Thursday, November 2, 2017

This team. This city. This year.

I never got to know my granddad, because he died before I was born. I felt like I knew him, though, from the stories told by my mom & grandmom as they raised me. He played semi-pro baseball as a catcher in Wichita Falls, TX before giving up the game to marry my grandmom in the mid-1930s. "Good girls didn't marry ballplayers back then," my grandmom said. I’m still partial to catchers because.

Born & raised in Houston, I don't remember a time when my family wasn't going to baseball games in the Astrodome, or when there wasn't a rainbow Astros jersey in my closet. My granddad taught the love of the game to my mom, who then passed it on to me. I was born weeks after Nolan Ryan signed baseball's first million-dollar contract to come play at home, and weeks before the Astros began their first ever playoff-bound season in 1980. They made it again in 1986, and I'm sure I watched some games back then, but I was too young to fully soak it in. It was during the winter before the '87 season that my mom paid to take me and my sister on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Astrodome. When we tried to leave, our car wouldn't start, so I was stuck for hours then in the waiting room of a Ford Service Center with nothing to entertain me but an '87 Topps team set of Astros baseball cards and the memory of walking on Astroturf that afternoon. I've been hooked ever since.

Unlike other major sports, baseball is an everyday friend, so every summer of my childhood was filled with Astros games on TV or radio every night from April through September. I was one of a generation of kids in Southeast Texas who grew up wanting to be Craig Biggio or Jeff Bagwell. It took until 1997, when I was nearly out of high school, before I finally got to see an Astros playoff team that I was old enough to remember. I left Houston for college in '99, but thanks to the Internet, I was able to take Astros radio broadcasts with me. After the summer of 2000, I never moved back to Houston full time, but the Astros always remained my link to home.

With upper-level college classes occupying most of my energies, and the Larry Dierker era ending after '01, I drifted out of daily touch with the Astros for a time. But then Andy Pettitte signed, then Roger Clemens signed, and my Astros optimism & excitement hit an all-time high. They finally made the World Series in 2005, but that was the White Sox turn to break their 88-year curse, and Houston got swept. I still followed every game, every season, through 300+ losses in three years, 400+ losses in four years, but they didn't make it back to the playoffs until 2015. And then this year.

As a kid, many of my favorite books were about baseball. One of my most favorite was about "Baseball's Greatest World Series," telling the stories of six standout postseason dramas. Two of those chapters - about '80 & '86 - included stories about the Astros, but both years they lost in the NLCS. I wished one year to watch or read such a story in which the Astros ultimately won.

This season, the Astros were writing a great story. But the city of Houston - #HoustonStrong - told a story even greater after Hurricane Harvey hit. My hometown was devastated, and I felt helpless & wrong watching from safely out of state, but inspired by every story of heroism and so many standing up to help. As soon as they could, this Astros team was right there in the middle of it, trying to make a positive impact for thousands of victims. They caught fire as soon as they made it back to Minute Maid Park, remaining nigh unbeatable at home until the end. If Hollywood tried to write this finale, you wouldn't believe it was real, except that it actually happened. The last chapter unfolded on Hollywood's front porch.

Yes, baseball is "just a game." Sports are "just a game." But they unite communities, can lift people up. I never cheered for a non-Houston team more than I cheered for the New Orleans Saints in the Super Bowl following Katrina. Now Houston has an equal story of their own. I don't know how much attention God pays to baseball, but I'll confess throughout the Series - especially during Games 2 & 5 - I spent a lot of time praying: "Don't lead us this far just to break our hearts." I wanted the Astros to win this year, just as I want them to win ever year. I wanted my lifelong wait as a fan to end in triumph at last. But ultimately, I'm okay; I could keep waiting if I had to. "Not for me," I tried to pray, "but for my hometown. The city of Houston needs this NOW."

Eric Berger of Space City Weather noted this: Harvey dumped 51 inches of rain on Houston in late August. The Astros’ final margin of victory in Game 7: 5-1.

This team. This city. This year. #EarnedHistory