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Astros gave their city 2017's greatest gift

Ballclub helped Houston heal from hurricane, both on and off field
MLB.com @RichardJustice

The Houston Astros delivered something in 2017 that is as good as it gets in sports or pretty much anything else. This was something so magical and so emotional, something that touched so many people so deeply and seemed to unite an entire area of nearly 7 million people in a way that does not happen very often and may not happen again.

In the days after the Astros won Game 7 of the World Series, virtually everyone associated with the team -- every player, coach, executive and certainly manager A.J. Hinch -- continued to try and wrap their minds around the enormity of what they'd done.

The Houston Astros delivered something in 2017 that is as good as it gets in sports or pretty much anything else. This was something so magical and so emotional, something that touched so many people so deeply and seemed to unite an entire area of nearly 7 million people in a way that does not happen very often and may not happen again.

In the days after the Astros won Game 7 of the World Series, virtually everyone associated with the team -- every player, coach, executive and certainly manager A.J. Hinch -- continued to try and wrap their minds around the enormity of what they'd done.

When a championship is 55 years in the making, when a team's fans have spent their lives watching other teams hoist trophies and other cities hold parades, the party is going to last awhile.

Several weeks after the World Series, fans began lining up outside a Houston sporting goods store at midnight to get Jose Altuve's autograph the next morning. Some cried when they approached the American League MVP. Some simply wanted to say thanks and to tell him how they'd grown up going to games with their parents and how much this team would have meant to them.

One stunning image was of a family cheering in front of television in a home that had been gutted by Hurricane Harvey a few weeks earlier. Because of scenes like that one, the Astros know that nothing they ever do in their careers, no matter how many more championships they win, is likely to approach this one as far as the impact it had on a region.

As Hinch said, "We're always asking a city to rally around a team. But it's OK to ask a team to rally around a city."

Video: Astros celebrate World Series win with massive parade

And that's really where this story of the 2017 World Series winners begins. This is a story about baseball, but it's also about a city and its massive real-world problems. At a time when America's fourth-largest city had been brought to its knees by a storm that delivered 50 inches of rain in some areas and put a third of the area under water, the Astros did something important.

For a couple of hours each day, they gave Houstonians something else to focus on and cheer for. The Astros also rolled up their sleeves and did basic things like delivering meals, rescuing pets and cleaning out homes. But in the middle of a baseball season, there was only so much they could do.

And they understood that their play was not going to drain floodwaters or rebuild homes. When they visited the George R. Brown Convention Center, which had housed 7,000 displaced people at one point, the Astros came face to face with the pain and suffering.

When Hinch was asked how his players would put what they'd seen out of their minds to go out and play baseball, he said, "I don't want them to put it out of their minds. I want them to understand what's happening here and how people have been impacted."

Harvey rumbled into Houston on Saturday, Aug. 26, when the Astros were playing a series in Anaheim. They were scheduled to return home the next day and host the Rangers on Tuesday.

But because Harvey was still pounding the city, the series was relocated to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Astros were inundated by the images from back home on cable news. Outfielder George Springer did not know if his home had survived. Altuve's home was OK, but his wife and infant were inside and unable to leave because of floodwaters in their neighborhood.

"How long do I have to play with this on my heart?" Altuve asked Hinch at one point.

"I don't know," Hinch told him.

Video: Astros visit hurricane victims at Houston shelter

Hinch wept when he told reporters that his neighbors back home had rescued a baby that morning and that he wished he could be there helping them.

The Astros had planned to remain in Florida and play a scheduled weekend home series against the Mets. But team officials stayed in touch with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who had other ideas.

"You guys come home and play baseball," Turner told Astros president Reid Ryan. "This will be the beginning of our rebuild."

Later, Turner would say, "This is what we do in Houston. We help our neighbors out. We play ball."

The Astros flew home on Thursday, Aug. 31, and got their first look at the damage.

"I got texts from our guys asking, 'What can we do?'" Ryan said. "Tells you something about the kind of people we have on this team."

Video: Astros renovate a damaged Boys & Girls Club

And at the hour when the team plane landed, another drama was playing out. With his team having lost 17 of 27, general manager Jeff Luhnow was working furiously to pull off the trade that probably sealed the championship.

Although the Astros were in no danger of letting the AL West slip away, they did not look like a club capable of winning a championship.

That look changed dramatically minutes before midnight on Aug. 31, when Justin Verlander agreed to a trade that would send him to Houston, just beating the deadline for a player to be eligible for the postseason roster.

In that moment, everything changed. The Mets agreed to postpone the Friday home game and play a Saturday doubleheader, and the emotion inside Minute Maid Park was palpable, especially when Verlander showed up in the dugout and began greeting his new teammates.

Shortstop Carlos Correa and right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. returned from the disabled list around then, and led by Verlander winning all five of his starts and allowing more than one run just once, the Astros sprinted to the finish line, going 22-8 to finish 101-61.

When they trailed the Yankees three games to two in the AL Championship Series, they returned to Minute Maid Park and got seven shutout innings from Verlander to force a Game 7, which they won, 4-0, behind a combined three-hitter from Charlie Morton and McCullers.

Finally, the Astros' championship was within sight. They won a wild Game 2 -- the first World Series win in franchise history -- and another wild one in Game 5. And with Hinch maneuvering his pitching staff masterfully and Springer hitting .379, the Astros won Game 7, 5-1.

Video: Bregman on winning the World Series for Houston

"It's unbelievable, it's indescribable," said Springer, the World Series MVP. "For our team, our organization, our city, this is a great day."

Celebrate in style: Get Astros WS title gear

This championship was the fulfillment of the blueprint put in place when Houston businessman Jim Crane bought the team in 2011. From the beginning, he had a plan.

Crane said he was going to hire a general manager with a great track record in player development and that he was going to give that person the time and resources to tear down the franchise and rebuild it.

At the time, no owner had ever been so public in announcing there would be some tough years and that if fans would be patient, the payoff would be worth it.

He hired Luhnow from the Cardinals to be his general manager, and the Astros lost 107 games in 2012 and 111 in '13. And two years later, the franchise celebrated its first postseason appearance in a decade.

That 2015 success might have come more quickly than almost anyone imagined. But by 2017, the Astros were a surprise to no one.

That said, it was still magical, not just to win, but to win in those circumstances, with a city dealing with so much and an organization handling it all so beautifully.

"As you grow together as a group and you have a common belief system, and you're supported, it's amazing what you can do," Hinch said.

Indeed.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

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