THEIR LAST RESORT was a Sharpie.
At the height of Hurricane Harvey, with flood waters pushing past the sidewalk and the giant old oak tree out front about to give way, before losing power, or worse, Katie Bracamonte called to update her husband, longtime Houston Astros bullpen catcher Javier Bracamonte, who was riding out the storm with the rest of the team in Florida. "The water's coming," she told him. "Be safe," they repeated to each other. A few hours later, the water inching closer, Katie and her two groggy daughters piled into a closet for safety after a string of tornados threatened the area. In the dark, Katie noticed her half-asleep teenager squeezing something in her hand.
"What's that?" she whispered.
"It's a Sharpie," the girl replied. "We're supposed to write our names and Social Security numbers on our arms ... so they can identify us."
IT'S SATURDAY AFTERNOON, just minutes before the first pitch inside Minute Maid Park, where the Astros returned to face the Mets in a post-Harvey series meant to bring a glimmer of hope and a moment of normalcy back to a town still in shock after one of the worst storms in U.S. history. Despite the two feet of water dumped down by Harvey, the Bracamontes and most of the Astros were spared excessive property damage, and now dad is back safe in the bullpen and the rest of the family let me tag along as they helped, along with other team family members, collect donations for storm relief before the Mets opener. (Folks were supposed to donate nonperishable goods, but a family from Huntsville couldn't help themselves and brought a tray full of fresh homemade brownies for the Astros' bullpen crew.)
Dressed in a white home jersey and a black baseball hat with Astros spelled out in silver sparkles, Bracamonte is telling me her storm story while weaving through the crowded, narrow team office hallways, picking up donations from the Astros' staff.
The first two people she passes are team owner Jim Crane and his wife, Whitney. After a warm embrace -- Javier has been with the Astros since 2001 -- the three of them engage in what will become familiar Harvey shorthand for the Astros family reconnecting inside Minute Maid Park.
"Didya get water?"
The answers aren't always positive. There were stories exchanged in this hallway of houses with 14 feet of water in them, storm surges so strong they swept away huge concrete traffic barriers like twigs in a stream, and neighborhoods hit with such destruction and despair that people were nailing their house keys to the front door with notes that read: You can have it.
"It's just incredibly sad," outfielder George Springer says. "To see people holding trash bags of all they have left in the world. Whatever our role is, even if it's just a diversion for a few hours, it just makes me want to run through a wall for this town if it will help even a little."
As we carried the bags of food and paper products back to the center field collection point outside Minute Maid, Bracamonte summed up the Astros' role in post-Harvey recovery as such: "I think the Astros provide something everyone needs after a catastrophe like this: the feeling that no matter what, you're not alone."
Before I could even get back to the press box, the Astros were already up 7-0 on the Mets, a rally that included a few close plays at the plate. (They all went Houston's way, of course.)
That was kind of the theme to this entire, impossible and emotional post-Harvey baseball weekend in Texas.
The Astros safe, at home.
MANY OF THE Astros became emotional when talking about flying back to Houston on Thursday. Their flight path from Florida took them directly over the path of the storm, and as they approached Houston, there was a face pressed against every window on the team plane. It looked as if the coast line had been moved 100 miles north.
"I think everyone just sat there quiet and stunned and overwhelmed," says pitcher Collin McHugh.
Landing only made it harder. Most players and staff called home as soon as they touched down to share what they had seen, but most couldn't find the words.
"When we landed it was 75 degrees and breezy and sunny, and it was just strange for me emotionally," says pitcher Charlie Morton. "There was just such a detachment and isolation from what had actually happened here. It makes you feel guilty that you weren't here to do something."
Yet if there's a blueprint for a sports organization to respond to such an unspeakable tragedy, well, the Astros came as close as any team has. On Friday, when the team visited evacuees at the George R. Brown Convention Center, manager A.J. Hinch said, "It's our humane obligation to make another person smile today." They pitched in. They raised money and lifted spirits. They allowed themselves to be emotional and vulnerable while keeping their role in perspective: not saviors, but a three-hour diversion from reality.
I expected players to shy away from the almost impossible burden of trying to win a World Series for Houston after Harvey.
Instead, they're embracing it.
A FEW HOURS before the first game against the Mets, inside the Astros' clubhouse, scouting reports and pitch charts on Matt Harvey had been placed on the seat of every player's chair. With Harvey coming off a short rehab assignment, the advice was pretty simple. Take him deeper in the count. Don't give him the edges of the plate. Wear him down. As Hinch put it: "We beat Hurricane Harvey, we can beat Matt Harvey, too."
Indeed, Harvey hit Houston hard, and on Saturday the Astros hit back, notching 12 hits against the Mets pitcher in the first two innings and knocking him out of the game in the shortest start of his career. The Astros' return to Minute Maid Park had started with a win -- and a big one.
Maybe it's cheesy, but there was just something reassuring about seeing scouting reports or hearing Springer yelling at Lee Corso for taking BYU during ESPN's College Gameday. The smell of popcorn in the park, the crack of bats, T-shirt cannons, Kiss Cams, kids in oversized Biggio jerseys carrying mitts, "Deep In the Heart of Texas" singalongs, the street preacher outside the center-field gate who only shut up when someone asked him to donate money to the relief fund, heck, even the drunk guy taking a leak on a light pole outside the stadium -- every moment of normalcy inside the park felt monumental.
ARRIVING FROM DETROIT, Justin Verlander threw a bullpen session inside Minute Maid Park late on Saturday. (He was formally introduced at a news conference the next day when, because of all the chaos with the storm, the team didn't have a jersey for him yet. He got a hat instead. Oh, and a shot at a World Series.) Watching over Verlander was longtime bullpen security chief Kurt Rogers, a sergeant and 37-year veteran of the Houston Police Department.
You know those pictures and clips you saw during the storm of Houston first responders driving through flood waters in a massive white dump truck rescuing people? For about 20 hours a day for four days straight after the rain started, Rogers was the one driving the truck. Trapped by the storm but unwilling to stop, most of his crew worked in the same wet clothes and boots for those entire four days. (Rogers and others kept working even though his own home, in Friendsville, was flooded up to the second floor. And he kept working when looters shot out the windows in one of his group's police cruisers.)
Late Saturday, or early Sunday -- to be honest, the days are a blur to him -- Rogers and fellow police officers waded through chin-high flood waters to save dozens of people from a stranded Ryder truck. (Everyone except the 89-year-old who refused to leave her 10 cats and four dogs.) Rogers is one of the few officers with a commercial driver's license, and his dump truck had a snorkel exhaust that allowed it to drive in four feet of water. But in the middle of the evacuation, the water started rising so rapidly he was screaming at deputies to hurry or they'd all be underwater, or worse. "We gotta go, we gotta go!" he yelled out the window. The final evacuees were infants.
It's absolutely chilling to hear him describe the scene. "It's dark, the water is up to their chins, and there's a strong current," says Rogers, whose arms were full of red welts from being exposed to flood water for four days. "You have no idea what you're stepping on in that water -- could be a curb or a garden or debris down there. And if you fall or stumble even and that child goes into the water, that baby is dead, they're gone. Thank God we got everyone out safe."
Talking to Rogers in the bullpen, I thought about what Astros pitcher Joe Musgrove had told me earlier in the day. The Astros wanted to come home in order to inspire and help Houston, but it ended up being the other way around. "If there's anything good about a catastrophe," Musgrove says, "it's that it brings out the very best in people."
ON SUNDAY, AFTER 24 runs, three wins and yeoman's work out on the streets of Houston, the Astros came off the field at 5:04 p.m. and were greeted by the cruelest message imaginable scribbled on the dry-erase whiteboard outside their clubhouse.
Despite having to leave Houston, once again, for a 10-day, 11-game West Coast road trip, the mood in the room was upbeat and confident. There was a great sense of relief, as well. Given the almost impossible task of providing a glimmer of hope to a devastated city, the Astros had delivered in the clutch -- first out in the community on Friday and then inside Minute Maid Park -- and in return, found a new, deeper sense of purpose and drive for the final stretch toward a rare division title. "We're playing with passion now," is how Carlos Correa put it.
Just down the hall from the clubhouse, players and staff mingled with family members as the team bus and equipment trucks idled nearby. There were lots of long, emotional embraces. Entire families hugged in silence for several minutes. And when kids wouldn't let go -- the idea of goodbyes and separated families means something very different now for everyone in Houston than it did just a week ago -- several team members walked the rest of the way to the bus holding their luggage in one arm and cradling their children in the other.
"Leaving is hard and it's always bittersweet, but especially now," McHugh says. "And another long road trip seems especially cruel with everything going on, but that's baseball. We did what we wanted to do in coming back, we did something important: We got back home, we helped, and we got back to normal a little. So yeah, we're leaving, but we're leaving with our heads a little higher and our smiles a little wider, and I think Houston is feeling that way, too."
With McHugh, Verlander and the rest of the team on board, a few minutes later the Astros' bus climbed slowly out of a dark stadium tunnel and into the warm Texas sun.