HOUSTON -- While Hurricane Harvey was inflicting catastrophic damage on Houston and surrounding areas in late August, the city's baseball team was busy empathizing from afar. Major League Baseball moved a scheduled series between the Astros and Texas Rangers from Minute Maid Park to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Houston lost two of three games before crowds averaging 4,331 people in a climate-controlled bubble.
When the flood waters finally began to recede and the Astros returned to a ravaged city, they got a slight reprieve. A day off was built into the schedule Friday, Sept. 1, to help the area begin to get up and running again, and the Houston players took advantage of the window to interact with the community before a doubleheader against the New York Mets on Saturday.
Joe Musgrove and Chris Devenski, two Astros relievers, hit the ground running. At 6 a.m., they drove to BBVA Compass Stadium, home of the Houston Dynamo MLS team, and helped load pallets of supplies designated for local communities in need. After taking a break for lunch, they joined 14 other teammates at the George R. Brown Convention Center, where they met with families who had been displaced by the flood waters.
Some of those families had been rescued from rooftops by helicopter or boat during the storm siege and ferried to sanctuary. The initial rush of 10,000 evacuees had subsided to about 2,000, but the 16 Astros got a clear picture of what Houston had endured -- and how determined Houston was to recover from nature's best punch.
"It was like its own little world,'' Musgrove said. "They had barbers in there. They had food. They had clothes. They had little stations where you could go play with the dogs. They had games. They had everything. It seemed like the kids had no idea what was really going on, which was pretty cool to see. They were all so happy and excited and having fun going through such a tough time.''
Orbit, the Astros' furry green mascot, entertained the children while fan favorite Jose Altuve danced with a volunteer and others posed for photographs. Musgrove, 24, instinctively gravitated to the kids' area. When Musgrove was a teenager in California, his father, Mark, a San Diego policeman, was stricken with an autoimmune deficiency that left him paralyzed from the neck down for two years. Mark subsequently recovered, but the experience left Joe ultrasensitive to the emotional scars that children can incur during times of trauma.
So he came up with an idea that might resonate beyond a single meet-and-greet. Musgrove brought a pair of white spikes to the shelter and asked the kids to decorate them with signatures and other designs. He wore the cleats during the weekend series against the Mets and told the kids to watch on TV to potentially see their handiwork. The shoes were authenticated and later auctioned off for $1,400, with the proceeds going toward hurricane relief.
Other players did their part in a variety of ways. Pitcher Lance McCullers, who has a soft spot for dogs, visited an animal shelter and worked with local charities to help rescue and treat pets in the aftermath of the flooding. Dallas Keuchel met with local police, and Carlos Correa distributed mattresses to children. Justin Verlander donated $100,000 -- a gift that was matched by the team -- to military veterans displaced by the hurricane, and Altuve contributed $30,000 and thousands more in shoes and athletic gear through his promotional agreement with New Balance.
"When you see how the city supported us nonstop throughout the whole season, it's the least you can do,'' Musgrove said. "We're not from Houston. But we play for the city, and you start to fall in love with the fans. We're giving them something to be proud of, and you can see how we've been a centerpiece for the city to rally around. The special year we're having will be that much more special if we can bring back a championship.''
Once the games resumed, manager A.J. Hinch gave an emotional speech, and the Astros appropriately vanquished Mets starter Matt Harvey in a 12-8 victory. Over the ensuing weeks, the "H-Strong" patches on the players' jerseys helped galvanize the community, and each victory raised the fans' spirits. The players, in turn, drew energy from the fans' resolve.
"This is one of the reasons why we are here,'' Altuve said. "We want to win the World Series and give it to our city."
Many of the fans who filled Minute Maid Park during the playoffs against Boston and New York wore T-shirts with the inscription #HoustonStrong, an offshoot of the #BostonStrong T-shirts that symbolized the city's resilience after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Although the circumstances were different, the teams' two success stories helped illustrate how athletes and fans can bond through trying times.
The extent of Harvey's destructive path is difficult to grasp for national media members and other out-of-towners who parachuted in for the postseason and stayed in Houston hotels, ate in downtown restaurants and walked the streets to and from Minute Maid Park amid what looked like business as usual.
Much of the devastation took place in surrounding areas -- in Houston suburbs such as Baytown, Dickinson, League City, Kingwood, Dayton, Spring Branch and Pasadena. Many of the affected communities were located near rivers or bayous, in planned communities where the drainage systems were overwhelmed by the incessant rains. Harvey pounded the region for days before it relinquished its grip, and a state of emergency went into effect for 30 counties in Texas and the neighboring state of Louisiana.
While Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt was doing herculean work to raise money and help the area recover, the Astros mobilized their resources in multiple areas. The team donated $4 million through its foundation and established a YouCaring site that has raised an additional $243,000.
In the aftermath of the storm, the team opened the kitchens at Minute Mark Park and cooked 5,000 meals a day to be distributed in the community by the Salvation Army. School schedules were severely disrupted by the hurricane damage, and the Astros bought 20,000 school-supply kits and 11,000 backpacks for Houston, Pasadena and outlying districts.
The team has also reached out to local Little Leagues, which incurred significant flood damage and lost equipment during the hurricane. Twila Carter, executive director of the Astros' foundation and the team's community relations department, said seven of the 15 fields used by the Kingwood/Forest Cove League were under 20 feet of water during the peak of the flood surge. While inspecting the fields, local officials were stunned to see fish lodged at the top of the batting screens.
Reid Ryan, the Astros' club president, plunged into the fray with his wife, Nicole, and their three children through the family's affiliation with Second Baptist Church in Houston. Volunteers showed up and were given wheelbarrows, vacuums, sanitizing chemicals and other tools and sent to locations to help people they had never met rebuild their lives.
"My wife led a crew that was gutting carpets and floors and putting in drywall,'' Ryan said. "This is a woman who didn't know what drywall was. And I say that respectfully.''
Ryan, the son of "Big Tex,'' Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, talks of the "rugged, frontier individualism'' that defines the makeup of Texans. That stoicism notwithstanding, many Houston-area residents have reached out to Carter and the Astros for a helping hand or a sympathetic ear during their time of despair.
During a conversation with ESPN.com, Carter read several excerpts from letters she had received from Hurricane Harvey victims. One such appeal came from a woman representing a local church that had been around since the mid-1800s. The church lost its sanctuary, a pipe organ, altars, pews and all its supplies down to the Bibles and songbooks. Everything was buried under several feet of rain, muck and sod.
"The best way I can describe what it feels like when you see it is just a kick in the gut,'' the woman told Carter. "I've seen grown men weep. It is so heart-wrenching. The bad part about it is, it isn't the first time. The first time we were well-insured. This time, not so much.''
Other handwritten letters expressed similar themes. A local woman reached out on behalf of her stepmother, who's suffering from kidney disease and congestive heart disease and had to be rescued by boat during the storm. Carter heard from a mother whose sons played youth ball on area fields before going on to college and a choir group at a local school that had incurred major damage because of the floods.
Come spring, the Astros plan to announce several big-picture initiatives through which resources will be put to use to help Houston rebuild. On a smaller scale, if the Astros can provide an autographed Carlos Correa or Jose Altuve baseball to help a local group with a fundraiser, they'll try to oblige.
"You're not going to drive the city streets and say, 'Wow, it looks terrible,''' Carter said. "It's not visible. But a lot of people have called and sent emails and written letters because they know that we work in the community. A lot of times, it's people who write on behalf of others.''
Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, who grew up in New York and went to college at Seton Hall in New Jersey before Houston chose him in the first round of the 1987 draft, fell in love with the city through 2,850 games and 12,504 plate appearances as an Astro. His heart ached as he saw the region decimated by the storm.
"You think about our fan base and what people went through with Harvey, and how devastating that was,'' Biggio said. "The boys were on the road for a while and their families were here. It was hard for everybody.
"Harvey didn't care who you were, where you lived or what your address was. If it got you, it got you. Everybody here understands that. The players and the organization both understand it. But the way this team continued to play has been a great story. [The power of] sports is an amazing thing.''
Biggio is entirely correct that Harvey didn't discriminate. About 25 Astros employees -- from senior vice presidents to ticket sellers -- lost homes and/or family vehicles during the storm. The damage was so extensive, in some cases, they simply gutted the first floor, moved to the second floor and added a door for an entryway.
"The best way I can describe what it feels like when you see it is just a kick in the gut. I've seen grown men weep. It is so heart-wrenching." Excerpt from one of the letters the Astros received from Hurricane Harvey victims
In the Houston clubhouse, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Correa and catcher Juan Centeno absorbed a double-barreled gut punch between Harvey and the massive devastation in their native Puerto Rico inflicted by Hurricane Maria. Beltran raised $1.3 million for Puerto Rico through his foundation, and Astros owner Jim Crane chartered two planes to transport supplies to the island.
"I'm trying to delegate a lot to my wife,'' Beltran said. "She told me I was going crazy. She said, 'Carlos, you need to focus on baseball and let other people take care of this.' But I'm always hands-on when I want to do something.
"There's no power in Puerto Rico. There's no water. The infrastructure is down. There could be people without power for years. Can you imagine that? Sometimes we spend one day without power and we go crazy. If that happens, it will be tough for people to recuperate. We hope that people don't lose their faith and their hope and they continue to fight.''
At home in Houston, that fighting spirit is embodied by Astros season-ticket holders Johnny and Noemi Hill, who maintained their positive outlook after incurring shin-high water at their home in League City. The Harvey-generated damage was significant enough that their son drove 22 hours from Alabama to pitch in and help with the recovery.
Although the Hills were able to replace their Ford pickup truck, they have no flood insurance. Almost two months after Harvey's arrival, they're unsure how to proceed with replacing the floor at their family home because the foundation might have shifted during the hurricane.
Johnny Hill, an Air Force veteran, works as a supervisor at Ellington Airport. The days have been long of late, and he has spent a lot of his off time tearing out flooring and replacing sheet rock to make the house habitable. Once or twice during September Astros games, he dozed off in the middle of a pitch. But the Hills insisted on buying the Astros' postseason ticket package, because they had invested so much energy in the team's success, and they wanted to see the season through to the finish.
"During the Yankees series, I came into work and everybody was hollering at me, 'Were you at the game last night?''' Johnny said. "One guy asked if I could leave Noemi at home, and he said he would come with me. He said, 'I'll be your date.'''
The Hills fell hard for the Astros from the moment they arrived in Houston from Austin in 1980. Almost 30 years ago, their children waited in line for Biggio's autograph at a local car dealership. Now Johnny proudly displays a straw hat with signatures of players from the team's winter FanFest. The hat is only missing Correa, Alex Bregman and Evan Gattis, who was away on his honeymoon at the time.
When Noemi watches games from their seats in the third deck, she instinctively snaps to attention and takes part in the "MVP! MVP!" chants each time Altuve steps to the plate. When pressed to name her favorite Astro, she's stumped for an answer.
"All the players, as far as I'm concerned,'' she said. "There are numerous players, but they're all one, because they play together and support each other.''
Togetherness has been a recurrent theme in Houston, from those first outreach efforts at the convention center to the cheers that will rain down from the Minute Maid Park stands when the Astros return home for World Series Game 3. Harvey was extraordinarily powerful and relentlessly cruel, but it has been easier to survive through strength in numbers.
"It's been a slow grind to get back, but the team has been a big part of it,'' Ryan said. "Folks wanted us to play, whether they were listening on radio or watching TV or came out to the game. This team has all of a sudden captured the imagination of our community and given everybody something to think about other than losing their home or fighting the insurance company, or having to ask themselves, 'Where am I getting the money? What am I doing?'
"It's easy to see how a community needs a positive distraction when it goes through something like this. Without a doubt, we've become the fan-favorite team in Houston, because we've played through this tragedy and represented the hopes and dreams and given people a ray of sunshine during a tough time in our community.''
That ray of hope persists, through wins, losses, cheers, tears and everything else Houston experiences with its baseball team in the fall of 2017. The memories and the bond will endure long after the final pitch of the World Series.