Houston’s heart has been broken by corporate scandal twice just twenty years in the 21st Century, once last week by the Houston Astros and in 2001 by the Enron Corporation. If you felt no grief for Enron, then you didn’t know personally any of the people who worked there. They were engineers, clerks, and HR folks like you would find at any other company around Houston. They stood out as innovative, productive employees and good citizens. Most of them had the reputation of being smart, generous and kind.There were only a few bad apples and they worked at the top of the chart.
Our hearts were broken again by our Astros. The sign stealing scandal has forever stained our memories of the beautiful gift of a World Series championship for a city that had suffered a Category 4 hurricane and catastrophic floods in August of that year. It was the year of Harvey and this was a team that brought joy to a hurting city. They were beautiful to watch on the field. They played with excellence and they behaved like the nicest kids you would ever know.
At least we thought so.
There is, I think, a revealing irony in the fact that the Houston Astros played their first home game in the 2000 season on April 7, 2000 in their new downtown ballpark named (for a price, of course) Enron Field.
The Enron Corporation was the pride of Houston. They were innovators and they were particularly adept at putting information to work for buying and selling energy at a profit. The sky seemed to be the limit for the company. They were disruptors before it became fashionable. The Houston Astros baseball club was excited to have the Enron name on its new park.
Enron’s Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and Andy Fastow were the toast of the town. Everyone loved the Enron guys. They knew how to make money. Wherever they went, they were regarded as the smartest guys in the room.
They gave a lot of money away and they became regular heroes on the arts and charity circuit in Houston. Of course they kept a lot of it, too, sometimes by hiding it off the balance sheet in cleverly named enterprises that magically converted debt into profit.
Their accounting innovations were so slick that Jeff Skilling (COO) and Andrew Fastow (CFO) did jail time. They took the company down in 2006 along with their auditors, the once esteemed Arthur Andersen.
The rest of us got the Sarbanes-Oxley Act which, among other things, made audits too expensive for most local nonprofits.
Enron had agreed to pay the Houston Astros $100 million over 30 years for the naming rights. By 2002, Enron had filed for bankruptcy and the Astros were anxious to get out of the agreement. The Astros filed for a friendly divorce and refunded Enron $2.1 million that they had received for that year in order to pull the crooked E off the stadium we now know as Minute Maid Park or, more lovingly, the Juice Box.
In spite of the split, the Astros must have learned a few things from Enron during happier handholding days.
Or maybe it was just a part of the culture of boomtown Houston. Enron had learned how to increase profits by controlling the electrical grid with computers located in the Enron Building. By causing brownouts in California, they could drive the price of their products up. FREE MONEY for the smartest guys in the room.
It apparently wasn’t lost on the ‘Stros, even though they were anxious to get the name off the stadium. The new owner, Jim Crane, hired Jeff Luhnow as general manager in 2011. He taught the team the art of tanking. Three cataclysmic losing seasons followed his hiring along with the resulting great positioning in the draft which produced contracts with George Springer and Carlos Correa. By 2015 they had added Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker.
It was sort of like causing power outages to drive the price of energy up, a skill they could have picked up at Enron.
Of course owner Jim Crane and GM Jeff Luhnow never worked for Enron but the business model became a part of Houston’s culture and the Astros became leaders in baseball analytics, the use of data to improve performance and give you an edge over the poor lummoxes who did pushups, shagged fungo flies, and ran in the outfield to try to get better. And by 2017, 2018 and 2019, the Astros were winning over 100 games instead of losing a hundred games.
The city and country were going wild about the Astros with the team’s two World Series appearances and the 2017 championship. If the steroids era brought shame on the game, these Astros had been rebuilt with brilliant management, some great draft choices, exciting smart players and friendly faces like those of A. J. Hinch, Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran.
But, alas, Major League Baseball had quietly begun an investigation of the Astros. Word was getting around the league that the players were taking management’s technology-assisted, data-driven approach onto the field. To the younger players at least, it must have seemed like an extension of management’s efforts to use technology and information to improve performance. After all, they spent hours watching video of opposing players as they tried to detect tip offs they could use on the field.
But there was a clear difference between using publicly available video and setting up a secret camera in center field to read catcher signs. And they knew it.
Major League Baseball did not punish any of the players involved. Maybe there were so many that the Astros would be unable to field a team. But their record will always show that they were members of the 2017-19 Houston Astros and they will suffer with that as a mark of dishonor. Be it just or unjust, that is the reality they must live with from now on.
We will soon start another spring training. The 2020 season will be a year of redemption for our golden team. It will be the year to remove the tarnish by proving themselves able to play the game with excellence, joy and honor. Maybe even win again.
For a long time now, the world will be seeing our team as the Enron Astros. That breaks my heart.
But redemption comes with repentance. As a fan, I want them to show us what they can do when they follow the rules of the game. I want no trophies or parades otherwise. But wouldn’t it be sweet if they brought us another championship doing everything right?