HOUSTON — Just down the street from the ballpark here, at a convention center that has become a massive shelter, thousands of storm victims rose from their cots to face more fear and uncertainty.
One day earlier, members of the Astros wound their way through rows of these makeshift beds, a consequence of the destruction brought by Hurricane Harvey.
It was with this perspective that Astros slugger George Springer spoke of playing in a baseball game as if it were a solemn duty — all while harboring no illusions of what would be accomplished by doing so.
“I understand that for a lot of people, there isn’t anything that can distract them from the reality of the situation,” Springer said before the Astros hosted the Mets on Saturday in the first game played in Houston since the hurricane.
So the Astros and Mets did what they could to begin mending a broken city, even though they knew that their part could only be small. For 3 hours, 27 minutes, before an announced gathering of 30,319 that appeared to be half of that, the Astros hammered the Mets, 12-8, in the first game of a doubleheader.
Springer hit a two-run homer, then tapped the patch on his chest that featured the Astros’ iconic “H’’ logo and the word “strong.” A roar emerged from the crowd — a mishmash of first responders, storm victims and fans looking for a slice of normalcy.
On the field, Mets infielder Wilmer Flores sensed an extra level of motivation from the hosts. That feeling was confirmed in conversations with members of the Astros during the game.
Said Flores: “They said they were emotional, and they wanted to give them something to cheer about.”
HAPPY TO BE HOME
Of course, a sense of normalcy wasn’t just critical for the city but for the Astros themselves, who to a man insisted on returning home for this weekend series. The team had been away when the hurricane hit, and some had not been with family for days.
As team owner Jim Crane listed all the reasons it was important to play, he ended with the one that seemed to resonate. “The players really wanted to come home,” he said.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner saw the need to move on as well, and to him, the Astros returning home would play a part in that quest. As long as enough floodwater had receded, and roadways were passable, he encouraged a homecoming.
“Let’s play ball,” he said. “You can’t stay down forever. We can do more than one thing at one time. The quicker the city gets back on its feet, the better for everybody.”
With that support, the players made their wishes known.
“There was no conflict,” said former Mets pitcher Collin McHugh, now a mainstay with the Astros. “All the guys, the coaches, the front office, everybody was on the same page. If we could get back, we wanted to. There’s too much unknown back home to be on the road for that much longer and have that weigh heavy on our hearts and minds.”
The weekend series originally was scheduled to begin Friday. The Mets consented to a doubleheader, a concession that allowed players from both teams to fan out into the community. The images from those relief efforts lingered.
“The debris on the side of the road, the furniture stacked up, the water in places you know there’s not supposed to be water, it’s scary, it’s sad,” Springer said. “There’s thousands and thousands of people who don’t have homes to go back to or their homes are under water. For us, that’s a tough reality to see in person for the first time.”
METS LEND A HAND
Reality confronted the Mets on the flight into Houston. From the air on Thursday evening, they could see murky floodwater covering parts of the city. On the bus ride from Hobby Airport to the team’s downtown hotel, they watched residents hauling their waterlogged belongings into their front lawns for disposal.
“It’s crazy that you can lose everything in one moment,” said Travis d’Arnaud, who devoted much of his Friday to relief efforts.
Assistance in all forms has rushed into the region, so much so that Turner said supplies sent to Houston have been forwarded to other afflicted areas such as Beaumont. Volunteers from other parts of the country also have flocked here to help staff shelters and distribute supplies.
“It warms your heart,” Turner said. “It lets you know that you’re not in this by yourself.”
The Mets soon found themselves part of that group. At a church about 30 minutes from downtown, d’Arnaud joined Brandon Nimmo as part of a contingent of Mets who donated their time. One of their tasks was emptying a trailer filled with supplies that was driven down from Wisconsin.
“I know we only made a little dent in what could be done,” Nimmo said. “But it’s a way we thought we could go in and help out a little bit.”
Before Saturday’s first game, the Astros and Mets went about making another dent. They stood shoulder to shoulder on the foul lines alongside first responders, who also were in uniform.
Turner threw out the ceremonial first pitch, a bounced effort that ordinarily would invite a wave of boos. This time there were only cheers, making it clear that this event was part rally, part ballgame, part silly distraction, complete with all trappings of a typical game.
As fans carried beers back to their seats, workers wandered the concourses with boxes, seeking donations for a Houston food bank.
The crowd roared when Astros manager A.J. Hinch took the microphone in front of the plate and began an address with the words, “It’s good to be home.”
A high point in the remarks came when he turned to the visiting dugout to thank the Mets “for allowing us to have a day off yesterday for a day of service.”
“For that,” Hinch said, “I am forever grateful.”