What drives progress? An insatiable determination to push boundaries, defy expectations and create something new, or making something existing better. Human beings are hard wired to do this; if not, we'd still be living in caves in Africa. We've always asked about what's in the next valley, what's over that ridge, and that is part of how we as a species have gone to the top of the food chain.
Our hunger to explore, push forward and cross boundaries is what has made us successful. That innate desire is manifested into different forms in the 21st century world, and in a sports context, that can be seen in explosion of analytics and new thinking into roster construction and evaluation. Perhaps no team has embodied that more than the Houston Astros, who went all in on analytics, new thinking, innovation and an "us against the world" mentality like no other. It has taken them from doormat to World Series champion and one of the best teams in the sport. But that has come with a cost.
Not only have they made enemies in the sport thanks to their approach and their attitude concerning it, but also because in that culture, they seem to lack something critical: empathy. The actions of their AGM Brandon Taubman, the subsequent defending of his actions and the sudden reversal of their stance only three days later by firing him unceremoniously on a World Series off day, has brought to light not just questions about the Astros culture, but the culture of modern sports and beyond: have we lost the human element?
There was no doubt that Taubman's actions, and subsequent lying about them, merited his firing. But, even in his guilt, he was enabled by those above him who will skate on, with nary a consequence other than some egg in their face. They created an environment in which concerns about the human condition are secondary at best. Trading for Roberto Osuna in the first place, in the middle of a 75 game suspension for domestic violence, was a mistake but one that in the Astros culture was never perceived as one. Osuna was an asset that the Astros could buy low on and use in their ultimate pursuit: winning. Whatever the costs were in this acquisition, they were viewed solely from a transactional context, not a human one. If he could get a few strikeouts and help Houston win, no one would remember, or bring up, that he may have committed a felonious offense.
If anyone brought up that the Astros were, as an organization, incapable of understanding human beings as human beings rather than just assets, or pawns on a chess board, they'd symbolically point to the rings and banners at Minute Maid Park as a defense. What does it matter that we're not "people person(s)" if we're winning? As it turned out, such a culture breeds contempt, defensiveness and a stunning lack of empathy, all borne out not just in Brandon Taubman's callous comments towards a group of female reporters, but the organization's even more callous and shallow response. The Astros were in this together, in this foxhole, fighting against the rest of baseball. More often not, they won. Except here, they were catastrophically defeated.
Tim Kurkjian has been talking about baseball's lack of feel for people in recent years as the league has gone more knee deep in numbers, information and innovation. For all of the transactions, numbers and information, baseball is still one human being with a bat in his hand at a time against nine other human beings trying to hit a ball, with the key there being human beings. As much as viewing sports from a transactional, asset management perspective has invigorated discussion about these sports, they have sucked away too much of what makes sports so unique in the human experience: human beings and their stories. With Taubman, Luhnow and Crane, there was never a concern about other human beings and their reaction to acquiring Roberto Osuna, and then using him as a shield to defend the organization from their own self-inflicted wounds. The only concerns were winning, but not just that, winning in their way.
Sports teams exist to win, of course. Some do find a way to re-invent the wheel and win "their way". But at what point does that mindset cost too much from a human perspective? At what point can the human cost no longer be ignored? When do people become empowered in this or any other sport not for their intellect, scouting acumen or innovative ideas, but for their empathy? Their understanding of someone else and ability to make them feel comfortable, to be their best selves? And as baseball has to deal with the fallout from the Tyler Skaggs situation with the Angels, a situation very different yet eerily similar to the one in Houston, one has to wonder whether that empathy that made this sport, and so many sports so inter-connected with our culture, our identity and our psyche, is where it needs to be,
One Astros player said this week, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan, "forget about the a-holes in the front office. This is about us". There may be no quote more apt in vividly describing this situation, and so many others in sports, than that. For all of the information, the knowledge, innovation and ideas percolating in player acquisition and evaluation brought over from business, science and elsewhere, sports are still human beings playing games.
Too often, we forget that. And when we do forget that, do we have the ability to see situations like the one Houston coming? And if we do, do we have the tools to prevent them from happening again?