The Houston Astros confirmed those brewing reports about friction between general manager Jeff Luhnow and Bo Porter in the most outward way imaginable.
On Labor Day, they sent Porter to the unemployment line, making him Houston's third late-season managerial canning in five years. And if they keep this up, they might just reach a Cleveland Browns-like pace of leadership change.
(Make no mistake: This is not an easy level to reach. The Browns have changed head coaches so frequently that even they can't keep up. As of Monday afternoon, the "All Time Head Coaches" page on their official team web site still listed Rob Chudzinski as the guy in charge, even though he was fired and replaced by Mike Pettine nine months ago.)
Of course, there are nuances within that narrative. Cecil Cooper's short reign preceded Luhnow's arrival, as did Brad Mills' hiring. Mills was a marked man the minute Luhnow and his army of numbers-crunchers arrived in late 2011, and Porter was the guy brought in to replace him, the guy Luhnow touted less than two years ago as capable of shortening the bridge between lost seasons and contending ones.
So, what happened?
Well, reality happened. And the reality about Major League Baseball in 2014 is that managers, like Cleveland Browns coaches, are remarkably interchangeable and hardly ever autonomous.
Indeed, the modern-day manager is part of a partnership, and his job is as at least as much akin to White House press secretary as it is reminiscent of the work of Earl Weaver, probably more so. The manager must keep a constant message to the media, and he must direct and empower and encourage the various facets of the traveling sect -- the players, medical staff, clubhouse staff and coaching staff -- in concert with the input of the numbers-crunchers upstairs.
General managers, more than ever before, are the faces of these franchises. And while most of them stop short of wanting a puppet in the dugout, they do want somebody who's going to be open to new ideas, adaptable to big data, embracing of the big picture and communicative to the clubhouse.
This is the primary reason why we've seen such a slew of first-time managers -- and by that, I mean first-time managers at any professional level -- put in the hot seat in recent years. Mike Matheny, Matt Williams, Brad Ausmus, Walt Weiss, Bryan Price, Robin Ventura. It's easier to mold a manager in a prescribed image when he's yet to truly form his own. And the minute that relationship between GM and manager is soured is the minute the manager might want to consider updating his résumé, because today's game is increasingly subject to the analytics and input churned out by the front offices.
For better or worse, that might be more accurate in Houston than anywhere.
People will say that what happened Monday was unfair to Porter, and they're absolutely correct. You can't win with a losing hand, and the Astros, famously, have deliberately dealt themselves one in recent seasons, working with bare-bones payrolls and largely relying on young and inexperienced talent. Even if a .500 record was something of an inter-organizational goal in 2014, it wasn't an especially realistic one, not even at a time when competitive parity is all the rage on the Major League stage. If you've watched the Astros play lately, you actually might have walked away impressed with the effort and enthusiasm level for a club some 20 games under .500, and you'd see enough coalescing talent -- Jose Altuve, George Springer, Jonathan Singleton, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh -- to imagine a friskier future.
Really, though, Porter's dismissal wasn't about record, it wasn't about effort and I don't think it was even about the development strides (or lack thereof) shown at the big league level. It was all about the state of communication and cooperation between the GM's office and the dugout.
Clearly, relations had been frayed in both areas. Reportedly, Luhnow and Porter clashed on many things, not the least of which was the front office's recent decision to have struggling prospect Mark Appel throw a bullpen session for big league pitching coach Brent Strom at Minute Maid Park -- an arrangement that angered several current Astros. Porter was apparently not given proper notice, and he, too, seethed behind the scenes.
If, for owner Jim Crane, this ultimately did come down to a choice between Porter and Luhnow, it was obvious all along who would win that particular battle. This hasn't exactly been a banner year for the Astros front office, what with the Brady Aiken signing snafu and the leaked internal trade discussions. But changing managers is like changing the tires on your car, whereas changing general managers -- especially this deep into a comprehensive organizational overhaul -- is a total engine rebuild, one the Astros ("Your 2017 World Series champs!" per Sports Illustrated) do not yet seem to need.
Whoever permanently replaces Porter will have to be understanding of the unorthodox environment he's stepping into. Even at a time when the defensive shift is all the rage in MLB, the Astros shift like it's nobody's business (a Major League-leading 1,204 shifts through Sunday, with the next-closest club, the Yankees, ringing in at 687). They use a "modified tandem" strategy with their starters in the minors, a tact that will undoubtedly impact the big league transition for those arms, one way or another. Beyond that, Luhnow relies heavily on input from his "director of decision sciences," Sig Mejdal, a former NASA bio-mathematician, and, by all accounts, the Astros' front office seems to have more than the usual amount of input and inquiry with regard to day-to-day strategizing -- lineup construction, bullpen usage, etc.
It will take a special, forward-thinking, understanding soul to mesh with that mindset. But the Astros will find plenty of potential candidates (Craig Biggio, anybody?), because the gig is ultimately alluring, and the Major League manager, with a few rare exceptions (Mike Scioscia, Buck Showalter and Terry Francona among them) is not the outsized personality he once was.
In Houston, that's particularly important, because the manner of building this ball club is particularly unusual. Porter didn't get fired because he lost too many games. He got fired because there was a rupture in the cohesion that has become elemental at this level. Ultimately, the former University of Iowa defensive back's football-type mentality and intensity didn't play with Luhnow and Co.
Maybe the Browns will come calling.