Saturday, August 13 2022

ATLANTA — Their vision and fingerprints are everywhere you look in this World Series, the architects of Atlanta and the Houston Astros’ organizations.

But you don’t see them.

And you don’t hear about them.

One is in Orlando, estranged from the Atlanta organization, with friends saying he is too depressed to watch the powerhouse he helped build on TV.

The other is in Houston, who still watches the Astros, keeps in occasional contact with members of the club, but can’t bear to see them play in person.

John Coppolella, 42, Atlanta’s former GM, is banned for life from baseball for the illegal signing of 13 international players, and is currently unemployed.

Jeff Luhnow, 54, Houston’s former GM, received a one-year suspension by MLB for his role in the cheating scandal, and was subsequently fired by the Astros. He is eligible to return to baseball, but no one has called.

Four years ago, they were each on top of the world.

Today, they are disgraced GMs, unable to share in their former clubs’ success with the Astros and Atlanta playing in Game 3 of the World Series Friday night (8:09 p.m. ET, Fox) at Truist Field, or even willing to talk about it.

“Coppy was a visionary, and his vision was for this team to be in the World Series in 2021,’’ said former Atlanta scouting director Brian Bridges, now a scout with the San Francisco Giants. “You look at that team, and what they’re doing now, and he’s pretty much responsible except for their trades this summer. This is what he always envisioned. I mean, his whole well-being was to build a winner in Atlanta, and put championship players around Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies.

“But he made a mistake. You try to be creative, you try to push it to the edge, but you can’t be creative outside the rules. You break the rules, and there are consequences. So the game that meant so much to him has been taken away.”

Luhnow perfected analytics, showing the baseball world that if you should intentionally dive to the bottom of the standings, you can have a meteoric rise to the top, and here the Astros are playing in their third World Series in five years.

“His name is not brought up a lot here,’’ Astros pitching coach Brent Strom said, “but this whole thing is Jeff Luhnow. I have very strong feelings for this man. He’s brilliant. When I look at what’s been going on the last eight years that I’ve been here, it’s due to him. He basically got this whole framework put in place.

“If a team wants to win, and is really serious about winning, they should hire this man.”

Teams and fans have forgiven others involved in the Astros’ 2017 cheating scandal. Former manager A.J. Hinch was suspended a year, but is now managing he Detroit Tigers. Former bench coach Alex Cora was also suspended, but returned to the Boston Red Sox as their manager. Outfielder George Springer, one of the stars of that 2017 team, received a $150 million free-agent contract with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow received a one-year suspension by MLB for his role in the cheating scandal.Former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow received a one-year suspension by MLB for his role in the cheating scandal.

Former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow received a one-year suspension by MLB for his role in the cheating scandal.

‘He didn’t know what was going on’

The Astros still are booed wherever they go on the road, with fans incensed that they used illegal video to steal signs, but all that remains are four position players, a pitcher, and Strom. All are gainfully employed without being punished.

Strom, sitting at the end of the Astros bench, where signs were relayed with the pounding of trash cans, remains convinced that Luhnow is innocent, and never should have been suspended.

“He didn’t know (expletive) what was going on down here,’’ Strom told USA TODAY Sports. “He didn’t know. He didn’t get involved in people’s business. Now, should he have known? I don’t know.

“But I knew more about it than he did. I sat right (expletive) there when I heard it. If anybody should have been (expletive) going out, it should have been me, and not him.

“I was on the pitching side of things, and had nothing to do with that side of of the ball, but I was still part of the team.’’

Atlanta’s former GM John Coppolella, left, is banned for life from baseball for the illegal signing of 13 international players.Atlanta’s former GM John Coppolella, left, is banned for life from baseball for the illegal signing of 13 international players.

Atlanta’s former GM John Coppolella, left, is banned for life from baseball for the illegal signing of 13 international players.

Coppolella caught red-handed

It was different with Coppolella. There was no gray area. He was caught red-handed in his dealings. He twice was summoned to the Commissioner’s office, and each time lied about his involvement.

Coppolella resigned on Oct. 2, 2017. Six weeks later, he was banned for life, just like Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose.

Coppolella, a Notre Dame magna cum laude graduate in business management, who trained under John Hart, and landed his dream job in 2015 as Atlanta’s GM, went into a dark depression after his ban. Close friends are worried about his mental health. He moved his family to Orlando, worked for Hart’s property management company, but it since has been bought out, leaving Coppolella unemployed with a wife and three kids.

“His name never comes up around here, the organization seriously abandoned him,’’ said Atlanta third base coach Ron Washington. “But Coppy, I love him. He cared. He had so much baseball wisdom and could see things.

“What he was doing, I think, a lot of people were doing. He got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. And when you get caught, you don’t take your hand out and start pointing fingers. He didn’t throw anyone under the bus.

“He was the fall guy.’’

Washington called Coppolella immediately after he was fired. They talked for30 minutes. They haven’t talked since. Washington tried reaching out several times, but Coppolella’s number has changed.

“I’ve tried to get him to talk live, I really have,’’ Bridges says, “but he’s still tore up about it. He’s a very emotional guy and would just rather not talk. What are you going to do?”

Said Washington: “I knew he’d be depressed. I would be too. When you’re in this business of baseball, and you lose your job before you get a chance to really be, or do what you want to do, that’s what hurts the most.’’

Coppolella was the one who started Atlanta’s rebuild, but refused to trade Freeman or Albies. He traded for ace Max Fried and shortstop Dansby Swanson. He drafted third baseman Austin Riley and pitchers Ian Anderson, A.J. Minter and Mike Soroka.

“He did some pretty good things,’’ Atlanta CEO Terry McGuirk said, “but he crossed the line. I thought I knew him, and it turns out, I didn’t really know him very well. He didn’t report to me, he reported to others.”

“But he can never be faulted for not working hard. And none of the mistakes he made were to his own financial benefit or anything like that.”

Will either get a second chance?

While McGuirk has had no communication with Coppolella, Astros owner Jim Crane, who reached an out-of-court settlement on the salary owed to Luhnow, keeps in occasional touch. Luhnow sent a recent congratulatory text, and Crane responded by reminding Luhnow that his nucleus still is intact.

“It’s a tough situation for him,’’ Crane said. “The other guys are back in action that were involved in that, except for him. He was a big part of this. You got to give him some credit.”

Crane said he believes that Luhnow deserves a second chance, and if somebody calls looking for a GM, or Mets owner Steve Cohen reaches out, Crane would be glad to talk.

“I would tell him what I know,’’ Crane says. “He’s got to make his own decision. But if he did bring him in, it would probably be good for baseball, and be good for Jeff.’’

Lunhow’s impact is clear even to this day. The Astros’ three starting pitchers in this series were all signed and developed in Luhnow’s regime – Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy and Luis Garcia. He drafted All-Star infielders Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman and signed first baseman Yuli Gurriel.

“I mean, it’s undeniable what he did here, and what he built here,” said James Click, who replaced Luhnow as GM “You can’t look at the team they had here and not be amazed at the amount of talent that he accumulated and developed.

“In a lot of ways, I think he changed the game of baseball. He changed the way we develop players in a lot of ways. They were at the forefront of analytics in this organization. They’ve been at the forefront of technology and questioning the status quo, not doing something because it’s always been done that way.”

Luhnow didn’t invent ‘tanking,’ but he took advantage of a system that if you’re not going to win, you’re better off stinking to the high heavens. The Astros lost 324 games in 2011-2013, finishing a combined 127 games out of first place. They reached the postseason in 2015, and the dynasty began in 2017.

If not for Luhnow’s perceived arrogance, where several high-ranking employees say he took all of the credit for everything that worked, and blamed everyone else when it didn’t, he likely would have landed a job by now. He has plenty of professional acquaintances in the industry, but few close friends.

Coppolella, who would drive his peers crazy with late night trade proposals, ridiculing them for rejecting the overtures, also has few friends in the industry. He was well-respected, and admired for his work ethic, but perhaps too boastful about his success.

Coppolella, his friends say, plans to file for reinstatement. He’s desperately hoping that Commissioner Rob Manfred lets him back in the game. George Steinbrenner once received a lifetime ban as Yankees owner, and was back in two years. Maybe, he can convince MLB to forgive him and help get his life back.

“I feel sorry for him, I do,’’ Bridges said. “We all make mistakes, he just made the ultimate one. Now, the poor guy has got to sit back and watch the team he helped create be in the World Series in front of his own eyes.

“I worry about him. We all do.”

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: World Series teams credit former general managers who were banned

Source: Yahoo Sports


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