Moving Pictures
Oct 05, 2023, 05:56AM

Winning Fixes Everything

The Astros Edge: Triumph and Scandal in Major League Baseball doesn’t have a lot new to say, although Jeff Luhnow gives his first extended on-camera interview and claims, ludicrously, that he wasn’t aware of the sign-stealing scheme.

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The most fascinating subplot of the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal of the 2010s, was the story of journalist Ben Reiter. Reiter was a longtime features writer for Sports Illustrated. In 2014, he wrote a story for the magazine about the Astros’ intensive tanking campaign, which had a cover declaring the team “Your 2017 World Series Champs.” The tanking worked, the prediction came true, and Reiter even got the year correct of the Astros’ championship.

The reporter embedded further with the team during that title season, leading to Astroball: The New Way to Win It All, which mostly portrayed the Astros’ management as geniuses who’d successfully hacked baseball. The book, published in 2018, was a similar project to Michael Lewis’ Moneyball with the exception that the Astros, unlike Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s, had actually won something. Reiter made himself the official journalist-in-residence of the Astros’ rise.

But in late-2019, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich broke the story that the Astros had employed a sign-stealing system, including using a clubhouse video monitor and banging on trash cans, to cheat their way to the title. Not only did the revelations throw the legitimacy of the 2017 championship into doubt, but it cast a shadow over Reiter’s reporting. With significant access for a long period of time that resulted in multiple magazine articles and a book, he’s completely missed this major part of the story. Even worse, people especially singled out for praise in the book, like then-general manager Jeff Luhnow and veteran player Carlos Beltran, were heavily implicated in the scandal. In the years since, Reiter appears has dedicated his career to re-examining the Astros story and how he got it wrong, first with a podcast called The Edge, and now with a new PBS Frontline documentary, The Astros Edge: Triumph and Scandal in Major League Baseball.

Reiter’s the producer and correspondent of the project, which features video archival footage, plus new interviews of Luhnow, as well as the guy who supervised the video system. Absent are any of the Astros’ players of the time, none of whom are eager to talk about sign-stealing; the players dodging questions right after reporting to spring training has since become an annual ritual.

Commissioner Rob Manfred, who gave immunity to the players, didn’t cooperate with the film either, although Reiter does drag out 85-year-old ex-commissioner Fay Vincent, who declares that he would’ve come down harder. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci also shows up, apparently to show that Reiter remains in SI’s good graces—that is, if that shell of a magazine has any graces left to offer.

It’s a professional production that tells the story pretty straightforwardly, although I would’ve liked it to delve more into what the experience was for Reiter to have a story collapse all around him. The podcast and film have the journalist admitting that he started to suspect a year later—after the Astros traded for accused domestic abuser Roberto Osuna, team executive Brandon Taubman taunted a group of female reporters about Osuna during a series-clinching celebration, and then the team lied about it—that maybe he’d been wrong about these guys after all.

Was Reiter an overly credulous reporter, captured by access to his subjects? Or a victim of bad luck? There’s probably both at play, and not any evidence that Reiter did anything unethical or dishonest. That said, it’s embarrassing to have that much of a public screw-up.

The Astros Edge doesn’t have a lot new to say, although Luhnow gives his first extended on-camera interview and claims, ludicrously, that he wasn’t aware of the sign-stealing scheme. Most of the other people in the scandal, including manager A.J. Hinch, then-coach Alex Cora, and just about every player, were allowed to resume their careers in baseball, but Luhnow wasn’t. (Cora was suspended for a year, and Beltran, slated to be the Mets’ new manager, had to step down.) And the Astros, last year, won the World Series again, presumably without the use of video monitors or trash can.

Drellich, who broke the sign-stealing story, wrote a fantastic book earlier this year, Winning Fixes Everything, that told a more negative tale of the Astros’ rise and fall. Drellich’s book depicted the people in the Astros’ front office, led by Luhnow, as huge assholes, while also reporting that then-Astros coach and now-Red Sox manager Cora got into drunken confrontations with colleagues. The new documentary is fine, but Drellich’s book, more than either Reiter project, should go down as the definitive account of the Astros scandal.


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