Long before the first pitches of the 2017 Major League Baseball season were thrown, many of the game's smartest minds said that this year would be a big, big year for the Houston Astros.
From the outset, the Astros have been one of the most dominant teams in baseball. Houston won 20 of its first 30 games played and stormed into the midsummer break with a 60-29 record. Just before Major League Baseball's All-Star Break commenced, the Astros closed out their standing by scoring double-digit run counts in four of their last six games. Six Astros players in total were called up to the July 11th All-Star Game in Miami, with second baseman José Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa and outfielder George Springer all as starting position players.
On the field, it's been a great month for the Houston Astros, too. Mid-September saw the American League West favorites clinch their division easily. Meanwhile, Springer and fellow outfielder Marwin Gonzalez did their share to pile on home runs and RBIs. So have Correa and his pint-sized baseline partner Altuve, who as a dynamic duo continue to set the infields of the American League on fire with memorable play.
Plus, Houston's fast footwork in the baselines is something special. Going into the last week of September, both Altuve and newly acquired outfielder Cameron Maybin – who joined the Astros on August 31st from the Angels – are tied for second in the American League's count of stolen bases. Both players have 32 steals, just one behind the league leader, Whit Merrifield of Kansas City. Five-time All-Star Altuve led the league in stolen bases in 2014 and 2015 and was American League batting champion in both 2014 and 2016.
On the mound, the Astros' pitching has been reasonably solid all season. Dallas Keuchel is nearly playing with the same form he did two years ago when he won the American League Cy Young Award, while in the bullpen, relievers such as middle man Chris Devenski and closer Ken Giles keep the heat on. Add to that the club's recent addition of Justin Verlander, a six-time All-Star and 2011 Cy Young Award recipient. It all just makes the season's remaining games look sweeter.
Yet ever since Hurricane Harvey touched down upon the United States at the tail end of August life has changed in south Texas. The storm not only altered sports schedules in baseball, college football, and the NFL preseason, it also upended lives for almost everyone in and around the City of Houston.
Reid Ryan, the Astros president of business operations, also said that the storm has tested the area's residents and changed the perspective of the team and its staff.
"This storm has been devastating on a lot of levels, frustrating on a lot of levels, and inspiring on a lot of levels," Ryan tells Rolling Stone. "It rained so much – we had prepared for a hurricane – but this thing came right at us, raining about 52 inches right on our community."
Ryan, who is also the son of Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, explained that no one in Houston had the same story about Hurricane Harvey, calling the whole experience "surreal."
"You had everything from folks who are in our Astros fan base out in Corpus Christi and Rockport with severe wind damage and trees knocked down, to people right here with four feet of water in their house from straight rain and flooding," Ryan says. "In some places, the whole neighborhood flooded, and in other parts of town it all ran off and just looked like a normal Saturday with rain."
Immediately as the storm hit, Major League Baseball announced that it would move that week's upcoming three-game series between the Astros and Texas Rangers, scheduled August 29th through 31st, to Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field. The next day after the series, the Astros returned home and were scheduled to play the New York Mets at home, but they got a breather instead.
"The Mets were gracious enough to give us the next day off, and our players came out and got to see it all with their own eyes," Ryan says. "They had just a few days to take it all in."
He adds that the focus of the players and the organization turned from baseball to their community. In addition to their usual and regularly scheduled efforts pegged to the team's new #HoustonStrong campaign, the people and the organization felt the natural need to step up their efforts to help Houston.
"We've had players helping out all across the board," Ryan says. "The day after we got back, we had 16 players go to George R. Brown Convention Center to meet with evacuees. Normally when have something big like that you have five or six guys. But to have half the team, it was really overwhelming."
By now, most of the water has receded in Greater Houston, and there remains a lot of work to do. Fortune magazine reported that the cost of Hurricane Harvey's damages could equal or exceed $180 billion. Meanwhile, the residents of the city and its environs look to recover as best as they can. Astros manager A.J. Hinch says that everything that's happened in the last month only makes his team and the organization want to do more for the community.
"Athletes rarely need extra reasons to try to be great," Hinch says. "But I think we've owned the responsibility of representing Houston the right way, and to be a stable part of a community that's going through something."
Hinch cites the character and work ethic of his players, and hints that guys like Altuve, Correa and Springer, as well as experienced specialists such as designated hitter Carlos Beltran and catcher Brian McCann, have what it takes to be a source of encouragement on the field and off for Houston.
"We've had one of the best teams in the league from day one and we've gotten stronger, but we've had to endure some injuries, and our depth in the minor leagues as been tested." Hinch says. "Then, when we had some guys come up and added Verlander and Maybin, and got healthy, it's put us in a position for a special run."
"The motivation is high [among players]," Hinch adds, and explaining that "the appreciation from our fanbase is great. And, as we get deeper into the postseason we'll remember that we play a big role in [the City of] Houston's rebuild."
Ryan chalks it up to the team's synergy and natural enthusiasm for the game of baseball, which creates a spark that has helped them all season.
"Many of our guys came up through the same system. They're young. They know they're good. They like each other. And then throw in the guys we acquired or traded for like [outfielder Josh] Reddick, or McCann or now Verlander, it's exciting. "
All said, getting to the World Series, much less winning it, won't be a walk in the park for any team. Hinch says that he and the Astros players know that.
"The American League is pretty good, all around. You have the Indians rattle off twenty-plus wins all of the sudden, the Red Sox are always tough to beat, the Yankees are heading to the postseason, there's going to be another Wild Card surprise." Moreover, October baseball is often about small but very important victories, Hinch adds.
Both Hinch and Ryan thinks their October outlook is very good. Ryan, in particular, says that there's a little extra enthusiasm around the Astros this time around. They remain one of a few teams in Major League Baseball that have never won a World Series. The club's only visit came in 2005 against the Chicago White Sox, when the Astros were in the National League. However, Ryan says the Astros' players hit the field everyday with more than just their own goals in mind.
"Everywhere I go the people who have been effected by this storm, they come up and say thank you. Folks really see themselves as a part of this club," Ryan says. "It really would be great if we could somehow catch magic in a bottle, and win this thing for them. In a way we've become – to use a wrestling term – the people's champ. We're the team that I think folks around the country are rooting for because of what we've been through."
"We take seriously the #HoustonStrong mantra to hopefully be something that Houston can be proud of as they rebuild," Hinch says. "We understand what it could mean to bring a championship here."