HOUSTON – Jason Garcia just wanted to get back to normal. He got his hair cut over the weekend, and even worked out. On Saturday night he took in an Astros game at a ballpark just blocks from the convention-center-turned-hurricane-shelter he called home for a night after being airlifted by Coast Guard helicopter from his home on the northeast side of the city Monday, as flood waters engulfed his neighborhood.
“You try to get back to normal as soon as possible,” said Garcia, a 32-year-old restaurant manager and lifelong Houstonian. “People just need something to cheer for.”
The Astros returned on Saturday after playing their previous series against the Rangers at the home of the Tampa Bay Rays. The team could’ve stayed in Florida and played their home series against the Mets, but they opted to return to Texas on the heels of a week of devastation in the city and beyond as a result of Hurricane Harvey.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch, perhaps sensing the apprehension of a sparse crowd attending the first game of Saturday's doubleheader with the Mets, took a microphone and made the rare decision to address the crowd.
“I want to thank you all for being here on a very special day for us to start the rebuilding process for our great city,” said the third-year manager. “On behalf of the players, coaches, our organization, we want to that everyone in the city of Houston that’s doing something good for somebody else.”
Fans attending the game were encouraged to bring canned food destined for local shelters that had sprouted this week as floods destroyed homes, displaced families and took the lives of more than 40 people in the greater Houston area. Some of the displaced families were invited to the game, with the team providing free tickets for thousands living in nearby shelters.
Some fans who were only inconvenienced by the storm this week found themselves pondering the appropriateness of baseball at a time like this.
“I was glad to do it,” said Rick Lafont after a long pause. His home in Pearland remained dry while neighbors took on water. While Lafont’s wife was stuck for days in the orthopedic hospital where she’s a nurse, Lafont milled around the house and carried on one-sided conversations with his dog, Reba, a Golden Retreiver. “To come out here and watch some baseball, it felt like getting back to normal,” he said.
Houston’s mayor agreed. It was Sylvester Turner who encouraged Astros brass to return to the city to play.
“We’ve faced challenges in the past, we’re going to face challenges in the future, but the important thing is that if you knock us down we don’t stay down,” Turner said Saturday. “The games today are a testament to that.”
The American League West-leading Astros (82-53) announced more than 30,000 fans attended a 12-8 win over the Mets in the day game, and 34,000 attended Saturday night’s 4-1 win that dropped their magic number for clinching the division title to 15. Fans streamed into the night to the tune of blaring hip hop on Texas Avenue and a street preacher using a megaphone to warn of the coming apocalypse. All of it would have been normal, but for the shallow pools of water on streets and sidewalks still damp from minor flooding around the park.
“It definitely felt different inside the park,” said Dino Hasanovic, 30, the owner of an internet marketing agency. “It’s touched such a big part of the city all over, that everybody knows somebody who’s been severely affected. People are still kind of sad about what’s going on.”
During the game, Astros cameras highlighted Harvey-related signs reading "Houston Strong" and the like. The team wore jersey patches debuting a Houston Strong logo. Michele Furano, attending the game with her daughter, Rachel, found the display moving.
“The energy was really powerful. This wasn’t even full and this place was rocking and rolling,” said Michele, who says she spent some of the week ripping up waterlogged carpet in a friend’s home. “It’s hard, because I know that just not far from here there are still people that are pulling their lives together. It just looks like a war zone in a lot of places.”
Michele’s daughter, a bartender, said her restaurant had been offering free meals to folks who lost everything in the storm, and that she’d heard hundreds of heartbreaking testimonials from barstools.
If all of it was supposed to disconnect these fans from the Astros, it hadn’t. It may have only made the bond stronger. They came back by the thousands and got wrapped up in the community of it. They got to cheer about something for the first time in a week.
“I made it out of the storm okay,” Garcia said. “One street over, everybody’s home was ripped out. You count your blessings, and you move forward.”