Hometown Heroes

Marwin Gonzalez helped the Astros on their magical run to the 2017 World Series title in a time when Houston — and the city — needed it most. (via Keith Allison)

August 25, 2017: Hurricane Harvey makes landfall at San José Island, Texas at Category 4 intensity.

The Houston Astros—already 77 wins into their historic season—take the field at Angels Stadium for the first of a three-game series. After the team falls behind the Angels in the first inning, J.D. Davis hits a home run in the third and George Springer scores on a wild pitch in the sixth for a 2-1 win. Though the Astros lose the next game 7-6, they go on to win the third game of the series, effectively clinching the series in Anaheim.

Over 1,500 miles away in their hometown, things aren’t going as well. Harvey continues its catastrophic sweep of the Gulf of Mexico coastline; as it moves inward, it weakens quickly, dropping from Category 4 to a tropical storm within a day. Along the coast, thousands of homes have already been destroyed—the residents of Port Arkansas, Rockport, Corpus Christi, and other coastal communities suffer the brute force of the hurricane. But for those living in Houston—me included—the worst part of our experience is yet to begin: the flooding. More than 30 inches of rain pour over the metropolitan area, with some areas reaching up to 60 inches. Since Houston isn’t built to deal with record-breaking levels of rain, the water levels in the street continue to rise. Hour after hour, evacuation recommendations spread throughout the city and the suburbs.

When the evacuation status in my neighborhood ticks up to recommended, my family and I are conflicted. We’ve had flash flooding and extended storms in Houston before, especially during the waning days of summer, and we’re fully stocked with water and non-perishable food. Some of our neighbors plan to bunker down for the next few days because we’re not in the mandatory evacuation zone, so for a couple of hours, we teeter on the edge of staying. Then our roof begins leaking in the guest room. We watch the wall with concern as it gradually soaks through (and grumble about the cost of repairing it afterwards), but it doesn’t affect our movements, which are, despite the relentless rain, surprisingly normal.

A couple of hours later, I hear a crash, similar to thunder, and feel powder from the ceiling shower down onto my head. It’s the guest room: burdened by Harvey’s weight, the ceiling has collapsed. My entire family sprints to the room, and we stare in disbelief at the debris covering the carpet and the gaping hole in the ceiling. Frightened that the entire roof could cave in, we quickly decide that staying is no longer a viable option. The next hour, we haphazardly toss belongings into suitcases, drag sandbags up to the door and stuff newspapers under it, and search for evacuation centers that are still accessible via local roads (the highways are a definite no-go).

The closest shelter to our home is only a few minutes away by car, but it’s a drive that I never want to make again. Inside the neighborhood, the water has risen partway up the car’s wheels. Our SUV stalls twice. We’re silent, each one of us terrified that we’ll get stuck along the road and have to trudge back to our structurally unsound house. Through sheer horsepower or luck – I can’t decide which – our family car delivers us to the shelter, where we are fortunate to be taken in and offered a place—formerly a conference room—to sleep.

Less lucky are the people in the heart of the city – where the water’s much higher – who are virtually trapped in their homes. Their cars are submerged, and even if they weren’t, the roads are now rivers. According to the National Hurricane Center, over 300,000 people are left without electricity, and tens of thousands need to be rescued. Relief organizations rush to help, but so do their fellow Houstonians, who rescue people and pets in trucks and boats and give the displaced a place to stay in their own homes.

Where are the Astros through all of this? They were scheduled to return to Houston for a six-game home stand against the Rangers and the Mets, but the city is in no state to host sporting events. Members of the team – and the rest of the nation – are active on Twitter, expressing their shock, horror, and disbelief, as well as encouraging others to donate to rescue and recovery efforts. Still, the game schedule, it seems, must go on. Unable to play at home (or at Globe Life Park), the Rangers and Astros move their three-game series to Tropicana Field – home to the Tampa Bay Rays – where the average turnout over the series is just 4,331 people. Playing to a ballpark that’s 80% empty, Houston loses the series but, as you can imagine, the players’ minds are elsewhere.

September 2, 2017: the Astros return to Minute Maid Park for a three-game series against the Mets.

In two days, they sweep the Mets in what would become a six-game winning streak, extending their lead over the AL West. More importantly, the fans come out: over 30,000 fans show up to every game, many of them displaced from their homes. Their homes, cars, and belongings have been drowned by the flood; facing unimaginable stress in the aftermath of Harvey, they turn to baseball for solace. That series is played for those people, and all the others in Houston and along the Gulf of Mexico who have been affected by the hurricane.

The same day – roughly a week after we arrived at the evacuation center – my family and I receive word from our neighbors that our neighborhood streets are now navigable. Navigable puts it generously. But the drive isn’t what we stress about. Rather, we have no idea what the state of our house will be, especially the roof. No flood water invaded the first floor: so far, so good. The bedrooms are mostly fine, save for a spider web of cracks along the ceiling. The guest bedroom, however, resembles a construction site. The window is still in place, as is the wall that connects it to the adjacent room, but the other sides of the room are soaked through, the hole in the ceiling has expanded to nearly half of the room’s area, and the floor is buried beneath building materials with a foul odor. Still worried about the safety of moving back in and annoyed by the inconsistent signal, I don’t watch the series against the Mets. But, the next time I turn on the TV – which was moved upstairs before we left and luckily undamaged – the first thing I notice is that the Astros uniform has changed.

Throughout the rest of the season, the Astros play with a “Houston Strong” patch fixed on the front of their jerseys. “Houston Strong” comes to represent what the Astros are playing for; in the face of Harvey’s wreckage, Houstonians and their baseball team stand together, and in the process, gain strength from each other. “Houston Strong” pops up everywhere, not just on Astros merchandise, but also on paraphernalia for other Houston sports teams, colleges, businesses, and virtually anything else you can think of. To this day, I still see people with “Houston Strong” shirts walking around.

Houston comes together in a way it hasn’t before: a neighborhood near mine, situated just slightly closer to sea level, is completely devastated, so children and adults – and professional athletes, too – volunteer their time and money clearing the streets and gutting flood-damaged houses. The sun comes out with a vengeance, and so, under the blazing heat, the water dries up and the city starts to erase Harvey.

Two weeks after the hurricane, schools re-open and people go back to work out of necessity rather than ability. Thousands are still displaced, and for those who, like me, are lucky enough to live in their own homes, Harvey’s remnants continue to add stress and detract from our productivity. Everything’s running behind schedule, including the replacement of our roof and drywall and the projects that have somehow piled up, but many of us aren’t ready to resume life as normal. Interactions are quiet, bordering on solemn as I encounter people whom I haven’t seen in weeks. No one is quite sure of what their co-workers are going through, and out in the suburbs, where the floodwaters receded a few days after the rain stopped, the images of downtown Houston – still flooded – on the morning news stops us in our tracks. But, with people unsure of how to even begin discussing the subject, Harvey’s devastating impact often goes unsaid.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Fortunately, we still have baseball to buoy our spirits. The Astros finish their a six-game run, and a week later, they win another five in a row, reaching their 100th win of the season. We all know that the Astros are going to the postseason, but we still jump to our feet on the last day of the regular season: facing Red Sox reliever Fernando Abad, the Astros drive in four runs in the seventh inning, securing their 101st win. Come October, there’s something in the air, and it’s not just the persistent humidity and mosquitoes. Throughout the growing base of Astros fans in Houston, there’s something akin to hope. Anything can happen in the postseason.

A.J. Hinch, the Astros manager, talked to the Los Angeles Times about the deeper importance of a World Series run, saying that “it gives hope. It gives appreciation. It gives a smile or two for people going through some hard times. And for that, we’re happy to be a part of it.”

Hard times, indeed.

The Astros take the ALDS in four games. If I were to pick an MVP, it’d have to be Jose Altuve: over the course of this series, he bats .533 and ends up with an OPS of 1.765; four other Astros – Carlos Beltran, Evan Gattis, Yuli Gurriel, and Springer – also procure an OPS over 1.000. And so, in a four hour Game Five at Fenway Park, Houston keeps its chances to #EarnHistory alive.

Here, we enter the realm of Houston mythology. In the ALCS, Houston wins the first two games, both 2-1. But then the Astros go to New York and lose three times in a row. The stakes skyrocket. Back in Houston, who better than Justin Verlander to lead Houston to its first blowout win of the series? The next day, the Astros hit their way to their first AL pennant and their first World Series ticket in 12 years.

The final moments of that ALCS are likely engraved in the memories of many Houstonians: Springer windmills his arms and easily catches the final out. The men in the dugout start hugging each other even before they pour onto the field. The crowd explodes into a deafening roar – not a single fan remains in their seat. My dad, my brother, and I are basically running and jumping around the house as my mom laughs at our excitement.

Three days later, the World Series begins. In front of over 50,000 fans in Los Angeles, the Astros lose Game One to the Dodgers. Sports pundits and fans take to Twitter to extrapolate conclusions, and Houstonians clutch threads of faith and optimism. Game Two swings the other way: Marwin Gonzalez’s game-tying home run in the ninth inning sends us to extra innings, where the Dodgers and Astros score two runs apiece in the 10th. Staving off the idea of sleeping eight hours, we stay up to watch Springer hit a two-run homer; the Astros win 7-6. Off the back of an early lead, the Astros win Game Three, but in the next game, they have a disastrous ninth inning, giving up five runs in a previously tied game.

The series is tied 2-2 for the fifth – and perhaps most memorable – game of the series. The Dodgers’ bats start moving early, so when they lead 4-0 in the top of the fourth, the outcome seems bleak. But then Carlos Correa drives Springer in on a double and, right after him, Gurriel hits a three-run home run. The Astros pull ahead, only for the Dodgers to send us to extra innings with three runs in the ninth. Around midnight, Alex Bregman hits a walk-off single – a triumphant plate appearance that makes every 2017 postseason highlights video.

Traveling back to the picturesque Dodger Stadium, Astros fans cross their fingers for a win. It’s Halloween, but children and their parents rush back from trick-or-treating (or don’t go at all) to watch the game – after all, you can’t compare candy to a World Series win. Verlander’s on the mound, but after the Astros pull ahead in the third, the Dodgers claim the lead for a 3-2 win. Now, the Astros and Dodgers are tied 3-3; with the pennant nearly close enough to touch, the World Series outcome is still up in the air.

Houston spends the next day in a semi-delirious state of anxiety and anticipation. And, well…

November 1, 2017: the Astros win the World Series.

Houston cheers, screams, and beams as champagne flows in the locker room, sports bars explode with raucous energy, and Astros fans everywhere weep openly. This team – the players, coaches, and the organization as a whole – means so much more to their fans than just the trophy.

As I half-sit, half-stand at the edge of a chair, situated right under a patch of ceiling that’s still discolored from water damage, I’m simultaneously cheering and crying. Elsewhere in Houston, I imagine hundreds of thousands of others are doing the same: we were affected by Harvey in an infinite array of ways, so the hurricane is at the forefront of our minds, a sober counterbalance to the ebullient victory on and off the field. The World Series win is tangible in that moment. Yes, our baseball team has won, but in another sense, so has our city.

People rush out to the streets to celebrate. Lines in sports stores snake out to the parking lot as fans try to get World Series merchandise. Everyone wants a piece of history. Astros pride is here to stay: with perhaps the exception of ubiquitous Yankees hats in New York, I have yet to visit another city that sports as much baseball merch as Houston does.

This is the first time the World Series parade is in Houston, so everyone wants to be there. People cut school and call in sick to work, and those who can’t be there discreetly livestream it. Toward the afternoon, traffic extends well out of Houston as thousands pour into downtown; when the sidewalks fill up, people look out from buildings and parking garages, eager to catch a glimpse of the Astros players-turned-Houston-legends.

Hoisting the massive trophy above their heads, the Astros look out at a crowd of orange and “Houston Strong” signs as they make their way through downtown, unrecognizable from the flooded streets just two months prior. For a city that has persevered through a natural disaster, the ending of the Astros’ 2017 season is a boost of morale, an injection of hope into communities barraged, but not broken, by Harvey. As baseball fans, we identify with our team as an extension of our own identities; and so, when the Astros overcome injuries, doubt, and fierce opposition to earn history, there’s a part within ourselves that says, hey, we can do this too.

Miriam Zuo is a die-hard Astros fan who also likes learning about social sciences through books and podcasts.

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