Errors On and Off the Field

REVIEW: 'Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball's Brightest Minds Created Sports' Biggest Mess'

Houston Astros home ballpark Minute Maid Park / Wikimedia Commons
March 12, 2023

"Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America," wrote French-American historian Jacques Barzun in 1954, "had better learn baseball." More than any other sport, America's national pastime reflects its national character.

But baseball's history—majestic though it is—is checked with indignities. The 1919 Black Sox World Series-fixing scandal, Pete Rose's expulsion from the game as punishment for his gambling, and, of course, the league's decades-long involvement in performance-enhancing drugs are only the most high-profile of Major League Baseball's collective sins. If baseball captures "the heart and mind of America," one might be compelled to ask whether its recurrent brushes with corruption and subterfuge embody a decay in the United States' foundations.

Evan Drellich, senior baseball writer for The Athletic, would answer with a resounding "yes."

Drellich's latest book, Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball's Brightest Minds Created Sports' Biggest Mess, details the rise and fall of former Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, who was suspended, then fired, after Drellich and fellow Athletic writer Ken Rosenthal broke the story of the Astros' cheating during the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

Houston used a camera placed in center field to transmit video of pitch signs coming from opposing catchers to their clubhouse. Astros players and staffers would then inform the batter of the next pitch, banging trash cans or—as Drellich explains in one entertaining episode—a massage gun against the clubhouse door. Using the camera itself was not against MLB's rules, but electronic sign stealing was, per a letter baseball commissioner Rob Manfred sent all 30 owners in September 2017.

Drellich begins his book in 2003, when Luhnow left a career as a McKinsey consultant-turned-internet entrepreneur to join the St. Louis Cardinals' front office, but he starts the Astros' story earlier.

"In 1970, the economist Milton Friedman posited that a business's duty was to increase profits above all, that its obligation was to the shareholder," Drellich writes. Citing Yale Law professor Daniel Markovits, Drellich likens Friedman's ideas of corporate responsibility and management consultants who "pursued this duty by expressly and relentlessly taking aim at the middle managers who had dominated mid-century firms, and whose wages weighed down the bottom line" to a slippery slope down which Luhnow took the Astros organization. He draws an arrow from cutting costs in the front office by automating scouting to the sign-stealing scheme, with stops at antagonistic negotiating tactics and the manipulation of player service time to postpone free agency along the way.

But maximizing efficiency through layoffs and using MLB's contract system to one's advantage—however unseemly—is not the same as cheating, and Friedman is perhaps the wrong thinker to mention in an explanation of Houston's behavior. In fact, one unnamed general manager's colorful lament about Luhnow's impact on the game demonstrates just that:

I think the real tragedy for the game started when these analytical optimizations started to push their way onto the field. To me there's a big difference in letting it dictate your draft behavior, or how you allocate your payroll. … But the fans have suffered and the game has suffered when this shit started creeping directly onto the field. Whether it was sticky stuff, or sign stealing, or just three true outcomes [strikeouts, walks, and home runs], and just everything else that we're trying to fucking clean up right now.

This complaint conjures German intellectual Ferdinand Tönnies's twin concepts of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft: community and society, the division between personal connections and transactional relationships. In the GM's words, the draft, the budget, and player transactions are all part of Gesellschaft; they are within the realm of financial calculation. But the field—the ground upon which legends tread—is sacred, and there is a higher good, at least where Gemeinschaft is concerned, than maximizing efficiency. It is when the Gemeinschaft crumbles that cultural establishments like baseball falter.

Rather than other sports histories, Winning Fixes Everything brings to mind Robert D. Putnam's Bowling Alone and Timothy P. Carney's Alienated America, books that describe the decay of America's civic institutions and decline of social capital. Both depict government missteps as contributing factors in the persistence of institutional rot, Putnam citing Washington scandals and Carney blindness to the issue at hand.

Drellich casts Rob Manfred, MLB's version of the state, in a similar light. The commissioner, in Drellich's telling, let every opportunity he had to curb sign stealing go to waste. Once the point man in the league's steroid investigations, Manfred took players at their word about when the cheating stopped and neglected to ensure his ability to punish players without union retribution.

Of course there is no one explanation for the decay within professional baseball, and those involved in the Astros scandal should be held accountable for their actions. The rot was everywhere, though: Winning Fixes Everything details credible accusations of cheating against the Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, and—I must admit—my beloved New York Yankees, with Boston's prompting suspensions. (It is a shame Drellich wrote the book before MLB adopted its new rules for the 2023 season, including the addition of a pitch clock and the elimination of extreme defensive shifts. The league's attempts to push itself into the future seem simply to have created more distance between die-hard fans and the game they love.)

In just another instance in which baseball mirrors America, there is no one disease plaguing our culture, and there is no one entity to blame for the deterioration of our civic life. But, as with MLB's scandals, the disease will only worsen if left untreated.

Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball's Brightest Minds Created Sports' Biggest Mess
by Evan Drellich
Harper, 368 pp., $30

Zach Kessel is a student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, where he leads the campus Alexander Hamilton Society chapter.