HOUSTON – Before the Astros cheating scandal, there was another incident that put the Astros culture in question.
As the Astros celebrated their 2019 Game 6 ALCS win, a report surfaced that Brandon Taubman, the team’s assistant general manager, made insensitive remarks to a female reporter.
I sat down with Jeff Luhnow, the Astros general manager who was fired as part of the fallout from the cheating scandal. He talked about many things, among them, the Taubman incident.
“I was so disappointed that that happened,” said Luhnow. “That should never have happened, first of all. But I was actually more disappointed in how the Astros reacted to that.”
The Astros initially reacted with denial, fully supporting Taubman and calling the reporter’s credibility into question. What followed was a whirlwind of statements and retractions.
Taubman later admitted he had in fact said those things in the clubhouse, and he was then fired.
“The night the organization found out that this was going to be a story, there were several people actively conversing about what to do about it,” Luhnow said.
“As a general manager, I don’t write press releases," he added. "I see them before they go out if they have to do with baseball operations and I’ll approve a quote if it’s supposedly my words, but even my quotes are written by someone else.”
Luhnow was tasked with meeting with reporters in Washington after Taubman was fired. Many use this as an example of a toxic culture under Luhnow, but he said he took responsibility for that statement of denial, even though he didn’t write it.
“This particular response was crafted, edited and written by the person that runs the legal operation for the Astros, and the person that runs the marketing and PR for the Astros," Luhnow said. "Those two wrote it, edited it and sent it out.”
Luhnow admits the email chain had several people copied on it, and that’s where his regret comes in.
“Nobody said, ‘Don’t send this out,’" Luhnow said. "I should’ve said that, and I feel bad that I didn’t, because my gut was telling me this was probably not the right reaction.”
“Even though everybody in that group believed that the incident was innocent, which it turned out not to be, it still didn’t feel like the right reaction because it was so aggressive," he added. "At one point I objected to it, not as vociferously as I wish I would have. My objection was ignored. And 20 minutes later the response was sent out. It was very clear, immediately after the response was sent out, that it was horrifically wrong. And it made us look terrible. Nobody wanted to take responsibility for that response.”
According to the former Astros GM, that led to him being the sole front-office member to attend the press conference after Taubman was fired.
“I agreed to do it," Luhnow said. "No one else was willing to do it. About 20 seconds after I walked into a room filled with baseball reporters who were all looking to attack somebody, I was instructed by one of the people that wrote the response not to disclose who wrote it and to make everybody understand it was an Astros response, but not to talk about the people who were involved. I followed those instructions.”
The press conference did no favors for Luhnow or the Astros.
“I sat there for 20 minutes and was attacked by every media outlet in the country, and I know I didn’t handle it as well as I could have, but I didn’t want to lie, so I told them I had seen the response before it went out," Luhnow said. "Which, essentially made me the face of the response, because no one else was willing to face the music.”
Luhnow said his proof of being scapegoated is in his text messages.
“When that interview was over, I received a text message from the other person who had been involved in writing it and crafting out for, ‘Taking one for the team,'" Luhnow said. “I shouldn’t have taken one for the team. I didn’t write that response. It was a horrible response. It never should have happened. But unfortunately, it did.”
“I take my responsibility in it," he added. "I should have stopped it, but that’s not my area of expertise. I was busy preparing for the World Series. There are people in the company, in the legal department, the marketing department, the PR department -- those are the people that are involved in crisis management. And they botched this one big time.”