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Tuesday, October 3rd at 10pm on WGVU Public Television, FRONTLINE presents "The Astros Edge: Triumph and Scandal in Major League Baseball"


Narrated by producer and reporter Ben Reiter, who has covered the team extensively for Sports Illustrated, he goes inside the Astros’ journey from the worst team in baseball to the most dominant club of the era, chronicling how their innovative and hypercompetitive approach — data-driven and drawn from Wall Street and Silicon Valley — took shape and changed the game.

Ben Reiter: It's been almost a decade since I first went down to Houston in 2014, June of 2014, for Sports Illustrated to write that first story about what was then the worst baseball team in 50 years. And yes, people thought that they were only tanking. That's all there was to it. That they were trying to be so bad so that they can get very high draft picks and rebuild that way. And it's not like that wasn't part of it. But what I saw back then, which was... was that they were kind of overhauling the entire philosophy by which a team should be built, injecting data into every single part of their decision-making, whether it was, yes, deciding who to draft, who to cut, who to acquire, but so much more than that as far as how they were developing these players once they acquired them. As far as the strategies they were undertaking to guide their investments into where they're investing in the organization. It was really far beyond Money Ball. And obviously I thought back then that it had a lot of promise, uh, and then it could turn a very bad team into a much better one, which it did among doing other things as well.

Patrick Center: That Money Ball concept, which the Oakland A's brought into Major League Baseball using analytics. How? were the Astros using analytics differently from everybody else?

Ben Reiter: When the A's did it, there was a debate in baseball. You were supposed to define yourself almost, or teams were defining themselves as either an analytics team or a traditional team. You know, either we believe in stats and what the numbers can show us, the human eye can't, or we believe in the way we're doing it all along. The Astros' insight was to say, we believe in both. We're not answering the question one or the other. We are going to use both. We are going to push data analytics much farther than the A's have, or any other teams have. We are going to lean into this to a degree that no other sports organization has yet, but we are not tossing away human observation, human intuition, we're going to systematically combine all sources of information to guide our decision-making and when you're making a decision, you're essentially trying to make an accurate prediction of the future. So, they were trying to use all available sources of information to make better predictions about what would happen in the future, at least better than their rivals. And it's hard to say that in transforming the organization the way they did, they didn't succeed at doing that.

Patrick Center: They turn things around, and they make their way into the playoffs and finally the World Series.

Ben Reiter: Yes, this was a city, Houston, that's a great sports town, has loved the Astros. even when they were the worst baseball team in recent history, they still had the sleeper cell of fans sitting there. But through 56 years, they had not delivered a World Series ring to this great baseball town. In 2017, Patrick started looking like this team that was an absolute laughingstock, not just of baseball, but of the sports world, just a couple years earlier, was ready to potentially do that.

Patrick Center: Clearly, it's a win at all costs approach, but it was all in the up and up until what happens?

Ben Reiter: Well, it wasn't…the timeline gets a little confusing here, right? Because they do win the World Series in 2017. If you'll remember, this is just a couple months after Hurricane Harvey had swept through Houston and absolutely devastated that city. On the heels of this, the Astros bring this wounded town, their first World Series ring. It was almost a fairy tale. Hundreds of thousands in the streets celebrating this. And this is what it seemed like for the next two years until this bombshell report by The Athletic that revealed, thanks in part to the admission of one of the members of that 2017 Astros team, that they had been cheating during that season in which they won the World Series, and they'd been cheating by illegally using technology to steal opposing pitchers' signs. So essentially, they knew what was coming, and they knew that because some of their were sitting behind the dugout next to a trash can and they would bang patterns on the trash can to tell hitters at the plate what pitch was coming. And they knew this because they were stealing the catcher signs off of a video screen they had stationed down there.

Patrick Center: As a baseball fan, this team was loaded then. Was it necessary to go to these lengths? And how much of a difference did it make? I would imagine if you're a batter and you know what's coming, it will help you hit the ball.

Ben Reiter: You would think so. You know, tragedy is a strong word. One of the tough things about this whole story is that we will never know a lot of the answers to these questions. I guess it's a tragedy in a sports sense. Yes, the Astros were absolutely built to be good enough to win a World Series fair and square in 2017. And they could have done that. And there is debate about how much this illegal sign stealing system actually helped them at the plate. By some measures, they were better as hitters on the road than they were at home. And they were only doing this trash can banging scheme at home, although there were other wrinkles we can get into or not. But the fact is they did not need to do this. They could have won anyway. So why did they? That's one of the questions that we really seek to unravel in this documentary. And it has something to do with this organizational culture in which seeking every possible edge you can find took priority over everything else. That certainly seems to have contributed to them going over the edge and crossing the line the way they did.

Patrick Center: All right, talk about the wrinkles. I want to hear those.

Ben Reiter: Well, how much time do you have? Because there is a second sign stealing system the Astros were running in parallel to the trash can thing. The second one was much more in line with what other teams were also illegally doing. They were basically stealing signs off video and then telling the players if they got to second base where they had a clear view of the catcher, they would be able to decipher the catcher signs and alert the pitcher to what was coming. This was happening in parallel to the trash can banging. And I guess one thing that this really points to is that the Astros went further, it seems, than any other team in this line crossing. But this was a very paranoid era in Major League Baseball. Technology had flooded the game. Video screens were everywhere. Most of it was permitted by the league, if not put there by the league, and it wasn't really regulated. So, somebody in our film says, it's like, if you have a kid and you have a cookie jar on the counter and you tell the kid, cookie jar's there, you can only have one, what's the kid gonna do? That's an analogy. This was such an easy thing for players to do to break the rules like this, that it was certainly widespread. There was a great deal of paranoia about it. It's also fair to conclude that the Astros, for a multitude of reasons, went farther than anybody else.

Patrick Center: What does this say about sports and our society?

Ben Reiter: There's a lot of crossover themes here, as there always are in sports. I like to say sports is not just limited to what happens between the lines. It's really a great mirror of and lens through which to see all sorts of things in our society. One of the real stories here though is what happens when you embrace very promising, very powerful technology and kind of jump into this thing headfirst without really being able to handle all of its implications? This is something that happened with the Astros. They're the most technologically advanced team. It's happened something that happened league wide. They were unable to regulate this in a way that kind of protected the institution. If there are resonances between what I'm saying and what we're seeing in society at large with AI and all sorts of other tech right now, that's no coincidence. Another theme is the line between cheating and gamesmanship, right? Like when and why does that line get crossed?

Patrick Center: There's the court of public opinion. I mean, there are people who call this team the Houston Asterix. So, they're paying, they're paying a price within the world of baseball and its fans.

Ben Reiter: Absolutely. You know, I was watching, I ended up being up late watching the Astros v. Mariners game. Of course, these two teams are in a playoff race as we speak anyway. And the biggest cheer of the night, that game I was watching was in Seattle. The biggest cheer of the night happened when the Mariners pitcher drilled Jose Altuve of the Astros on the elbow with a pitch. Like that's how hated the Astros still are league wide. That's how villainous they're still viewed as being. And I think it'll always be that way. In 50 years, we'll look back at this team and connect them with cheating. Now our film does some work to dive into why that is and if it's fair and you know, the answer is yes and no. They certainly did cheat worse than anybody else, but it did come within a certain environment that maybe made it less of an outlier than some people think. And a big reason for it, at least in our estimation, is how accountability for this scheme shook out? How justice was meted out or wasn't. Certain people were held significantly accountable for this, whereas other people who probably had more to do with it, essentially got off without any punishment whatsoever, except for the booing of fans and the occasional being hit by a pitch.

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.