ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Weather Channel was on in the Houston Astros’ borrowed clubhouse on Tuesday afternoon. On the screen, reporters stood in the relentless rain and relayed harrowing stories about neighborhoods the players knew and loved.
Arrayed along a cabinet below the row of TVs were newspapers from around the country, including one depicting a man in chest-deep water, wearing a Mets cap, rescuing a dog. “RAIN OF TERROR,” was the headline.
Players spoke quietly, their eyes rimmed in fatigue. “I don’t think a lot of sleep has been had,” said infielder Alex Bregman.
There was shock, too.
“Never in a million years,” said pitcher Dallas Keuchel, “would I have thought that we would be playing outside of Minute Maid Park when we have a retractable roof for that very reason. Which means the floods have been almost Biblical. That’s what you have to wrap your mind around – how crazy it is.”
Manager A.J. Hinch started to well up when he mentioned a photo of elderly women in a nursing home, sitting quietly as water rose around them. “That’s real,” he said, and his throat caught.
La vita Bella nursing home in Dickinson Texas is almost underwater with nursing home patients pic.twitter.com/oCNkrgoRZY
— Timothy J. McIntosh (@DividendsMGR) August 27, 2017
Hurricane Harvey has devastated a great American city in a great American state, and all the Astros can do is watch from a distant ballpark and check their phones. And plan to give somehow. And do their best to raise some spirits through the sport they play.
“We’re helpless,” said Bregman. “We’ve been trying to spread the word as much as possible on social media, figure out ways to help, but really our hands are tied.”
Baseball is a game they all live and breathe, but on this Tuesday it was pretty clear nobody wanted to be at a dome in Florida. They were far away from their loved ones, wearing road grey uniform pants and blue alternative tops for a “home” game because that’s all they had with them. To a man, they all wanted to be wearing slickers and rain boots, sloshing through the streets and assisting first responders.
It’s the saddest week in Houston history; it seemed wrong to play any sort of game.
Keuchel took the field here for early warm-ups, and he wondered if he should allow a smile. “People back home are stranded,” he said.
It’s not just the Astros. Rangers pitching coach Doug Brocail has a house in Houston. He suggested his wife and daughter leave while they could, but they didn’t want to leave their cats and dog behind. They are there, safe and dry on the third floor of their home, but the water looms close by. Brocail said he would keep his phone with him in the dugout Tuesday night in case of texts from home.
“I’ll be honest,” he said. “I’ll have my phone. If somebody said something about it, I don’t care. I don’t. I’m not checking scores.”
It’s not just baseball players, either. Up the highway from here in Tampa, a good portion of the Buccaneers offense is from the Houston area. Wide receiver Mike Evans rode out Hurricane Ike in 2008, and had to be evacuated. Running back Charles Sims III scrolled through his phone in the locker room before practice, hoping for updates on the developing catastrophe. Wide receiver Josh Huff has an aunt and a grandmother in Houston, where he grew up. They are safe for now but his grandmother’s house is taking on water.
It’s simply not a week for sports.
“Baseball’s kind of an afterthought, really,” said pitcher Tyler Clippard. “We’re kind of just here, doing our job, and we’re forced to do that, and we keep in mind the people in Houston and try to do our best.”
This week’s series, in Florida, adds to the surreal feeling. This is only the fourth time in baseball history that weather has pushed a game to a neutral site. The Marlins played Montreal in Chicago because of a hurricane in 2004, Cleveland played the Angels in Milwaukee because of snow in 2007, and Ike displaced the Astros to Milwaukee in 2008, where they played the Cubs. This is beyond those instances, though, because Harvey is beyond anything Texas has seen. And some ill will came with the decision to play here, as the teams couldn’t work out a swap of home series. The Astros’ Lance McCullers ripped the Rangers on Twitter: “Greed never takes off days, apparently.” He wasn’t the only one upset.
— Lance McCullers Jr. (@LMcCullers43) August 28, 2017
“A lot of the guys in this clubhouse were mad about the situation,” said Clippard. “And felt like it would have been an easy no-brainer to say we’re in Dallas, let’s play the games here. It’s not raining. I get the frustration.”
Then there was a second level of wonder about whether the games should be postponed. No player on either side was fully focused on baseball, and 24 hours or more to tune in to Texas would surely be therapeutic. Keuchel said the decision was outside of his “realm,” but also offered this: “A lot of guys minds are so far away from baseball that it might be more beneficial to cancel the games and schedule a couple doubleheaders.”
Hinch put it this way: “I can’t imagine playing. I can’t imagine not playing.”
They played. The expectation for crowd size was muted to say the least. The weather was poor in St. Petersburg and the Rays were playing in Kansas City. One Astros player, heading out onto the field for batting practice, said, “What’s the over/under on fans here tonight? 47?”
Yet the fans filed in. Three flight attendants from the Astros team charter showed in team jerseys, making the most of a very long trip. Earlier on Tuesday they had washed their clothes in a hotel sink.
Flight attendants on the Astros charter. Been with the team the whole trip and in good spirits. pic.twitter.com/MS2HmQ5MYU
— Eric Adelson (@eric_adelson) August 29, 2017
Mitch Scott moved here from Houston six months ago, and has relatives who have been evacuated. He struggled with his emotions as he spoke of them.
“I feel like a deserter,” he said.
Dylan Champer is not from Houston, but he wanted to welcome “the Tampa Bay Astros” so he laid orange tape over his White Sox jersey and cap. He carefully drew the logo for his hat and wrote ASTROS in caps on his shirt. “I wanted to bring home to them,” he said.
Dylan Champer is a White Sox fan but he's altered his jersey and cap for tonight. "I want to bring home to them." pic.twitter.com/SlGIabISe5
— Eric Adelson (@eric_adelson) August 29, 2017
For a few moments before the game, it did feel more like home. Astros came over to a gathering of fans and signed autographs for a while. One fan cheered loudly and then confessed to his wife, “I have no idea who that guy is.” It didn’t matter, really. It was the best anyone could do.
The teams stood for a moment of silence and that gave way to perhaps the most poignant moment of the night. A heavy rain started to fall outside, pounding the roof of the dome. For several long seconds, that was the only sound in the entire building. It was sad and almost savage: another reminder of the storm.
The game was a blowout. The Rangers romped; not that anyone back home really has time to fret over one of 162. Nearly 3,500 fans showed up, and proceeds went to relief efforts. That’s the real final score.
Still there was another sliver of good news waiting in the clubhouse for the Astros. Back in Houston as the team played out of town, after so many hours of dark and wet, the sun had finally come out.