Sports Illustrated writer discusses prophetic Astros cover story
In Major League Baseball, 100 single-season losses is perhaps the most highly dreaded milestone a team can possibly accomplish.
Reaching century-mark losses is typically the result of years of mismanagement across an entire organization, and recovering from such depths — especially to championship form — in any reasonable amount of time is a nearly impossible task.
The Houston Astros earned their title as the MLB’s laughing stock by failing to field competitive teams — sometimes intentionally — for more than a decade, including consecutive seasons from 2011 to 2013 with 106, 107 and 111 losses, respectively.
This, however, failed to stop Ben Reiter from publishing a Sports Illustrated cover story with one of the most outlandish sports predictions of all time. His June 30, 2014, cover story declared the Astros “Baseball’s Great Experiment” and proceeded to crown them “Your 2017 World Series Champs.”
What was once a pipe dream is now inching ever closer to becoming a reality. We caught up with Reiter to learn more about his curiously psychic ways.
The Cougar: The circumstances surrounding the Astros when your story was published were less than favorable. Even die-hard fans of the team likely struggled to buy what you were selling. What made you go forth with the prediction, and why was 2017 the year you thought it could happen?
Ben Reiter: Well, the idea came about because we started wondering: What on earth is happening down in Houston? They were so bad for so long. You go back and look at the line-by-line record – three seasons in a row losing more than 105 games, like that rarely happens. We wanted to find out what was going so terribly wrong down there, and what’re they trying to do about it?
As far as choosing 2017, it was just kind of sounding like it lined up with the team’s own internal timeline. But we essentially just looked at the ages and contracts of the players and it seemed like this would be the year; this would be the season it all came together. We actually thought we were a bit overly conservative when they made the playoffs in 2015, but obviously this is the strongest team they’ve had.
The Cougar: As far as front offices of sports franchises are concerned, professional baseball is typically regarded as having the most complex operations. The Astros take the complexity to another level with their implementation of analytics, which many fans don’t even attempt to understand. With that said, you were taking on a huge task in trying to document Houston’s massive rebuild. How did you approach this magnitude of a project?
Reiter: It took about a year of talking with (Astros’ management) off and on — not straight, just kind of floating the idea out to them that we wanted to do a deep dive into what they were doing down there. It was all kind of about when we were going to be able to get in there with them. We couldn’t do the story without their cooperation, at least in this case. The draft was coming up, and they had the first pick of the first round for the third straight year, so I asked about the idea of being a fly on the wall in the draft meetings and at the draft — all while being completely unobtrusive.
I think it took them a few days to decide if they were actually going to let me do this, because it’s not a normal thing for a baseball team to let you do. When they said they would allow us access, we knew we were going to have a story just based on that access. Then I went down to Houston and spent two or three days talking with everybody I could find, from the players to the front office guys. But I think what really brought this thing alive was that “in the moment” access to their internal processes.
We came away from it thinking that these guys were on to something, honestly. Everything they were saying was making sense.
The Cougar: Sports — especially sports media — is an industry driven by predictions and forecasts. At the time, your take was bold, to say the least. What was the overall reaction you received once your story was published? How often, if at all, did it cross your mind that you might actually end up being correct?
BR: This was the opposite of a hot take. I filed the story at 6000 words. It wasn’t something we were just throwing out there without having deeply considered and having at least what we thought was a deep understanding of what this team might look like in 2017.
I definitely didn’t forget about it. Now I’ve written, I think, 20 cover stories for Sports Illustrated, and this one by far made the biggest impression. From the moment it came out, it made an immediate impact in the sports world.
If you remember, people were actually really angry about it — fans and other people in sports media because a lot of them were really turned off by what the Astros were doing. They thought they were kind of violating the social contract of sports, which suggests you’re supposed to try your hardest to win no matter what, which they were not doing at the time. They also just thought it was a ridiculous prediction for a team that was as bad as any team could be, could then three years later win the World Series. But three years in baseball is a lot longer than you think. A lot can happen in baseball in three years.
The Cougar: You mentioned that in the beginning, you, like many baseball fans, were perplexed by what the Astros were trying to do. Through the seemingly unprecedented access that you were granted, you were able to learn and gain an understanding of the master plan that was unfolding. In this learning process, what fact or piece of information surprised you the most?
Reiter: A lot of the people in the front office didn’t have the best reputations in baseball circles. They were getting a lot of criticism for just being like, I don’t know, calculators with eyes or something. Just baseball robots who didn’t have any hearts, didn’t care about people. Just things like that.
What I was most surprised by is that these guys actually care very much about the people they’re working with and each other. They have a wide range of interests. They’re just very smart people who happen to be going about something in a different way, which isn’t traditional in baseball, because it’s not an easy thing to do and certainly not an easy thing to be accepted for doing.
They didn’t make one decision to keep up present appearances at the cost of future successes. They were certainly confident. Some people viewed them as arrogant, but I think confident is the more proper way to put it.
The Cougar: It’s been more than three years since your prediction, but it’s never had a better chance of being correct than it does right now. So after making it to this point, will there be any level of disappointment if the Astros can’t win it all?
Reiter: I’m Zen about it. In all honesty, we haven’t had anything to do with it. All credit goes to the Astros — the players in particular. I’m just sitting back and covering the ride as it is. Whatever happens, happens. One thing I regret is not going to Vegas and putting money on it, because it would’ve turned out to be a pretty profitable deal.