The Los Angeles Dodgers are lovable, both on and off the field. They have a mellow manager who nevertheless is speaking loudly in October by pushing many of the right buttons. Their third baseman owns the coolest hair in the Major Leagues this side of Bryce Harper, and he helped LA leap out to an early World Series lead on Tuesday night with a two-run, go-ahead home run. They play home games around a slice of heaven disguised as a ballpark, but you know what?
You can't root against emotion.
You just can't.
America's Team isn't the Dallas Cowboys anymore. It's whichever one can make a bunch of people feel good about themselves again following the most unthinkable of tragedies.
Let's start with a couple of baseball examples. Once, there was "Boston Strong," and soon afterward, there were the Red Sox grabbing the 2013 World Series out of nowhere to ease some of the pain from a bombing during the city's classic marathon. If you take away that soft liner for the Arizona Diamondbacks over a drawn-in infield in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, the Yankees were destined to win it all for a fourth consecutive year. No worries. They did more than their share of soothing when they joined the Mets that Sept. 11 to become inspirations for the nation by moving on with the rest of their lives after the Twin Towers collapsed.
Now comes this: The Astros. Yes, THE ASTROS. Nearly two months ago to the day, Hurricane Harvey destroyed homes and lives around Houston, where the Astros began in 1962 along the way to a mostly ho-hum existence. But that was so 20th century. After gloom hit folks by the tens of thousands following the storm, the same franchise with 111 losses four years ago is giving a whole region the blueprint for hope out of despair. That's because the Astros are playing World Series games these days against the Dodgers, and Games 3-5 will happen this weekend in what figures to be a wonderfully hysterical Minute Maid Park after the openers in Los Angeles. No matter what happens in this Fall Classic, a large chunk of the planet will join Houston and other Hurricane Harvey-affected parts of the gulf states to anoint the Astros as America's Latest Team.
"Well, that's true. I mean, unless you're from Los Angeles, or you're a Dodgers fan going back to the days of the Brooklyn Dodgers, how can you not cheer for the Astros?" Bobby Hebert told me Tuesday from New Orleans, where he has enjoyed most of his post-quarterbacking days for the hometown Saints hosting a sports-talk radio show on their flagship station. For a couple of reasons, Hebert is among the definitive experts to discuss why the Astros' popularity will keep rising for a while, and here's the biggest: He has first-hand knowledge of community sorrow and sports teams as a healer.
As a Louisiana native, Hebert suffered with relatives, neighbors and friends through Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005, when New Orleans was damaged both physically and psychologically.
The Astros were the Saints back then.
Just as many around Houston have newfound joy courtesy of the resiliency of their baseball team, which got past the Yankees during the American League Championship Series after losing three straight games at one point, those in New Orleans used Hurricane Katrina to turn its strong winds and mighty floods into tighter hugs for their NFL team. First, there was the Saints' return on Monday Night Football in September 2006 to the Superdome, which became an extended house of horrors for the suddenly homeless. The place was so wired for that nationally televised game with the Saints facing their archrival Atlanta Falcons that the energy nearly blew off the roof. Five years later, the Saints continued to use all of those positive vibes from Katrina survivors to become Super Bowl winners after the 2009-2010 season.
See where I'm going with the Astros?
"You know, as Americans, I think we all love feel-good stories, and with the tragedy of this latest hurricane being widespread, this could be an unbelievable boost for morale of the city of Houston if they can come away with a World Series win," Hebert said, before giving that other reason he deserves to be heard on the subject of Astros, Hurricane Harvey and inspiration. He has spent most of his 57 years as a diehard fan of the team formerly known as the Colt .45s. His love for the Astros includes the stretch during the mid-1990s, when he played for the Falcons and lived in the same Atlanta-area neighborhood with Braves Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. "While growing up, we got to watch the Braves on the superstation and the Cubs on WGN. But when we took a road trip during the summer with our family, we'd get packed into the station wagon like Chevy Chase and 'Vacation,' and we'd drive the six hours to AstroWorld, which was like Six Flags, and then we'd go to Astros games.
"There are a number of folks in this gulf coast region, and they're all on that Astros bandwagon. You look at the Cajun Navy [a volunteer group of people with private boats], they really helped with the Hurricane Harvey flooding, and they're all like me: Go 'Stros. Then you look at the LSU community, they have their No. 1 alumni base in Houston, and Astros third baseman Alex Bregman went to LSU. You even have billboards around here in New Orleans and through Louisiana on the Interstate that say, 'Gaux 'Stros.'"
The Astros also are lovable, by the way.
While the Dodgers are loaded throughout their roster with steady Dave Roberts as their manager, and with Justin Turner featuring his eternally flowing beard at third, and with Dodger Stadium, where the world is always perfect given its gorgeous setting, the Astros have a bunch of everything else when it comes to intrigue. After catcher Evan "El Oso Blanco" Gattis quit baseball before returning, he worked as a parking valet and as a janitor. Second baseman Jose Altuve has five trips to the All-Star Game, three American League batting titles and a Gold Glove, but he isn't much taller than the length of your average bat. If you stretch him, he is 5-foot-6 as listed in the team's media guide. Despite spending his pro baseball life with the Detroit Tigers, Justin Verlander came to the Astros in an August trade, and he has pitched like he's always had Texas in his heart. He hasn't lost with his new club at 9-0 with a 1.23 ERA. If that isn't enough, Dallas Keuchel joins Verlander as one of the best one-two punches in a Major League starting rotation, and the Astros hit like crazy, and they won just two games fewer during the regular season than the Dodgers' baseball high of 104.
Gaux, 'Stros, indeed.