HOUSTON -- After a couple of days of heavy rains, sunshine dominated the sky Saturday morning, allowing the Astros to open the roof at Minute Maid Park as more than 5,000 fans came to the ballpark for the team's annual FanFest.
"Any time you open the gates and you have a line outside, it makes you feel good," Astros president of business operations Reid Ryan said. "FanFest has become a tradition for people. It's a great way to kick off the baseball season before we head to Spring Training. The guys are great and are here signing autographs and have really made this a family environment. The kids are running the bases and hitting in the cages. It's a very special day."
With the start of Spring Training only a month away, the players said FanFest has them excited about getting back to baseball.
"There's a lot of activity going on and a lot to be excited about," said shortstop Jed Lowrie, who's back with the Astros after playing the previous two seasons in Oakland. "It's fun to feel that energy."
While Lowrie is familiar to many Astros fans from his 2012 season spent in Houston, Neshek, Gregerson and Gattis were getting acquainted with Houston fans for the first time. FanFest also allowed them an opportunity to meet some of their new teammates as well.
"It's great to come in and put faces with their names and meet all of the guys," said Neshek, who spent last year in St. Louis. "I already know half of the team. That was nice hearing what everybody is up to and to be able to meet the new guys and see all the season-ticket holders and the fans, it's been a blast."
Gregerson, who like Neshek is also a relief pitcher, wore sunglasses while signing autographs on the field. He lives in Chicago, so the warmer weather was a nice change of pace.
"It's always nice to start meeting people and talking to people and seeing their excitement and talking to the kids," he said. "You sign an autograph for them and they start shaking and getting all excited, so it's always fun. Obviously, to meet the players before spring is always a plus. You get to know these guys a little bit and see where they stand and move on from there."
Gregerson, Neshek and Qualls were teammates previously in San Diego, and Lowrie and Gregerson played together last year in Oakland with newcomer Dan Straily.
"Every team I've been on has had great veteran leadership with a lot of great young talent, and that's kind of the mix here," Neshek said. "It's going to be fun."
Ryan said there's a buzz around the Astros, who have made several offseason moves to better the club and are riding the momentum of the announcement Craig Biggio had made the Hall of Fame.
"People feel the commitment to the Astros and they're really starting to believe the plan that's in place is working and that we're doing what we said we're going to do, and this is going to be a big step for us," Ryan said.
Lowrie, who lives full-time in Houston, can sense a difference from when he was here in 2012. The Astros were in their last year in the National League and still very much in the rebuilding phase. Things are different now, he says.
"There was a lot of talk about rebuilding in the Minor League organization and that's tough on fans because they want to see winners at the Major League level," he said. "But I think the patience will pay off."