Dusty Baker, James Click, and Jim Crane’s cruel efficiency

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Jeff Luhnow might not be with the Astros any longer, and hasn’t been for a few years, but the culture he fostered certainly still exists in some form. No, no, I’m not talking about the cheating scandal — you can put down those pitchforks and alt accounts, Astros fans — but instead the central conceit of the Luhnow-era team: everyone and everything is a tool to be used until it can be thrown away. The fast-acting poison that is McKinsey’s obsession with efficiency and dehumanization has not vanished from Houston, just because the man who introduced it has.

Dusty Baker was in the final year of his contract as the Astros’ manager. He brought them to the World Series and won it, the head of a seemingly unstoppable machine that worked double duty as not just the field general, but also the public relations wing of the club. Baker took over for the temporarily disgraced A.J. Hinch after the trash can banging sign-stealing system came to light, with the idea being that Baker was a beloved figure who knew the assignment, and could keep people from hating on an Astros team whose punishment from the league basically boiled down to, “fans are going to boo you and you’ll just have to deal with that.” We somehow got into the Astros as an underdog fighting from underneath, claiming mission accomplished on a redemption story that seems pretty non-canon, but you can thank Baker’s presence for that, as well as what acceptance of it as fact exists. He took on an impossible job, because it was his ticket back into an MLB that seemingly had lost interest in him, and he crushed it.

He was hired not just because he was the man for the job, but also because Crane’s Astros knew there would be, unfairly or not, a desperation there to take the gig even with the caveats attached to it, because that might be it for Baker’s chances to get back into the game. He was signed to a one-year deal, and has since signed subsequent one-year pacts, the third of those coming days after successfully winning the World Series and convincing a not-insignificant chunk of MLB media to be in their corner, championing the rise of a potential dynasty. You could say, hey, maybe this is how Baker wants things to be, but that’s unlikely, given that he was not the lone authority figure in the organization to be treated in a lame duck fashion despite success.

Baker’s general manager, James Click, was also offered a one-year deal. He was then fired by Crane for being vocally unhappy with his situation at the annual GM meetings. You’ve already seen plenty of Astros fans around claiming this was Luhnow’s team, anyway, and Click simply inherited it, so he should have taken the one-year deal and shut up, or who cares, another GM will come along and do just as well in the role, anyway, since there’s such a strong base to work off of. The Astros really are ruthlessly efficient in every way: even the fans are fully convinced their every move is the right one, and justifiable, too. And in a cold business sense, they are, but who wants to view people as disposable? It’s bad enough when it’s the players, but at least they have union protections. Managers and front office people are entirely at the whims of the owners and the executives above them, with no recourse to be found, left with just the hope that there will be a job for them elsewhere they can land among the very few available spots around the league.

We know Crane is an asshole. That’s not in question even a little bit: it’s enough of an established fact that even the famously neutral Ken Rosenthal made a note about how Crane is literally a war profiteer while writing about Click’s situation:

Many rival fans to this day remain upset that Manfred did not penalize the Astros’ players, who were granted immunity in exchange for their honest testimony. Manfred ordered the team to pay a $5 million fine and forfeit their first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021. But he essentially exonerated Crane, as if the owner had nothing to do with the culture Luhnow created, the relentless quest for efficiency, the obsessive search for an edge.

Crane’s history also includes war profiteering and discrimination cases that were filed against his air-freight logistics business, resulting in multiple settlements. Many fans tend to overlook such things; Mets fans love Steve Cohen, even though a firm he owned pleaded guilty to insider trading and paid $1.8 billion in fines, and a former employee filed a gender discrimination suit against him.

Rosenthal is correct here: this idea that Crane had nothing to do with the culture Luhnow fostered is entirely off-base. He wanted the team to run like that, which is why Luhnow was hired, which is why the Astros engaged in the degree of cheating that they did: whatever it took to gain an advantage, an edge, a dub. Crane not getting in trouble for any of it — and the investigation going the way it did, as under-the-rug as possible — has more to do with his being commissioner Rob Manfred’s boss than it does his being innocent or not responsible for what went on. Luhnow is gone, and sure, there was no Brandon Taubman situation during Click’s short-lived regime, but it’s clear with the short-term deals handed out to any authority figure that this remains Crane’s club built with the vision he shared with his disgraced former GM, and it will run exactly as he wants it to in the years after him. Ruthlessly efficient, and through fear of loss. There is no assumption that there will be time to fix mistakes, only a leash without slack that tells you what the boss thinks of failure. Given that, Click might be unemployed now, but he’s arguably better off not working in Houston in the long run.

Crane can run his club however he wants: he’s one of the 30 lords of Major League Baseball, a baron with lands and people to rule over. Surely Crane will find more people who think working for him is worth the risk, especially since, despite the immense pressure he generates while looming over his underlings, Baker and Click are now both World Series winners, their résumés more impressive than they were a year ago. None of that means we have to just nod and say it’s the right way to treat people, however: who is to say that Baker and Click found success because of, rather than in spite of, how they were treated by Crane in negotiations and with contract expirations looming? Baseball is a business, though, and business is cruel. Therefore, baseball is cruel, and that’s not going to change, not when the cruel find so much success within it.

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