Banner day: Astros celebrate title with Houston

Crane rides in with trophy; Dauer makes emotional first pitch

April 3rd, 2018

HOUSTON -- The last time Astros fans saw their home team in uniform, they were riding on every nerve-racking, back-breaking pitch in a game that took more than five hours to complete and would prove to be a turning point in the Astros' World Series championship over the Dodgers.

Monday's reunion between the Astros and their fans was much less stressful than that Game 5 classic. The minutes leading up to their home opener with the Orioles -- which ended in a 6-1 win for Houston -- was about reflection, appreciation and, of course, celebration.

"There was a lot of energy here last year in Game 5," owner Jim Crane said. "And they were able to get it done. Today's a big day for the city and the fans."

The unveiling of the 2017 World Series championship banner was the highlight of a 30-minute celebration commemorating the first title in Houston baseball history. Opening Days are always special, but never in the Astros' five-plus decades as a franchise has an owner opened a pregame ceremony by marching the Commissioner's Trophy onto the field.

The pageantry was out in full force. Crane and his wife, Whitney, rode on a flatbed pulled by the Budweiser Clydesdales and delivered the trophy to a podium at home plate. General manager Jeff Luhnow soon joined them, opening his remarks to the crowd with a simple and fitting comment: "Welcome back to Minute Maid Park."

Luhnow thanked the fans for "helping the Astros reach new heights in 2017," and for supporting the team as it worked to earn the trophy.

"We created a lot of memories that are now part of Astros history," Luhnow said. "We are not going to settle. Together we're going to create more memories in 2018 and beyond.

"We are Houston proud, we are Houston strong, and we are 2017 world champions."

Then the party was on. Orbit ran onto the field waving a "Never Settle" flag. Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" blared through the loudspeakers. The crowd was on its feet, cheering Astros players, all of whom were adorned in the customary gold-accented jerseys and hats that are given to the reigning World Series champions to wear in the opening games of the season.

Consider Monday's pregame ceremony a loud, raucous, mutual lovefest between the team and the fans.

"They're one of the biggest reasons why we play the game and why we want to win games," said.

There was a lot of unfurling amid the pomp and circumstance. Members of the Astros' front office and their families unfurled a sparkling 2017 championship banner, which covered the infield. Astros season-ticket holders and winners of an Astros social media contest unfurled a giant American flag, which covered much of the outfield.

And finally, the Astros unfurled two large covers revealing the banners of the two championships the franchise has earned over its history -- the 2005 National League pennant, and the brand-new 2017 World Series championship banner.

The unfurling of the '17 banner hit a snag -- quite literally. The cover seemed to get stuck on the top, preventing it from falling off to the side as planned. Instead, it took about 30 seconds -- plenty of time for everyone, including the players, to have a good chuckle -- until workers finally wrestled the cover off the banner.

The pregame ceremony had emotional moments, too. The ceremonial first pitch was thrown by now-retired first-base coach Rich Dauer, who nearly died last year minutes after the World Series parade ended. Dauer suffered a subdural hematoma as a result of a head injury, and at the time he was rushed to the hospital, he was given no more than a 3 percent chance to survive.

Speaking briefly with reporters before the pregame ceremony, Dauer had barely answered the first question before breaking down in tears while thanking the Astros' medical staff for saving his life.

The medical team was on the field for Dauer's pitch, which he threw to Astros manager AJ Hinch.

"It means a lot to be able to do this," Dauer said. "It's not just for me."

A World Series championship has special meaning for everyone involved, from the players and coaches to the front office to the city that houses the winning team. Events such as the one the Astros hosted Monday are the perfect way to include everyone in the celebration.

"We did it for the fans," said. "We went through a lot last year with the hurricane. We did it for them, and we're glad they get to enjoy it with us."