HOUSTON -- That they were playing baseball at all seemed something like a miracle. It was just a week ago that Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas shore, unleashing more rain than any storm ever had over the continental United States. More than 50 inches of the stuff, leading to catastrophic floods all over the region, displaced thousands of citizens and stranded many more.
The Houston Astros were in California then, playing the Los Angeles Angels. After a night of limbo in Arlington, Texas, they then headed to Tampa-St. Petersburg to play what should have been a home series against the Texas Rangers. The team was forced to watch the aftermath of the storm unfold from afar, in horror, through images that came one after the other in the media. It seemed a forgone conclusion that they'd stay in Florida to play the New York Mets this weekend. Then they would head back West for another road trip. They had little hope of seeing home anytime soon and ached over their inability to help a city that needed every able hand.
But the weather cleared up, the waters began to recede and suddenly, on Wednesday, even Houston mayor Sylvester Turner insisted the Astros return home. And so Saturday, they did.
"Hello, Houston," manager A.J. Hinch said, addressing the crowd before the game. "It's good to be home."
The usual preparations are under way at Minute Maid Park for today's doubleheader between the Astros and the Mets. Like most of downtown Houston from what I've seen, there is little evidence of storm damage at the park. The starkest reminder of what's going on has simply been the lack of people around. That will change as first pitch approaches.
I had flown to St. Petersburg to cover the Astros, then altered my plans to trail them back to Houston. It was hard to know what to expect after all of the terrible images we have all seen over the last week. After connecting in Atlanta, I took a smooth flight to George Bush Intercontinental Airport -- on-time -- riding with a lot of people who were anxious to get home.
When we descended below the cloud line and the outlying region of the Houston metropolitan area first came into view, it was stunning. Swollen rivers and small lakes that had grown into big lakes. Entire subdivisions turned into suburban islands. A freeway with lakes of muddy water running right up to both sides. An audible gasp passed through the cabin. I took a couple of pictures with my phone. A woman across the aisle asked to take pictures of my pictures.
Here is a shot I took from the plane coming into Houston last night of a flooded subdivision that looked almost like an island. But downtown, it's all dry and the ballpark itself saw only very mild flooding. I keep trying to remember that the situation remains dire in places not far from here.
Everything was running as normal at the airport. Yet, something was off: There weren't as many people around as there should be. This is how it has been all through my stay in Houston; superficial normalcy around me -- with catastrophe nearby, but out of sight -- and too few people around in the center of the nation's fourth-largest city. At the desk of the shuttle service I'd reserved, I was told it might be awhile. There were no drivers.
After five minutes, a driver showed up anyway, and I climbed in for a ride downtown. I was fortunate. Others had made reservations for rides back to neighborhoods that were still impossible to access. They were scrambling for solutions as I and a few others pulled away and along the route into downtown Houston.
From the freeway, there was little evidence that something out of the ordinary had occurred. The same was true downtown: dry, clean, no damage to speak of ... but not very many people.
People keep asking me what it's like here and I keep saying that where I am, it looks normal ... except there are no people. The Main Street Corridor last night was quiet, though there was some activity. Still, I'm told this stretch is humming on a typical Friday night.
I walked over by George R. Brown Convention Center, where many evacuees are being sheltered. There were a few people lingering around outside -- the smokers -- but it was quiet. I talked to a couple of people, both of whom said things inside were as good as you could expect. As for the Astros and the city staging a major sporting event, shrugs were the responses I got.
With little left to accomplish, I headed over to the Main Street Corridor for a bite. The neat urban street with a light-rail line running through the middle of it, lined on both sides with snazzy restaurants and bars, was mostly deserted. There were people here and there, but I was told the street was usually packed on Friday nights.
Finally, I returned to my hotel through the empty, dark streets. There was no one in the lobby when I got back.
I could see the lights already on at Minute Maid Park when I woke early Saturday. The park was just a few blocks away; the roof was closed and preparations were under way for the long day.
The streets remained still as I walked over to the park. I passed some men fixing the awning of an apartment building, the first actual storm damage I'd seen downtown. Through the labyrinthine corridors of the innards of Minute Maid Park, the Astros' clubhouse was opened to a much larger than usual media contingent. It had been less than 48 hours since I'd last visited with them in Florida, but the Astros had done so much since then.
In a nice touch, Astros pitcher Joe Musgrove had a pair of cleats autographed by children he met yesterday at the convention center near Minute Maid Park, where families displaced by Hurricane Harvey are being sheltered. Musgrove will wear the cleats through the three-game series against the Mets this weekend.
"I figured with what's been going on it would be a good opportunity to let the kids who are stuck in the shelters to design and draw, for them to know it was going to be on TV and see their stuff out there," Musgrove said. "They seemed to really enjoy it. They got a little crazy with them, but it's cool.
"Absolutely [the best shoes I've ever worn]. They have a lot of meaning behind them. Not the prettiest, but it's really special to me."
The Astros have been emphatic all week long that, for them, baseball is secondary to the disaster at home. That attitude remained even after returning to Houston and working in the community on what Hinch called "a day of service." Yet, there was something else going on, too, a realization that at times like this, when games are trivial, there is a role that sports play in a city that goes well beyond the meaning of balls, strikes and runs.
"You see how these people were out of their homes and lost their cars," Musgrove said. "But their passion and desire for us to go out and win, we kind of seem like a highlight for them. To come in yesterday and see the people and the joy they can still have with all the stuff they are going through is really special. We're all really excited to be home."
This has been the tone set by Hinch all week. In fact, when he was asked how he could get his team to disassociate from the problems of the city and focus on baseball, he said he didn't want to do that at all.
"I don't want it out of their minds," Hinch said. "I want them to think about it this week. I want them to think about it next week. I want them to think about it next month, and six months, and whenever people need something and we have time and energy and money and whatever we can do to help.
"I want them to think about it. For the three hours [of the game], we're pros. We're baseball people. We'll be able to compete."
The emotions are still raw. George Springer, Houston's star center fielder, speaks with a mild stutter that seems ironic because he is in fact one of the most eloquent players in the game. His passion for the city has been evident in every statement he has made over the past eight days, and that didn't change Saturday.
"It's special to come home and to get a chance to play in front of our home fans, who we think are the best fans out there," Springer said. "It's sad that circumstances of what we're coming home to, but it shows how resilient this city actually is and how compassionate the people are.
"The debris on the side of the road, the furniture stacked up, water in places where you know there's not supposed to be water. It's scary. It's sad. There are thousands and thousands of people who don't have a home to go back to, or their home is under water.
"For us, that was a tough reality to see for the first time."
Before the game at Minute Maid Park, they played a song called "Dreaming of Houston" written and recorded over the last week by the band Coldplay, who had to cancel a scheduled performance here because of Hurricane Harvey.
A lot was going on before the first game Saturday. Fans were filing in, many donating food to wives of Astros players stationed outside. Others gave cash to fundraisers working the sidewalks outside the park. First responders were lining up near the home dugout to be honored. Mayor Turner, fresh off a meeting with President Donald J. Trump, was on the field in an orange Astros T-shirt. TV cameras trailed him everywhere.
Here's Houston mayor Sylvester Turner again, thanking some of the many first-responders who have done so much for the citizens of the the region over the last week.
Astros owner Jim Crane told media that Turner, who has become a well-known face over the past week, made Saturday possible.
"He got the message over here first, we didn't call him on it," Crane said. "He said we really need you to open up the stadium and have a game, get some return to normalcy over here.
"He's done a good job of pulling everybody together. He got questioned on some of the things he's done, but I think he's made the right decisions. I think he made the right decision to get these games going again."
As Crane points out, one of the things that Turner has been questioned about is his decision to allow the Astros to stage a big league baseball game when the relief efforts remain in progress. There will be three games, in fact, between Saturday's doubleheader and Sunday's matinee. But if the questions bothered Turner, he certainly didn't show it.
"It is highly significant for the city of Houston to have the Astros play," Turner said. "People in the city, people in the region, need something to cheer for. When the Astros asked me my thoughts about playing, I indicated to them, let's play ball.
"You can't stay down forever. We can do more than one thing at a time. The quicker the city gets back on its feet, the better it will be for everyone."
Of course, to stage a game, resources have to be allocated. Security. Traffic control. The stadium itself has to be staffed, and the employees of Minute Maid Park come from all over the city. Yet try as I might, I could not find anybody to complain about it. After all, funds were being raised at the game, too, and food was being donated. Whether that was enough to offset the extraneous costs of the event is hard to say without the right data.
Money has been pouring in from everywhere. Crane got the ball rolling with $4 million early in the week, and every team in baseball has followed suit in some fashion, though Crane didn't put a figure on how much had been raised across the league. Players have donated, and not just the Astros. The Mets, after arriving Thursday, were out helping in the community on Friday. The scale of all this is so staggering that, really, putting on a baseball game seems like small potatoes. And, again, no one I asked -- stadium employees, policemen working security, fans on the concourse -- seemed to have a problem with it.
"This is a can-do city," Turner said. "We've faced challenges in the past and we'll face challenges in the future. One thing is, if you knock us down, we don't stay down. The games today are a testament to just that."
Then Turner went out to throw his first pitch. Someone in the stands yelled, "We love you Mayor Turner!" Then Turner fired his ceremonial pitch right into the turf.
"There has been so much going on," Turner said, feigning dismay. "I don't like throwing the ball into the ground. I think it was a defective ball. That's all I can tell you, because I don't throw it into the ground."
When Hinch spoke to the crowd, he took time to thank first responders and also the Mets, who had to agree to Friday's postponement, which the Astros used to catch their collective breath and pitch in with the relief effort. Unfortunately, in Houston's first game after Hurricane Harvey, the Mets, in a bizarre coincidence during a season in which they can't do much right, started Matt Harvey.
It was a smallish crowd on hand for the first game of today's Astros-Mets doubleheader, the first major sporting event in Houston since Hurricane Harvey. The announced attendance was 30,319 but the actual turnstile count was probably less than half that. Call it was an odd twist of fate that New York started Matt Harvey. It was nothing but a coincidence, though Houston manager A.J. Hinch did joke, "I'm sort of weirded out about stuff like that."
Houston knocked Harvey out of the game after the second inning, rolling up seven runs against him. "We beat that storm, so hopefully we can beat this one," Springer had said beforehand.
The Astros went on to win Game 1 of the doubleheader, 12-8, in drama-free fashion. I headed out for a bit after the second inning when the Astros were already up 7-0 to see what was going on at the convention center.
Just three blocks away from where the Astros are playing the Mets, many remain in limbo at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Many are carting their belongings around in garbage bags, some in cardboard boxes. There seems to be a steady flow of those still moving in, while a few lucky others are moving out.
From afar, when you heard reports of shelters being filled, including the one at the massive convention hall, just three blocks from the ballpark, it was impossible not to conjure images of the Superdome in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago. The situation in Houston, at the venue the locals call "the GRB," was nothing like those images inside the Superdome.
People weren't happy to be there. Of course they weren't. But it was clean and dry and there were beds and food and water. Trucks marked with FEMA and Homeland Security logos were prevalent, and there was a strong police presence. In one room, FEMA workers worked on laptops, processing claims from people waiting in folding chairs. Outside, some watched over belongings stuffed into garbage bags. Some were still moving in, including one couple pushing their belongings with a wheel-cart stacked with boxes. Another family was moving out, throwing boxes and bags of stuff into the trunk of a taxi.
The mayor had gone to the convention center to visit and meet with Rockets star James Harden. I couldn't find them. The sense I got while looking around was more of collective boredom than anything. That might change as the limbo lingers. It's hard to say. Still, the ballgame nearby didn't seem to ruffle any feathers of those I asked. Of course, if I went out to one of the areas where people are still stranded, I might get an entirely different answer.
"Sports in general are pretty therapeutic to a lot of people," Hinch had said. "Yesterday, when we went to the convention center and got a chance to see a lot of people, some first responders, some military, some evacuees, they were all so excited to see us and say hello."
Back at the park, I ran into a man named Jerry, who was leaving the game. I asked him why he was leaving, and it turned out that he had one of the 5,000 tickets that had been given out to those at the shelters and to first responders. The problem? "I don't like baseball," he said. "I just wanted to see the inside of the stadium."
After the game
More than anything, the feel at Minute Maid Park was one of pause and reflection, a step in the right direction after a terrible week. From the mayor to Crane to Hinch to the players, it was about thanking those who have done so much good, and reminding everyone of all that is left to do.
The pregame ceremony had been an emotional one. A couple of the Astros players had misty eyes as they stood along the baseline. Two TV reporters near me cried during a presentation on the video board, during which they played Coldplay's "Dreaming of Houston" -- a song the band had written and recorded after they had to cancel an appearance due to the storm.
It definitely was not the feel of a normal game. Springer homered, his 30th of the season, pounding his chest and pointing to the crowd as he crossed home plate.
"The next few weeks, games, days, whatever, this team is going to play with a lot of emotion, going to play with a lot of heart," Springer said. "The city has been through a lot over the last few days. For me, that was for them, and it was an emotional moment for me."
For me, the most poignant moment of the entire day was when starting pitcher Charlie Morton took the podium after Game 1. Morton's week had exemplified the angst that surrounded the club when they were on the road, unable to do anything to help those still in Houston.
Among those left behind were Morton's wife and kids, who fared just fine. Morton even spoke of feeling guilty because of the isolation the team felt from the events at home. But rather than despair, Morton found reason to celebrate.
"Having my family here, my wife and my kids, and to see the goodness in people ... you know it's here," Morton said. "In times like this, when people are going through some of the worst times they've experienced, the goodness in people really shines. It makes [it] easier for us on the road and unable to do anything. I'm just really, really proud to be an Astro. I'm so proud to be a small part of the city and the community."
All of this happened on the day that baseball returned to Houston, sooner than anyone would have thought just a few days ago. The Astros won, the celebratory train whistle sounded and the stands emptied. The ballpark staff came out to clean up and got ready to do it again. There was another game to play. After all, this is a baseball city, right, Mr. Mayor?