HOUSTON -- It was only a few years ago, Astros second baseman Jose Altuve sat at a table during the team's annual FanFest and greeted a handful of fans who strolled past him looking for autographs. He was still an unknown up-and-comer on a team that was losing 100 games a year, so the fan interest in him and the team was low.
That's a stark contrast to the scene Saturday at Minute Maid Park, where the Astros distributed a record of more than 42,000 vouchers for fans to attend FanFest, where the excitement of the club's first World Series championship was still at a high level.
"The whole organization and the fans deserve this kind of day," said Altuve, the 2017 American League MVP Award winner. "They come every single day to support us while we're playing, but not every day we have a chance to sign autographs. I've been looking forward to this and making it happen."
More than 20 Astros players, including World Series MVP George Springer and star pitcher Justin Verlander, signed autographs for fans and participated in question-and-answer sessions. One fan asked Verlander, who married supermodel Kate Upton just days after the Astros won the World Series, if he'd rather lose his wedding ring or World Series ring -- which he hasn't received yet.
"I've already kind of lost my wedding ring once and she didn't get super-mad at me, so I'm going to go with that one," Verlander joked.
For Verlander, it was his first trip to Houston since the World Series. Upton was in town, too, trying to find the pair a place to live for the next two years -- the length remaining on his contract.
"It's really exciting," he said. "The buzz is still going, and it's nice to be back in the city. ... It's nice to be around my teammates, to be around the fans again and be at the ballpark. This is a lot of fun."
The concourses at Minute Maid Park were jammed with fans dressed head to toe in orange and blue, typically with a World Series championship logo somewhere on them. Fans lined up for autographs on the club level while others ran the bases, threw in the bullpen or played catch in the outfield on a sun-splashed, but cold, winter day.
When they were waiting to see the players, the fans lined up to take a picture with the Commissioner's Trophy.
"It's such a great feeling to be a part of this, but obviously the reaction and the pride that championship brought us seems to be never-ending," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said.
All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa, who attended FanFest with fiancee Daniella Rodriguez, said the event has exploded since he started coming in 2014.
"I remember one of the first times I did it, it was cold like this but we did it [on the field] and it was terrible, and I'm glad we're doing it up here where it's a little warmer," Correa said. "This is such a great time for the fans and season ticket holders that are here."
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow marveled at how FanFest has grown in recent years, along with the Astros' rise to the best team in baseball.
"This is incredible," he said. "Obviously, we've had some success the last few years. I remember this FanFest a few years back. The fans were dedicated, the ones that were here back then, and a lot of them are still here now. But these rooms are filled, the hallways are filled, the field is filled. Our players can sense the excitement. I think all week long on the Caravan our players have been getting the sense for the kind of impact they've had. It's probably as rewarding now as it was the day of the parade."
Astros outfielder Jake Marisnick didn't get to play in the World Series because of a broken thumb, but he's been sure to soak in the championship.
"It's hard to explain the emotions that are involved and what we've been able to do for the city and what the city has been able to for us and support us," he said. "It's something to see."