Baseball's ability to impact and inspire on display in aftermath of Hurricane Harvey
By Richard Justice
HOUSTON -- It has never really been just about baseball. That's one of the things every fan eventually learns. Let's be clear that we love the games. We love the players and the competition. We love the sounds and colors.
Houstonians forever remember where we were and what we were doing when Chris Burke's home run ended one of the club's greatest games ever played. That's a reference to the place I've called home for the last 17 years, and every Astros fan remembers how that 18-inning masterpiece of a playoff baseball game ended in 2005.
And they'll remember that joyful evening a few weeks later when the Astros won the National League pennant in St. Louis. Hundreds lined up in the middle of the night to buy shirts commemorating a moment that remains profoundly sweet.
After that game, Astros outfielder and Texas native Lance Berkman spoke for an entire region when he said: "The emotions, they are overwhelming."
That's the power of baseball. Here's the really important point about that: Baseball delivers these moments in the context of family and friends, in the context of community and oneness. That is part of why we love it.
When this happens, we are not divided by politics or religion or race or anything else. We are one, at least for a time.
Baseball's ability to impact and inspire, to captivate and to motivate, is on display beautifully in Houston Strong, a new mini-documentary produced jointly by MLB.com and Prospect Productions.
We are taken through the days leading up to Hurricane Harvey's battering of our city, to everything from the storm preparations at Minute Maid Park to the awful floodwaters to, finally, the beginning of the cleanup.
Regardless of where you live or what team you cheer for, you will feel a breadth of emotions, from the heartbreaking words of people who lost so much to the words of our mayor, Sylvester Turner, who has been poised and reassuring through the whole thing.
This film is also about baseball, about the Astros returning home days after Harvey departed, and at Turner's insistence, taking the first baby steps of bringing normalcy back to the city.
That weekend -- Sept. 2 and 3 -- were two days of playing baseball while honoring the best of us: The first responders and volunteers and folks who showed up at the George R. Brown Convention Center, a temporary home for thousands of displaced people, and asked, "What can I do?"
The Astros did just that hours after returning from St. Petersburg, and as team president Reid Ryan said, "Our guys didn't want to go there for a photo op. They wanted to roll up their sleeves and help out."
That they did, doing everything from playing with kids to bagging groceries to comforting victims.
The Astros were not certain if it would be proper to play baseball at a time when the city's massive recovery effort was just beginning. Actually, Turner said, it's the perfect time.
"I encouraged them to play," he says in the film. "People need something to cheer for. Fact is, you can't stay down forever. It is what Houston needed right at that moment. Let's play ball."
As Ryan puts it: "This tragedy is not over with. It's not going to be over for a long time. But we wanted to be the starting point of the rebuild.
"Houston Strong is what's in the DNA of everybody here."
Before the Astros played a doubleheader against the Mets on Sept. 2, the day after the convention center visit, a reporter asked manager A.J. Hinch about his guys putting the devastation around them out of their minds and playing baseball.
"I don't want them to forget," he said. "I don't want them to ever forget. This is our community, too."
When he took the public-address microphone before the game, he touched his heart and said:
"We want to thank everyone in the city of Houston that's doing something good for somebody else. We wear this [Houston Strong] patch on our jersey to represent you."
The Astros defeated the Mets twice that day and one more time on Sept. 3 to begin a run that resulted in clinching the American League West championship on Sept. 17. One theme runs through the documentary amid the clips of damage interspersed with the beauty of baseball: We are in this together.
"The Astros in many ways represent the spirit of this city," Turner said. "It's a championship team and could be in the World Series. We can still rebuild and we can win the World Series all at the same time. Because that is what families do."
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Fans wishing to assist in the Hurricane Harvey relief efforts can do so by visiting YouCaring.com/AstrosHarvey to donate. Tragically, hurricane devastation has not been limited to the Houston area in recent weeks. Our hearts go out to other affected areas, including Puerto Rico, where Carlos Beltran's foundation, with support from the Astros organization and teammates, is helping with Hurricane Maria relief efforts. Beltran and his wife, Jessica, recently announced a $1 million personal donation to help Puerto Rico recover, and donations can be made at www.crowdrise.com/o/en/team/carlosbeltran.
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.