I never should have read Astroball. First off, sports, bleh. What a waste of time. Second, Ben Reiter is one of several Yalies named Ben with whom I’ve hungout over the years and not the one I hit it off with most. But I confused him with a closer acquaintance and requested an advance copy. By the time I noticed Reiter’s suave smirk on the rear dust jacket, I’d already finished the preface and the prologue (yes, it has both, and yes, you should read both), and I couldn’t have put the book down if I’d tried.
That’s because Astroball is about baseball the way Remember the Titans is about football. Sure, Reiter explains how the Astros went from being the team with the worst track record and prospects in the league to winning the 2017 World Series. But the consummate storyteller uses his unusual level of access to both players and the Astros front office to interweave dramas with much more widespread appeal: How an industry undergoes a revolution. How a parent’s fidelity to their inner compass can transform the course of a child’s life. How peeling back the layers of a professional victory almost always reveals some combination of hustle, skill, and luck, but mostly hustle. How a liability in one context becomes an asset in another. How organizational change done right looks a lot like nation-building. How a supportive romantic partner behaves in a crisis. How human instinct, though repeatedly proven fallible, remains indispensable.
In prose with just the right balance of sobriety and artistry (e.g., “If a pitcher’s arm was the most valuable and fragile asset in baseball, a pitcher’s psyche was second”) and transitions that hum, Reiter introduces his stories’ concepts and characters, sometimes dozens of pages in advance, so that even a reader who gives fewer than two shits about baseball knew Carlos Beltrán from Carlos Correa and locked herself in a bathroom to absorb the blow-by-blow of a playoff game in peace. A game I already knew the winner of. It’s seamless, really, Reiter’s melding of backstory with story to produce a narrative of a magic process that’s magical in its own right.
Take, for example, the following two vignettes about America’s pastime that teach as much about psychology and systems science as sport:
In the cage, Bonds showed Beltrán how he liked to set the pitching machine to top speed, more than 90 miles per hour, and then gradually move closer and closer to it, training himself to react to pitches that arrived quicker than any human could throw them from a mound. Even more useful, to Beltrán, was the way he described his mentality. “Sometimes you’re in an oh-for-ten slump, and you might start to doubt your ability,” Bonds said. “But you have to understand that every time you walk to the plate, the person who is in trouble isn’t you. It’s the pitcher.” A decade later, when Beltrán arrived for his first spring training with the Astros in February 2017, he knew that he appeared to his young teammates as Bonds once had to him. He was at least seven years older than almost all of them, earned 30 times more than some of them, and was by then a nine-time All-Star who had hit 421 home runs. During his first days with the Astros, he approached each one.
Sig Mejdal hated the World Series. He loved it, of course. It was the whole point, the simulated goal when he had spent his boyhood flicking the spinners of All-Star Baseball, the real one as he endlessly tweaked his models during all those late nights above his fraternity brother’s garage. Intellectually, though, he hated it. Baseball wasn’t a game like basketball, in which the best team—the Golden State Warriors, say—could reliably defeat almost any opponent at least 80 percent of the time. Baseball excellence could be judged only over the long term, and yet its annual champion, the club that history would remember, was decided after a series of no more than seven games. Any major league team could beat any opponent four times out of seven. “I wish it was a 162-game series, instead of seven,” Sig said. “But it’s seven. In every game, you have somewhere between a forty-two and fifty-eight percent chance of winning. Which is very close to a fifty percent chance. Which is a coin toss. The World Series is a coin toss competition.”
If you like tight writing on fascinating topics, read Astroball—no interest in sports or analytics required. If you already read Moneyball, trust me, read Astroball too. I’m betting if you do, I won’t be the only new member of Ben Reiter’s fan club.