HOUSTON — Regardless of how this World Series concludes, the Houston Astros' season will be inextricably linked to Hurricane Harvey, which devastated southwest Texas even as the club made arguably biggest transaction in its history.
And so it was not an Astros legend like Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan or Craig Biggio who threw out the first pitch of Friday night's Game 3 at Minute Maid Park — the first World Series game here since 2005.
Instead, to the delight of a roaring crowd, it was Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, whose fund-raising efforts put the most public face on the resolve and recovery of a devastated region.
The Astros were on the road when Harvey made landfall, and they stayed away a few more days, playing a series against the Texas Rangers in St. Petersburg, Fla., with the city in no shape to host a baseball game.
Watt, however, was very much in Houston and leveraged his name - now among the most recognizable in the NFL, let alone Texas — to raise money for Harvey relief.
The fund eventually topped $37 million. Meanwhile, the Astros dealt for ace Justin Verlander just six days after Harvey made landfall.
Verlander still has not lost since joining the Astros. Watt, however, suffered a fractured left tibial plateau in just his fifth game of the season.
He's out for the year, but the Astros say he's welcome in their house anytime.
"He's such a pillar of our community, and part of the city in so many ways," says Astros manager A.J. Hinch. "And really defines kind of the fabric of this city. And what he's done through his hurricane efforts, recovery efforts, is nothing short of extraordinary.
"He's been through our clubhouse before. He's friends with a lot of the guys on our team. He's welcome in our clubhouse anytime he wants to, because of who he is and how he goes about it. I would expect a lot of loud cheers tonight. I would expect him to get one of the biggest ones."
Indeed, the crowd roared as Watt, on crutches, ambled out to the MInute Maid Park mound to the tune of "Turn Down for What."
"Better throw a strike," Hinch quipped before the game.
Alas, using almost entirely his upper body, the pitch sailed high and inside.
No matter. As Watt slowly made his way off the field, and over the third base line, the crowd roared its approval once again for the biggest hero in an unforgettable autumn.
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