A World Series treat for Houston Astros fan who's faced cancer and Hurricane Harvey

Paul Kuntz has loved the Houston Astros since he was a little boy traipsing around the Astrodome, where his father worked as a ticket counter.

Back then, baseball was everything. He recorded games off the radio to listen to over and over. He collected baseball cards. He wrote to Hall of Famers, sending index cards and self-addressed, stamped envelopes. They were actually returned — signed by Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Buck Leonard and other greats.

This year, the autographed cards were damaged by Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall in Texas in late August. So was about everything else in his southwest Houston home. And the storm was only part of what’s been a long, tough year for Kuntz, who’s recovering from the lymphoma that required a stem cell transplant in the summer of 2016.

Once again, though, baseball provided a bright light for Kuntz, who’s mostly loving every minute of the nail-biter World Series between his Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Kuntz and his wife, Iliana, attended Game 5 Sunday night at the Houston team’s post-Astrodome home, Minute Maid Park. They had standing-room-only tickets and watched from beside a Blue Bell Ice Cream cart on the first-base side. He wore a T-shirt with a sketch of the Astrodome and the words “End of an Era 1965-1999.”

The Kuntzes caught a wild Fall Classic game. The 10-inning game stretched for five hours and 17 minutes, with the Astros winning 13-12 after a back-and-forth battle of home runs and blown three-run leads by both teams.

“No matter how this game turns out, this was a good night to check the World Series off my bucket list,” Kuntz said at 11:08 p.m. The game lasted more than an hour longer.

Kuntz, a 56-year-old photographer for Texas Children’s Hospital, was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2013 and, after about eight months of treatment, went into remission. But the cancer came back.

In July 2016, he underwent a stem cell transplant that left him weak and hospitalized for three weeks. Then, with his immune system shot, he had to stay in a hotel for an additional month as construction on a bathroom at home dragged on.

A recent test showed Kuntz to be cancer-free.

He looked for things to keep his mind off his illness. He got back into film photography, buying an old Leica camera to hone his skills.

Then came Harvey’s floodwaters on Aug. 27. Thirteen inches of water swept into the Kuntz’s one-story ranch house. It came first through the back door, then under the walls. Then the carpet started bubbling.

The Kuntzes were home with their 14-year-old daughter. Iliana Kuntz put some of their valuables in two coolers in the garage, knowing they’d float, and did the same with their cockatiel’s cage, placing it in a recycling bin.

Then they fled, in waist-deep water, to a relative’s house nearby.

The water destroyed their walls, their floors. It ruined all their furniture and appliances.

“As people were helping us get rid of stuff, they’d say, ‘Whose baby photo?’ ‘Whose wedding dress?’ and all the painful stuff you could say,” said Iliana Kuntz, a 53-year-old nurse practitioner.

The water wiped out Paul Kuntz’s extensive record collection and warped the index cards signed by baseball players, making them stick together.

Iliana Kuntz laid them in the sun to dry. They separated, and he can still make out the signatures.

“They’re somewhat salvageable,” Paul Kuntz said. “They’re a little dirty now.”

As their home is being repaired, the family is staying in a rental house.
They were lucky, Kuntz said, because rentals were so quickly snapped up by displaced families.

In typical Houston fashion, there have been so many people who’ve offered to help that it’s overwhelming, he said.

This city, Kuntz said, needed an Astros World Series.

“This has been a good mental diversion, not only for me, but for the city,” he said.

Kuntz hadn’t initially planned to go to a game. Finances are tight with everything that’s happened. But he knew he couldn’t miss out on his Astros making history.

He reminisced about all the good memories baseball has brought him. There was that time as a boy that he was lingering by the dugout at the Astrodome and snagged an autograph from the Atlanta Braves’ Hank Aaron as he was closing in on Babe Ruth’s home run record. And that time in college he sold baseball cards to a collector in the back seat of his Buick Regal in a sketchy parking lot to fund a drama department trip to New York.

As the World Series approached, he delightedly searched online for clips from the “terrible” 1977 television movie “Murder at the World Series,” which was filmed at the Astrodome.

He stayed for all of Game 5, getting home well after 2 a.m. Monday. It was the best night he’d had in a long time.

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Twitter: @haileybranson

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