Building a team of champions

Houston Astros’ Luhnow and Ryan discuss the road to the 2017 World Series victory

Houston Astros General Manager and President of Baseball Operations Jeff Luhnow and President of Business Operations Reid Ryan discussed the team’s road to becoming 2017 World Series champions at a Sept. 5 lecture hosted by Rice University’s Department of Sport Management and Jones Partners, part of Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business.

The Astros' Jeff Luhnow and Reid Ryan.

The Astros’ Jeff Luhnow and Reid Ryan.

Clark Haptonstall, department chair of Sport Management, moderated the panel. He opened by asking what things were like when Luhnow and Ryan arrived at Minute Maid Park (in 2011 and 2013, respectively) following the 2011 sale of the Astros to Jim Crane.

“Empty,” Luhnow said, prompting laughs from the audience.

Luhnow, who is also an adjunct instructor in Rice’s Department of Sport Management, acknowledged that historically, Houston has a great sports tradition. In addition, the Astros celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2012 and everyone had great memories of the 2005 World Series (which the Astros lost to the Chicago White Sox). However, despite the potential of the team, its stadium and the Houston sports market, Luhnow said times were a bit bleak. There weren’t a lot of resources reinvested in the team, the results on the field had been terrible and the Astros’ minor league system was ranked as one of the worst in baseball.

It wasn’t a great starting point, he said.

“We knew all along that we were going to have to make some changes, we were going to have to transform the organization both on the business side as well as the baseball side,” Luhnow said. “And we knew it wasn’t going to be a one- or two-year phase.”

From left: Jeff Luhnow, Reid Ryan and Clark Haptonstall.

From left: Jeff Luhnow, Reid Ryan and Clark Haptonstall.

Transformation came through getting the right staff in place and developing “interesting and novel ways” to combine the latest technology and human expertise to make the best possible player and coaching decisions. Things were rocky for a few years, but momentum began to build. Sports Illustrated predicted in its June 30, 2014, issue that the Houston Astros would be the 2017 World Series champions due to their efforts to transform the organization.

Ryan said he thought it was a great move on the part of Sports Illustrated and gave the Astros credibility, something they were fighting for and desperately needed at the time.

“This was validation that our plan was working,” Ryan said.

The Astros made it to the playoffs in 2015, falling to the Kansas City Royals in the American League Division Series. The Royals went on to win the World Series that year.

In 2017, during the season that would end with the Astros’ first World Series championship, Houston was hit by one of the worst hurricanes in U.S. history. It was amid the flurry of planning before and after the storm — protecting the stadium, figuring out where the team would play following the storm and efforts to help the city — that the Astros became a team of destiny, Luhnow and Ryan said.

“After the month of August and wanting to give the city some hope and something to think about other than the devastation, (the team) got out in the community and did everything they could to help and just started playing better baseball,” Luhnow said.

“The team realized they were playing for more than themselves at that point,” Ryan added.

A few days after Hurricane Harvey hit, the Astros bolstered their roster by acquiring Justin Verlander, the longtime Detroit Tigers pitcher, in a trade. The decision came down to the wire, with details finalized with only seconds to spare before the trade deadline.

The Astros went on to win it all, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 of the World Series on Nov. 1, 2017.

Ryan said that while there is “nothing better” than playoff baseball and he enjoyed every moment as a fan during the 2017 season, he has had his heart broken many times, including in 2011 when the Texas Rangers fell to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series when they were only one out away from victory (Ryan’s father, Nolan Ryan, was CEO of the Rangers at the time). As a result, he said he did not celebrate until after the final play of Game 7.

“I did not breathe easy until (Astros second baseman Jose) Altuve threw that ball to (first baseman Yuli) Gurriel and he jumped up in the air — it was just an incredible feeling,” Ryan said.

“I lost a lot of stomach lining (during the postseason),” Luhnow added, drawing more laughs from the audience.

Now, the Astros organization is focused on continuing its 2017 success and appealing to new fans, particularly ones outside the United States. In May 2019, the Astros will play the Los Angeles Angels in Monterrey, Mexico.

“We have a very healthy game right now, but we have to grow this game to new fan bases,” Ryan added.

The talk concluded with Luhnow and Ryan discussing one of their most popular gameday giveaways — a replica of the 2017 World Series ring. The Astros have had five ring giveaways this season and will have a sixth Sept. 23.

“It’s been a huge success,” Haptonstall told Luhnow and Ryan as the event drew to a close. “It’s one of the best promotions I’ve seen.”

“I hope we get to do it again next year,” Luhnow said, prompting laughter and applause.

For more information on Rice’s Department of Sport Management, visit For more information on the Jones Partners, visit

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.