The Astros franchise has only been around for half a century, but it seems like Houston has had more than its share of tragedy over that time. In fact, it seems like they've had more tragedies than teams twice as old.
From Larry Dierker's collapse in the dugout because of a brain aneurysm, Billy Wagner's scary line drive off the face, J.R. Richard's stroke before a game, Don Wilson's untimely demise to Dickie Thon's career-ending HBP, the list goes on and on.
They handled the various situations with relative levels of care and sensitivity, but the time and team I'm thinking of today did a little of both. They didn't always handle their situation well, but they stood up for the city of Houston in some very important ways.
I'm sure many of you remember way back to September of 2008. That's when Hurricane Ike bore down on Houston and forced Major League Baseball to postpone and move two crucial late-season games with the Chicago Cubs from Houston to Milwaukee. Houston was no-hit by Carlos Zambrano in the first game, after the Category-2 storm ravaged its home city, followed by Ted Lilly almost no-hitting them in the second game. Houston went on to get swept by the Marlins in a three-game series in Florida, never recovering from the long, sleepless days prior to the Cubs games.
Houston's players were rightfully angry at the situation. The games were moved to a very Cubs-friendly venue, hours away from Chicago. Cubs fans filled Miller Park and the overwhelmed Astros just couldn't compete. Fan outcry was so great that Bud Selig took out a full-page ad in the Houston Chronicle to explain his decision and express his sorrow at the devastation.
It wasn't enough for Houston fans, as they wore "We survived Ike" shirts that then said "Bud killed us" on the back. The players even bought the shirts and wore them in the clubhouse in Florida. But, the players also realized that excuses only go so far. Lance Berkman was quoted after the fact as saying,
"You can only use that as an excuse for so long why we are where we are," Berkman said. "We went up there, and there’s 90 feet between the bases up there at Miller Park) just like there was at home. There was a hostile crowd, but we won three games from the Cubs at Wrigley, so it’s no excuse."
However you feel about Bud Selig's decision or the Astros response to that adversity, the real important function of that team was they played. They were worried about their family and friends as much as most of the fans around Houston were. They didn't have power, just like the rest of the city. They had houses damaged, just like the rest.
And they played. They carried on.
It's not a big thing in the end. Sports doesn't mean much when you're dealing with natural disasters.People without power have a hard time watching the team play anyways. But, the fact that they played gave the city a sense of normalcy. They weren't healing a city that had just lost quite a bit, but the Astros brought something familiar back in a time where that was very important.
Look no further than Brandon Backe for that sense of carrying on in the face of adversity. The Galveston native had the most reason to be distracted, as his home town was nearly wiped off the map. I haven't looked at the pictures of the destruction on the island in two years, but I can tell you I'll always remember them. The sights of boats whipped onto road ways, concrete stripped off the ground and just empty space where all those beach houses were are haunting. Amidst all that loss, even if Backe only lasted 1 2/3 innings in his start against the Marlins, the fact that he was there, he was working, he was continuing was at least a faint glimmer of hope for the city.
Sports are sports. Athletes make many times what most people will earn in a lifetime. I know this team didn't matter to many people affected by Ike, but I think it did help some. If nothing else, it gave them something to talk about, to complain about, to take their minds off the power company's slow work to restore energy to their homes.
And, because of all that money, the team was able to step up in a big way, raising money for recovery efforts. Drayton McLane and the Astros organization combined to donate 1 million dollars to the Gulf Coast Ike Relief efforts. They also held food drives, blood drives and collected donations from fans for relief efforts. They held a silent auction of team memorabilia and even sold the jerseys off their backs, with the proceeds going directly to relief efforts. Individual players also stepped up. Carlos Lee toured the coast line and all the devastated ranch areas by helicopter. A rancher himself, Lee donated $25,000 and 300 bales of hay to relief efforts.
Houston ultimately didn't make the playoffs that season. They lost their manager soon after, saw Miguel Tejada's career slowly decline, saw Brandon Backe's career flame out and the saw Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman leave via trades. For that stretch in September 2008, though? I think this team made a difference, and that's what is going to stick around far longer than that playoff appearance would have.