coming forward, but the way this story played out appears awfully indicative of another sociocultural epidemic, which is: not believing women.

This isn’t a new thing, sadly. Apstein isn’t the first female sports journalist to have her reporting and reputation unfairly dragged by a sports organization. That Houston felt it could take such an aggressive approach—sports teams are forever clashing with reporters; seldom do they go all in like the Astros did here—shows how much work there is to do to level the respect for everyone in the clubhouse. What an embarrassment to baseball. Stephanie Apstein did her job. It’s time for the Houston Astros to do theirs.

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Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com

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