ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The rain has finally ceased in Houston. The flood waters have begun to recede, though plenty remains behind. The sun has even made an appearance, as Harvey moves inland to wreak havoc on other parts of the South. But so much remains to be dealt with, and a rebuilding project of a scope no one can fathom has yet to begin.
What is certain is this: The Houston Astros are going home, and they can’t wait to help however they can. The first game is Saturday, and it’ll be one of the most anticipated sporting events in recent Houston history.
“I know they’re donating a lot of tickets, and I think people want to come,” infielder Alex Bregman said. “I think the city is going to show up, and we’re going to put on a good show for them.”
The collective consternation is not over for the Astros. After all, like all those who aren’t from the region, they have had to watch the terrible events through the media. Those with families and friends back in Texas have had to rely on cell phones to try to soothe the anxieties of their loved ones. It’s a helpless feeling, one they are glad to put behind them. The hospitality at Tropicana Field, where the Astros’ series with the Rangers was moved, was much appreciated, but it’s time to go.
“More than anything, it’s good for us to get home, first and foremost,” pitcher Collin McHugh said. “We’re looking forward to getting home, seeing the community, helping out with our houses and doing what we can to help out where we can.”
On the field, Houston wrapped up a three-game series against the rival Texas Rangers with an early game on Thursday. The Astros salvaged the finale 5-1. From a baseball standpoint, it was the most entertaining game of the series, if only because of the bottom of the first.
In that inning, with the Astros down 1-0, George Springer stroked a single to start things. With Springer running on a 3-2 pitch, No. 2 hitter Bregman swung and missed at an offering from Texas’ Nick Martinez. Bregman lost his balance in the process and stumbled in front of catcher Brett Nicholas, who threw past Bregman to second base. Springer slid in safely, but he was ruled out on interference.
Houston manager A.J. Hinch, a catcher in his playing days, was having none of it and went onto the field to discuss the matter with plate umpire Chris Segal. It really wasn’t that heated, but the debate dragged until famously grouchy Joe West, the crew chief who was arbitrating matters at second base, walked in and threw Hinch out of the game, Hinch’s first ejection all season. Two pitches later, Jose Altuve launched a soaring homer to left that rattled around the Trop’s roof and dropped out of an outer catwalk.
Hinch then watched the rest of the game from his office in the clubhouse, during which he was able to call newly acquired outfielder Cameron Maybin and welcome him to the Astros. The day was a nice opportunity for Hinch, who has been as emotional as anyone in the clubhouse over the events in Houston, to just be a baseball manager. On Thursday, he got to play the part of angry manager.
“I’ve been in the game for a long time to be thrown out by a guy who wasn’t even in the argument,” Hinch said. “I understand he’s protecting the younger umpire, but there was really no business for Joe to be involved in the argument.”
All through the series, the Astros have reminded us all that baseball is secondary at times like this. It’s a distraction, an escape. It’s a worthy contribution, but still, a secondary one. Beginning Thursday night, when they finally land in Houston, they will see what has happened with their homes and neighborhoods. On Friday, if not before, they’ll start to pitch in with recovery efforts. And it won’t just be about this weekend. It’s something that will be going on for a long time.
“Overwhelming, when you really think about it,” Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel said at the outset of the series. “We’re the fourth-biggest city in the country, when you think about the population and think about the suburbs — Corpus Christi, which is close to home for me, I played for the [Double-A] Hooks — just everything is associated with it. The winds, the flooding, the people I’ve come to know the last six, seven years, just trying to make sure everything is safe. It’s a whole phone book full of contacts I’ve reached out to.”
The Astros last played at home on Aug. 24, a 5-4 loss to the Washington Nationals. They then departed for Anaheim, California, to play the Angels in what was supposed to be a short weekend trip. About half the Astros’ families came along, which turned out to be good fortune. On the red-eye Houston took to the Los Angeles area, some wore pajamas and many brought along carry-on-sized luggage. After all, it was a short trip. The weekend jaunt turned into one very long week.
The relocated series made for some odd scenery. Much of Tropicana Field was empty, though in many ways it was impressive that nearly 13,000 fans turned out for the three games. Every ticket was $10 for general admission, and along with the parking costs, concessions sales and various fundraising efforts through the park, all proceeds all went to benefit the Astros’ foundation for disaster relief. But for the Astros, Houston is where all their thoughts remained.
“Our families are excited,” Hinch said. “They’re ready for a big group hug. Most of the feedback I’ve gotten is that people are excited for us to come back. But it’s all in perspective. Our return to Houston is minuscule compared to the work that is going to have to be done.”
Each game had a different feel. The first game, on Tuesday — a 12-2 Texas win — was marked by anxiety; the rain was still falling in southern Texas, and the Astros had no idea when they’d be returning home. On Wednesday, an 8-1 Rangers rout, was the exhale. The Astros announced they’d be returning to Houston sooner than expected, and the biggest crowd of the series — 6,123 — was jovial, even raucous. But for Thursday’s finale, the emotions had shifted toward marked anticipation.
Throughout the three odd games, there was a mixture of Astros and Rangers fans on hand, though those in orange seemed to be out in greater number. Most were transplants living locally who simply liked one team or the other. Many others were Rays fans who seemed to lean more for Houston than the Rangers. Maybe it’s a Gulf of Mexico thing — the people of Tampa/St. Petersburg are certainly no strangers to dangerous tropical storms.
With such small crowds under the protective dome of the Trop, the echoes of beer vendors rang out for seven innings each night. Conversations could be heard. Fans yelling at individual players could be sure that those players could hear them, as could the umpires; one fan Thursday called out West. With little in the way of pedestrians after the game, the ballpark emptied quickly, leaving behind rows that hardly looked like they needed to be cleaned.
“Our families are excited. They’re ready for a big group hug. Most of the feedback I’ve gotten is that people are excited for us to come back. But it’s all in perspective. Our return to Houston is minuscule compared to the work that is going to have to be done.”
Astros manager A.J. Hinch on the team’s return to Houston.
For the Astros, the attention turns to recovery.
“We’ll have three games in two days that hopefully can provide a little bit of a reprieve,” Hinch said. “What we first do at the beginning of us getting back is important. I think that initial reaction by a lot of different people in Houston has been tremendous.
“I still would urge people a month from now, two months from now, six months from now [to remember] it’s going to take a lot of effort and work to get our city back to being normal again.”
The Astros were the nominal home team, so the Tampa Bay Rays staff mixed in nice touches with the music and the video displays that echoed what the Astros would have at Minute Maid Park, including seventh-inning stretch renditions of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” Injured Rays pitcher Jacob Faria turned out for the second game to sign autographs to help raise funds. It wasn’t home, of course, but the efforts were appreciated.
For the most part, though, once you factored in the incongruent setting, each day still followed the familiar patterns of a baseball day. The players arrived early before the games on the team bus and got their pregame work in — one pitcher threw a ball against the outfield fence as he waited for his partner to play long-toss. A couple of players played Frisbee, running through the expanses of the plastic grass outfield. Off-day pitchers got their running in on the synthetic warning track of the Trop, the same material as the “grass” but painted brown. Before the first game, players hollered to hear themselves echo as if they had just climbed the Matterhorn. One player asked another what the over/under was for the attending crowd that night.
“Forty-seven,” his teammate joked.
Interspersed through all of these regular baseball moments was the gradually improving news from back home. As dire as the situation seemed when the Astros arrived, once the rain finally lifted, things got brighter in the literal and the figurative sense. The uncertainty had been removed. Now they know when they will get a shot at pitching in with the relief effort.
“You’ve seen the devastation that’s happened,” Springer said. “It’s a very, very sad situation. The true nature of people can come out when stuff like this happens.
“You’ve got guys who are hopping in their cars or in a boat and trying to help people. That’s what this city is all about. The mayor has said that it’s a very compassionate city and people care about each other. To go out and potentially to have a chance to help out is great.”
As emotional as this unexpectedly long week has been for the Astros, chances are the feelings are only going to grow rawer. There will be those initial hugs with wives and children. There will be harrowing tales from neighbors. There will be community work, which they are eager to do. There will be water in places where it should not be and miles of evidence of all the work that lies ahead.
And when the Astros reconvene to take on the New York Mets for a day-night doubleheader on Saturday, the baseball part of Houston’s journey will continue. It’s a journey that at its end point has the potential to lead to the place where all baseball teams yearn to end up. And it’s a role — World Series champions — the Astros franchise has never played.
If Houston’s ever-evolving journey ends up there, it will be ready-made cinematic material. A team that wanted to do more for its city than seemed possible would do more than its fans could have ever hoped for. And in some not insignificant way, the wounds of the past week will be, if not healed, at least made more bearable.
All that lies ahead now that the Astros are going home is work. Work as a baseball team. Work as a city and a region. All of that will play out over the weeks ahead. For now, the focus is on tonight and tomorrow, when the Astros finally return to Houston. Has it really only been seven days? At least the Astros have Friday off, though it will be far from a typical off day. Then they go back to serving as the rallying point for the long recovery ahead for south Texas.
“You have to understand that there are a lot of things that are out of our control,” Springer said early in the series. “The fact that I’m here, I’m safe, my fiancée is safe, that’s great.
“But I’m going to go out there and play for all of the people who aren’t safe, for all the ones who are stranded. I’m going to go out there and I’ll run through a wall if I have to for that city. That’s my job, is to give every last ounce of my strength.”