Club hosts a game again hoping to bring some 'normalcy' to Houston
By Richard Justice
HOUSTON -- The Astros did simple things on Friday afternoon. They played ball with kids and signed autographs. They helped out with food distribution.
They also did a lot of listening and attempted to get their minds around the enormity of what they were seeing. They promised this first visit would not be their last.
"I saw a lot of people that have lost so much," second baseman Jose Altuve said. "I also saw a lot of people here helping those people. That made me feel proud to be part of Houston. There's a lot of good people here."
In another part of town, the Mets were serving lunch to police officers. This is what we do in tough times. We pull together. We help one another.
"It's our humane obligation to make another person smile today," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "All we can do is help. Some of it is financial. Some of it is your time, your energy."
The Astros' ownership group and Astros Foundation donated $4 million to relief efforts aiding the victims of the storm, as well as collecting donations for the hurricane victims.
The Astros and Mets will play a doubleheader at 1:10 and 7:10 p.m. CT on Saturday at Minute Maid Park -- the first doubleheader at Minute Maid Park since it opened in 2000 -- less than a week after Hurricane Harvey left at least 38 dead and thousands more homeless.
The Astros are under no illusion about being able to fix everything. Rather, with the encouragement of Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, they'll try to give people something else to think about for a few hours.
"I think what people want right now is normalcy," Hinch said. "The only way to feel normal is to do normal things, and we can provide a little of that. But it doesn't make the problem go away. "I think it'll be upbeat. I think people will want to enjoy a baseball game. It's an escape for some people. It'll be a reprieve from what everybody has been doing day to day. That's all we can offer for those hours, but we'll do the best we can to bring some smiles to some people's faces."
The Astros will make the pregame ceremony an understated affair. Turner will throw out the first pitch, and there'll be a moment of silence for the victims, including Houston police sergeant Steve Perez.
And then, after that, the Astros will take the field and try to give their city something to cheer for in what is sure to be an emotionally-charged affair in the first game in Houston since Harvey made landfall a week ago. It's been a whirlwind week for these players, who, in the midst of watching their city get ravaged by Harvey, played a relocated series against the Rangers at the home of the Tampa Bay Rays, and then watched as general manager Jeff Luhnow acquired ace Justin Verlander just before the stroke of midnight -- and the August waiver trade deadline -- on Thursday.
Verlander, the 2011 American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner, will make his Astros debut on Tuesday in Seattle.
"I'm excited to give the city something to rally around, something to cheer for," Verlander said. "Hopefully, we can bring a championship to Houston. I'm excited for this next chapter in my life."
That next chapter will involve trying to bring the Astros -- who hold a 12-game lead in the AL West -- their first World Series title in franchise history, while also providing a brief escape for Houstonians who need something to think about other than Harvey's destruction. The 2001 Yankees and the 2013 Red Sox showed how a baseball team can give a city a needed diversion in the wake of tragedy, and the Astros hope they can provide a similar distraction, if only for a few hours each night.
"We're looking at this as an opportunity to start the rebuilding process," Astros president Reid Ryan said. "This is not a celebration. We know the suffering is not over. There are people still being rescued. After tomorrow, we can continue to raise awareness and let folks know we have to get after it in Houston, Texas."
Baseball has come together, too. MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association jointly donated $1 million to various relief efforts for the damage throughout the state of Texas, and dozens of players and organizations have helped out as well.
"I've had almost every team in the league reach out to me on some level and say they're doing something," Ryan said.
As the Astros entered the cavernous hallway, they may have been taken aback by the size of the relief effort with tables neatly aligned along one side to help with needs ranging from food and clothing to medical assistance.
There were people making balloon toys for kids and others dressed in costumes to entertain. There were barbers and internet providers and so many volunteers that they had to be turned around.
The Astros believe they can play a role in Houston's recovery, first and foremost by helping raise both money and awareness.
"We know we have a responsibility as the Houston Astros and as a nationally recognized sports team that represents our community to go out, raise funds, raise awareness," Ryan said.
The Astros left Minute Maid Park last Thursday expecting a three-night trip to Anaheim to play the Angels. Instead, they flew to Dallas-Fort Worth for a night and then to Tampa, Fla., to play a three-game series against the Rangers. While they were away, they watched television coverage of a city pounded by rain and floods.
"I think everybody wanted to get back home," said McHugh. "A lot of us had families back here. You want to be with the people in your community."
They returned home Thursday night, then awoke Friday and made their way to the relief center. This, they said, was the beginning.
"All we can do is help," Hinch said. "I'm going to make sure our team knows this is just the first day. They're going to need our help a month from now, six months from now, probably a year from now until our city gets really rebuilt."
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.