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New Documentary Probes The Cheating Scandal That Rocked Baseball Fans Everywhere

A new Frontline film, ‘The Astros Edge,’ explains how and why the 2017 World Series-winning team finally got caught.

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A good documentary will take events that most viewers know and chronicle them in a new light. A new Frontline film does just that, peeling back the layers of a basic story most Americans have heard — the Houston Astros stole signs during their 2017 World Series-winning season — in a way that allows viewers to understand the culture that led to the cheating.

Some might reasonably wonder how a team managed to engage in systemic cheating without anyone finding out. But as “The Astros Edge” explains, the more appropriate question might ask how and why they finally got caught.

Technological Edge

The film, reported by the same writer (Ben Reiter) who correctly predicted in a now-prescient-but-then-controversial May 2014 Sports Illustrated cover story that the Astros would win the 2017 World Series, spends roughly the first half of its 90 minutes focusing on the events that preceded the scandalous season. It tells the story of how a franchise that had become a baseball laughingstock did an about-face that allowed it to become a champion — albeit one that tarnished its own reputation in the process.

Upon taking control of the Astros in 2011, owner Jim Crane handed General Manager Jeff Luhnow the keys to the franchise. Luhnow proceeded first to “tank.” He got rid of old and/or expensive players and made no pretense of fielding a competitive team — at least in the short term. Instead, Luhnow focused on stockpiling draft picks to build the team of the future.

To build and manage his new team, Luhnow turned to technology, taking the Oakland A’s “Moneyball” strategy of the 2000s to the next level. A heavy focus on analytics, from hiring data geeks as front-office employees to using cameras to analyze players’ batting and pitching techniques, attempted to replace the traditional role of evaluating talent — the proverbial “eye test” — utilized by scouts and managers. The results from things like shifting fielders resulted in more efficient baseball but also eliminated some of the joy from the game.

Culture of Silence

Of course, technology also took the joy out of the game once the Astros’ cheating was finally exposed, angering baseball fans around the country. The documentary highlights how the Astros tried to push boundaries to obtain a competitive advantage, for instance by signing pitcher Roberto Osuna even as he served a suspension for alleged domestic violence.

That same mentality led to the sign-stealing system. “The Astros Edge” features the first public interview with Antonio Padilla, who at the time served as a video manager for the Astros. Two months into the season, he installed the video monitor by the team dugout that players eventually used to discover the opposing pitcher’s signs and transmit that information (via drum bangs and other loud noises) to their teammates in the batter’s box.

Padilla said that once he figured out what the players were using the monitor for, “it was definitely something that’s kind of on your conscience … so you start to feel more guilty about that.” But the film also explained that Padilla and his co-workers had reasons to keep silent — lots of them, in fact.

In a little-known part of baseball, team employees can qualify for a “share” — a portion of the team’s earnings from its postseason appearances. In 2017, when Houston won its first World Series, Padilla received a full “share” of the Astros’ earnings. The sum came to a staggering $450,000 — this for an employee earning $45,000 per year.

As the documentary noted, the sums involved amounted to Astros employees winning the lottery, which makes it less surprising that it took two years for the cheating scandal to become public. If someone gave you 10 times your salary in part because you keep their wrongdoing a secret, would you? I sure hope I would do the right thing, but I certainly understand the temptation.

Quantitative Arms Race

“The Astros Edge” highlights a modern morality play, in which technology places the old Olympic motto of “Faster — Higher — Stronger” to the test. Teams increasingly attempt to use computing power as much as muscle power to build the ultimate “superteam.” But the threat of crossing the line — from searching for an edge to stepping over the edge, and losing one’s integrity in the process — looms as large as ever.

It seems somehow fitting that the Astros scandal first emerged in 2019, a century after the Chicago “Black Sox” threw the World Series as part of a gambling conspiracy. The mechanics that undermine the integrity of sport — and the integrity of us as humans — may have changed, but the temptation never does.

The Astros Edge” will re-air on PBS stations (check your local listings) or is available via the PBS app.


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