At the time, Ben Reiter’s 2014 Sports Illustrated cover story—the now-famous issue with George Springer swinging over the words “YOUR 2017 WORLD SERIES CHAMPS”—seemed like a 5,000-word practical joke devised to sell magazines. Houston had a losing team, no matter what some writer from New York said.
But last November, as Reiter stared down the final moments of Game 7 that clinched the title for Houston, he felt as confident as ever in his gutsy prediction. Then he realized his work was far from over.
“Once Altuve threw to Gurriel,” he remembers, “I figured it was all systems go, and I would have a busy winter on my hands.”
The book-length addendum to that cover story, Astroball: The New Way to Win It All, out this month, is the result of that post-series reporting sprint. Reiter builds on years of unprecedented team access that started half a decade ago, when he set out to write a story “about how the Astros were so ludicrously bad.”
But after sitting in on his first draft meeting, he came to realize the perfect logic employed by Houston’s egghead front office. Rather than grab the top-ranked, top-dollar draft picks, they were going for longshot recruits with promising futures. Soon, what came into focus was the next generation of pioneer Billy Beane’s Moneyball sabermetrics.
As Reiter tells it, Houston’s 2017 win comes courtesy of Sig Mejdal, the team’s ex-NASA number-crunching director of decision sciences, and his “nerd cave” of analysts. Yet their insights only worked, he found, when merged with the experienced eye of the team’s scouts; decisions were based on both algorithms and uniquely human insights, like how long winters in New Jersey can dilute the statistical profile of underrated Garden State recruits.
“A lot of critics say they’re running the team by computer, and that’s just not true,” Reiter says. “The Astros really figured out a way to value both data and the human gut.”
Houston’s biggest x-factor, though, might be the gumption to try something so different. Deep in the extensive Sports Illustrated archives, Reiter acquainted himself with county-judge-turned-Houston-mayor Roy Hofheinz, the “larger-than-life Texas impresario whose vision was the Astrodome” and a baseball team to go along with it. The freewheeling father of the Astros, Reiter found, embodied Houston’s ethos of free enterprise and innovation—one that lived on during “Baseball’s Great Experiment,” the years-long period when the team was so bad, the ratings folks at Nielsen “couldn’t verify that a single Houstonian had tuned in” to certain game broadcasts.
Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, in other words, chose to lose—and lose hard—while he groomed a budget roster for success. Like Hofheinz, he had a singular vision of a new idea that might one day pay off so spectacularly that the ends would justify the means. “The idea was not to never be wrong,” Reiter says of those lean years. “It’s to be right more often.”
Unsurprisingly, parts of the book do get bogged down in, well, inside baseball, but that’s excused by the sections in which Reiter’s deep relationships allow him to delve into the lives of the players and staff. One chapter examines Carlos Correa, the “graceful beast” from Puerto Rico, who lifted his family from a lifetime of labor. Another touches on that cursed hurricane, after which the team spent hours with the thousands of Houstonians huddled inside the George R. Brown Convention Center. “I feel like I owe Houston something, after all they have done for me,” José Altuve said back in early September, well before winning his ring.
We all know what ultimately happened, of course, and Reiter’s book thoroughly dissects the audacious experiment that got us there, along with—of course—the thrilling strokes of luck. As Mejdal reminded the author, once a roster is set, “The rest is hope.”
Reiter reads at Brazos Bookstore on July 10 at 7 p.m.