September holds a lot of potential for the Houston Astros. They have the best record in baseball’s American League and hopes of quickly clinching their division title.
But as the Astros returned to Minute Maid Park in this flood-ravaged city Saturday, Manager A.J. Hinch admitted that talking about sport feels awkward after having spent time with the victims left in the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey.
“That stuff almost feels silly to talk about when you’re sitting there across the table from a guy who’s trying to find socks for his kids,” Hinch said. “Real life will always exceed sports. But sports has a responsibility to reconnect the community at times like this and hopefully provide something back.”
The Astros on Saturday played the New York Mets, their first appearance home since the deluge. Baseball, fans and players said, was a welcome respite.
The Astros returned to their ballpark at the urging of Mayor Sylvester Turner, who said the team’s presence would “provide a much-needed boost for our city.” The team has pledged $4 million to hurricane relief efforts and offered thousands of free tickets to Harvey victims, first responders and volunteers.
Players had been in limbo this week. The Astros were playing the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim last weekend as Harvey bore down on the Gulf Coast. Unable to return to Houston after Harvey hit, they traveled to Dallas to await word on where they would play their scheduled homestand against the Texas Rangers. Major League Baseball relocated the series to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., home of the Tampa Bay Rays.
On Friday, players visited the George R. Brown Convention Center, where thousands of Harvey evacuees are staying, less than half a mile from the ballpark. Seeing so many kids, players said, was tough.
Saturday had some of the jitters of a season opener. Players said they owed it to the city to win.
Relief pitcher Tyler Clippard, who was traded to the Astros from the Chicago White Sox just two weeks ago, said their role was to be “entertainers for the day.”
“It’s tough from the sense that we know what the city is going through right now and how meaningless a baseball game is at this point in time,” Clippard said. “But at the same time, we realize that if we can give the city a little bit of a distraction for a while from what’s going on...and give them a little outlet to kind of forget about the struggles that they’re going through, then it’s worth it.”
At every entrance to the park, volunteers collected donations — cans of soup and ravioli, baby formula, cleaning supplies, bug spray to ward off Houston’s ever-present mosquitoes.
Volunteers said they just felt as if they needed to do something to lend a hand, especially if they had not suffered any damage.
“We are the lucky ones. We have a home to go back to,” said Marilyn Flores, a Houston resident who was accepting donations at the entrance near home plate.
In this city, it seems, everyone who was unscathed uses one of two words: lucky or blessed. And they share a collective guilt.
“We feel really bad, really guilty,” said Anne Marie Rogers of nearby Tomball, as she and her husband dropped off bags of canned food before heading into the ballpark. “You look around and see other people’s stuff on the road, everything they owned, and you feel awful that nothing happened to you.”
In the ballpark, one phrase was ubiquitous — Houston Strong. Players wore it on patches on their jerseys. It was on handmade signs. It glowed from the Jumbotron above right field.
Before the Astros took the field, the song “The Boys Are Back in Town” blared over the loudspeakers. Mayor Sylvester threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and there was a moment of silence for the dead and hurting. First responders stood along the first base line during the national anthem.
“Stay strong. Be strong,” Hinch told the crowd.
Steven Crenshaw, a 43-year-old firefighter with the Woodlands Fire Department, had spent a week aiding flood victims. But on Saturday, he was at the ballpark, with his five children.
When he wasn’t working, he was at his church with his family, volunteering. His 12-year-old son, Isaiah, had spent the previous day ripping damaged wallboard from neighbors’ houses. Crenshaw was thrilled to be watching baseball with his family, whose home survived the storm.
“I kind of connect all these things. It’s America’s game, and right now America’s eyes are on us as a city,” he said.
In a bizarre quirk, the Astros in their first game of the day faced the Mets’ starting pitcher Matt Harvey. “I’m sort of weirded out by stuff like that,” Hinch said of the coincidence.
“We’re going to beat Hurricane Harvey,” he said before the game. “We’d like to beat Matt Harvey, too.”
And that’s what the Astros did, winning the first game of a doubleheader, 12-8. They won the second game too, 4-1.
8:50 p.m.: This article was updated to report the Astros won the second game of the doubleheader.
This article was originally published at 6:50 p.m.