- - Tuesday, January 14, 2020

They were having a party at the McKinsey & Company organization in June 2018. They were still celebrating the Houston Astros’ 2017 World Series championship — engineered by one of their own, Astros general manager and McKinsey alumnus Jeff Luhnow.

It was another step in the consulting agency’s plan to rule the world (you know, like the Trilateral Commission), sending out their Kool Aid Kids in business, politics — and now sports.

“Winning was a process, years in the making,” the two McKinsey authors wrote for their company’s website. “As with any big change effort, this was far more than a numbers game. Luhnow and his team had to build an organization and culture that embraced data, translate it into ideas that mattered for players and coaches, and break down silos that were hampering the realization of data’s full potential.”

And, if that didn’t work, cheat.

McKinsey’s baseball golden child is tarnished forever, suspended for one season, along with Houston manager A.J. Hinch, by Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, along with taking away Houston’s first and second round picks for two years and fining them $5 million, for presiding over a culture that led to an elaborate technology-assisted sign-stealing operation that has tainted the outcome of the sport’s crowned World Series champions in 2017 and 2018.

Luhnow and Hinch were fired Monday by Astros owner Jim Crane. They were joined on the unemployment line Tuesday night by Boston manager Alex Cora, who was identified as the architect of the Houston cheating system (while he was the Astros bench coach).

None of the three cheaters should ever work in the game again.

“I find that the conduct of the Astros, and its senior baseball operations executives, merits significant discipline,” Manfred said in his ruling. “I base this finding on the fact that the club’s senior baseball operations executives were given express notice in September 2017 that I would hold them accountable for violations of our policies covering sign stealing, and those individuals took no action to ensure that the club’s players and staff complied with those policies during the 2017 postseason and the 2018 regular season.

“The conduct described herein has caused fans, players, executives at other MLB clubs, and members of the media to raise questions about the integrity of games in which the Astros participated. And while it is impossible to determine whether the conduct actually impacted the results on the field, the perception of some that it did causes significant harm to the game.”

That doesn’t happen unless you have established a culture that encourages and embraces it.

In a statement, Luhnow took responsibility for the cheating, but then also said he was unaware of it or involved in it at all.

“I am not a cheater,” Luhnow said. “Anybody who has worked closely with me during my 32-year career inside and outside baseball can attest to my integrity. I did not know rules were being broken.

“As the Commissioner set out in his statement, I did not personally direct, oversee or engage in any misconduct: The sign-stealing initiative was not planned or directed by baseball management; the trash-can banging (part of the system used to relay stolen signs from a video system to batters at the plate) was driven and executed by players, and the video decoding of signs originated and was executed by lower-level employees working with the bench coach. I am deeply upset that I wasn’t informed of any misconduct because I would have stopped it.”

This doesn’t exactly mesh with what Luhnow told his McKinsey buddies in their backslapping article in 2018. In that interview, Luhnow said there wasn’t anything that happened in the baseball organization that they were not aware of.

“We know what every person is doing on the field at all times,” he said. “We know what the bat and the ball are doing on the field at all times.”

And then there was this, where Luhnow spoke of how closely everyone worked together in the Astros organization. “We’ve gotten to the point where we have a collaborative senior-management group, all of whom have different areas of responsibility but who work very collaboratively together,” he said.

Yet when it comes to something as drastic — and destructive — as cheating during the game, Luhnow was unaware.

In the McKinsey advertisement interview, Luhnow actually bragged over how much control they had over players and others in the organization.

“The harder part was changing the behavior of the coaches and the players that were either on our big-league team or in the minor-league system on their way up — getting them to change their behavior and use the information to help make decisions, whether it’s game-day decisions or lineups or defensive configuration or recommendations on promoting players,” Luhnow said. “That was harder, and took three or four years to get to a point that we felt good about it. I was fortunate that my boss, the owner of the team, was willing to support us and, quite frankly, help us double down on the strategy.”

Crane, their boss, claimed no knowledge of the cheating scheme.

“When I found out, I was very upset,” the owner said. “We want to be known as playing by the rules. Neither one of those guys implemented this or pushed it through the system … but neither one of them did anything about it. That’s unfortunate and the consequences are severe.”

The Astros may have had the talent to have won a World Series and compete at the game’s top level without cheating. But that was not the culture that Luhnow created — and Crane doubled-down on Luhnow, the former executive bragged.

“We’re in a zero-sum industry,” Luhnow said. “And I know a lot of industries feel that way — where any advantage you gain has to, by definition, come at someone else’s disadvantage. For us, we win a game, someone else loses.”

The Dodgers were the “someone else” who lost the World Series to the Astros in 2017, and then again to the Red Sox in 2018.

Baseball should thank its lucky stars that the Washington Nationals beat the Astros in this past World Series.

Luhnow told his McKinsey pals that the Astros’ way of doing business will “provide us an advantage for the next five to 10 years.”

Now the franchise is in danger of collapse. They are fortunate Manfred didn’t punish them harder.

Luhnow? Maybe he could get a job in the minor leagues. They will be tough to come by, though, if baseball goes through with its plan to contract about 42 farm clubs — a plan initiated by Luhnow.

⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan podcast Tuesdays and Thursdays.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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