Astros provide healthy distraction from Hurricane Harvey

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

HOUSTON – Lauren sat beside her boyfriend, Jomond, up in section 324. This was his idea. Jomond loves baseball. All sports, really. But if they were going to schedule an extra game at Minute Maid Park and it was going to get him home in time for the Alabama-Florida State kickoff, he was going to come. Lauren thought it wouldn’t be so bad to get her mind off her students for a few hours, except it really wasn’t working.

Lauren teaches special-education classes in a lower-income neighborhood west of downtown Houston. The school has been surrounded by water from Hurricane Harvey, and it’d been at least a week since she’d heard from any of her students or their parents. The city plans to open the school next Monday, but Lauren can’t see how, what with all the roads flooded and the families scattered to who knows where.

Funny the things you think about, but somewhere after the kids who need a little extra loving and the parents who have so much to worry about, Lauren remembered that a local company had donated 50 backpacks stuffed with supplies for the new school year, and those backpacks were in a room somewhere in the school awaiting her students, and she wondered if they weren’t ruined by all the water.

“I keep thinking, ‘Where can I help? How can I help?’ ” Lauren said. “And I can’t reach any of them. … I finally had to turn the TV off. It’s overwhelming.”

Houston Astros Jose Altuve poses for a photo before the game against the New York Mets in the first game at Minute Maid Stadium after Hurricane Harvey in Houston. (Reuters)

To their right, on the big scoreboard, the new Houston Strong emblem lit up right field. Below, the Astros prepared to play the New York Mets. The city is just starting to catch its breath, or at least the parts of it that aren’t still bailing. The mayor and the local ballclub decided a baseball game, a series, would be a good idea, and on Saturday afternoon maybe 15,000 or 20,000 people (30,319 was announced) sat in the air conditioning and poured themselves a beer and watched the Astros win 12-8.

“It’s been strange,” Jomond said. “It doesn’t feel like the same city. You do see the people coming together, though. I guess out of something bad, there’s something good every time.”

A few feet away, Lillie, a very perky usher whose house still has a bucket in the attic to catch the last of Harvey, guided Jason and James to their seats a section over. Jason hasn’t been home in a week. Last he saw, the water was about six inches from his front door and rising fast. His wife’s car was flooded. His truck was up to its exhaust pipe. A friend helped them escape, along with the two dogs, and Jason has been rotating two pairs of shorts and a few T-shirts ever since. His wife was at Wal-Mart on Saturday afternoon buying him clothes, as Jason, an electrician, is supposed to start a new job Tuesday. Jason’s home is up north of Houston, where on one side the freeways were swamped and on the other the chemical plant threatened to blow up.

“He called me yesterday,” Jason said, nodding to his friend James, a Mets fan, “and asked if I wanted to get out, to get away for a while.”

He smiled wearily.

“It’s nice to have friends,” he said.

Sometimes it’s all you get, least in the long term.

“The city needs this,” James said.

“Yeah,” Jason said, “we need it.”

Several rows in front of them, Javier and his little brother, Jonathan, awaited the first pitch. They’d driven about 50 miles south. Javier, 22, wore a throwback jersey with the old Astros’ rainbow. Jonathan, 12, wore a Carlos Correa shirsy. They’d been trapped by the water for four days up in nearby Cleveland, where they had stocked up on food and water and still run out, but were more fortunate than most. They’d lost power for only a couple days.

“We decided to come last night,” Javier said. “Something to pick us up.”

They paid about $20 a ticket to sit in the top deck, brought their baseball gloves because you never know, and settled in for something different than what was, for too long, the new normal.

“Yeah, it takes your mind off things,” Javier said, and Jonathan nodded. “Takes your mind off what’s really going on.”

There’s a lot of it out there, beyond the T-shirt guns and Ric Flair “Woos!” (Josh Reddick started it) and train whistles and MVP chants for Jose Altuve. The people inside knew that. The Astros know that. The baseball won’t pay the bills that are coming or soothe the nightmares or replace those who are gone. It won’t shorten the journey between now and normal. It will be, however, whatever a man and a woman sitting at the rail in section 324 want it to be. So when George Springer homers into the Crawford Boxes and celebrates by pounding the patch on his chest that says “Houston Strong,” that might be good enough. When a win – or a loss – is swallowed up in the light of the day, that might be good enough, too.

People hold signs during the Houston Astros vs New York Mets in the first game at Minute Maid Stadium after Hurricane Harvey in Houston. (Reuters)

Either way, it’s good of the Astros to try. To want to try. They’ve done a wonderful job of that, of showing up, offering a shoulder, carrying boxes, writing checks, saying the right things.

“Their upcoming month is going to be a lot different then our upcoming month,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said of the people here. “That stuff just seems silly to talk about when you’re sitting across a table from a guy trying to find socks for his kid.

“I hope it provides a smile or two. I hope it provides a break. But, keep it in perspective. We’re a baseball team.”

So they played baseball. And they’ll keep playing. Maybe it’ll be good enough and maybe it won’t. But when the people look back and count those who were there for them and those who weren’t, maybe they’ll remember that the Astros tried, along with so many others, and maybe they’ll remember who made a difference. And that they weren’t alone.

“This was a good idea,” Jason said.

“A really good idea,” James said.

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