This town needed something to believe in. Something to rally around. And what the Houston Astros have done the last couple of months has done so much for this city beyond what any on-field bragging rights could.
As I laid there in the bed of my hotel, temporarily flooded out of my house in Katy (where I’ve lived 30 minutes from downtown my whole life), watching every pitch in this knock-down, drag-out slugfest with two 100-win teams trading blows, I was in shock. I didn’t have words which give justice to it. At 25 years old, I was not around to experience the agony of ’86, and unable to truly grasp how talented the late ‘90s teams that fell short were until recently. The last time this city had a team even reach the precipice, I was in middle school, unable to fully appreciate this historic “thing” occurring in front of my eyes. But one thing I can say for sure – I savored the heck out of every pitch, every game, and would have done so however this run ended. I’ve invested my heart and soul into this team for much of my existence, and 2017 was one of the most magical seasons I have ever witnessed. And that sentiment is due as much to the hearts of those men I watched fight to the final out as it is to any on-field accomplishments.
I obtained something this year which eluded me in 2015. A family friend and season ticket-holder offered my mother and I tickets for Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Boston Red Sox. It was only right for my first playoff game in this era to be with my mom who, bless her heart, watched with me through the agony 2011-2014 brought. And though the game is widely remembered for MVP candidate Jose Altuve’s three homers and being a stepping stone to a deep playoff run, that’s not why I will cherish it (and this run) forever.
I remember basking in the roar of the crowd. It was a fanbase containing thousands impacted by Harvey – their belongings or their homes (or both), either gone or severely flooded, as mine was. Yet, it was louder than any stadium I had ever heard; as though the emotions of an entire city were contained in that collective roar shaking Minute Maid to its foundations, throwing everything behind the team that has given them so much.
Anyone watching could see the pain on our hometown favorites’ faces when Harvey struck while they were on the road, as the stress of not hearing from family members or friends in the flood-ravaged city far outweighed the empty result of any baseball game played in front of sparse crowds at Tropicana Field. Many in the normally raucous clubhouse, whose joy could normally never be sapped, barely seemed able to muster up the energy to jog out to their position each inning. Their hearts didn’t seem to be in it – and how could they be? There is not one sane person (though some in the social media cesspool apparently didn’t get the memo) who could fault these men for having their hearts and minds in Houston instead of Tampa Bay.
We all know the story now. Following a series dropping two of the three to the (vomit) Texas Rangers, players were prepared to stay in Tampa for another re-located series vs. the New York Mets. At the urging of their Mayor, however, they decided it was time to come home.
“We feel that the Astros playing this weekend will provide a much-needed boost for our city,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement in August. And play they did.
As soon as Altuve cracked a scorching line drive RBI single to left field off Mets starter Matt Harvey (sorry, Matt) in the first inning of the first game back at Minute Maid Sept. 2, it was clear this was the same team, the lineup that has been mentioned in the same breath as vaunted Yankees lineups from the 1920s and dominated much of the season. But that’s not the reason I adore this group.
Those such as Altuve, Carlos Correa, high-flying outfielder George Springer (or “Super Springer,” as he is affectionately known) and Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, as major stars often do, always seemed larger than life. But after devastation enveloped this wonderful city, there was a chink in the armor; they’re human after all. Regardless of where their journey began, they are now adopted Houstonians – this is their town, and seeing where their hearts have been since the havoc came down upon this vibrant city endeared them to me and the people of this city more than any home run or web gem.
After returning and checking in on their families Sept.1, players immediately hit the streets. Keuchel surprised those sheltered at a Houston high school by helping unload bottles of water and other necessities. Carlos Correa donated mattresses to those in need throughout the team’s first weekend back. Others, such as Altuve and reliever Joe Musgrove, visited those sheltered at the George R. Brown Convention Center downtown. Altuve was caught on camera dancing a little jig with a fan. Musgrove brought along chalk-white cleats that later became emblazoned with the autographs and artwork of children at GRB, which he would wear during a game and later auction off to support relief efforts. And I’m sure I’ve missed far too many similar efforts from every member of this squad.
Later in that first game back, Springer cranked his 30th homer of 2017 over the Crawford Boxes. As he was crossing home plate, Springer gave a few taps to the patch now permanently emblazoned on his jersey near the left shoulder that reads: HOUSTON STRONG and pointed to the crowd. At that moment, you knew – this season was no longer for them. This season and this run, however long it lasted – it was for you, Houston. It was for me, and for every person in every corner of this great city. You could see it then. I could feel the love reciprocated in the roar that reverberated around the Juice Box with each run that crossed home plate, and we all saw it during every postgame interview that spanned this incredible run.
Now, baseball is still just a game. Reality remains reality, and the rebuilding effort has just begun. But this team and this city have forever forged an inseparable bond. Sports, as they often do, unified and helped heal a reeling city. As someone who played for 12 years myself and endured 2011-2014, I can surely appreciate the desire to win a title. Anyone playing competitive sports wishes this. But 2017 was not just about the 101 regular-season wins, the AL West title, an AL pennant or anything accomplished between the white lines, and what this team has done extends beyond the walls of Minute Maid Park. The Astros captivated an entire city, gave it something good to rally behind and escape reality for a few hours each night, which it has needed more than ever the last few months. And when they were needed most, they got their hands dirty and never hesitated to aid their home.
The slogan all season was simply “Earn It,” and they have. We’ve seen the hearts of these players, coaches and executives, the ones who bleed orange and blue for Houston. Regardless of where they travel in the coming years, this group of men has ‘Earned’ my respect, admiration, and loyalty for a lifetime – and I can’t be the only one.
Landan Kuhlmann is the senior reporter for The Leader and is a lifelong Astros fan.