Baseball doesn’t matter. Not in any literal way. Symbolically, though? That’s a different story.
The Houston Astros return to their city tomorrow, in a double-header against the New York Mets. There’s meaning there – Houston has been ravaged by catastrophic rains and flooding, including in parts of downtown near Minute Maid Park. A return to baseball signals a return to some semblance of normalcy.
Before Hurricane Harvey, the Astros were the story of the summer, jumping out to a commanding division lead and all but sealing their postseason berth back in June. After the storm, Houston has bigger things to worry about than whether the Astros make the World Series. But baseball still has a role to play in the city’s ongoing narrative. The Astros are part of the civic identity. They can help unite the city, or at least offer an escape from the grim realities of cleanup, insurance claims, and loss of property.
The Astros seem up to the task. Players up and down the roster have taken to social media to express solidarity with their hometown. Many have made public donations in support of hurricane relief efforts. In addition, the front office seems committed to building a team that can make Houstonians proud. In a stunning turn of events last night, they affirmed that commitment by swinging a trade for Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers.
It was a move that few saw coming. The ‘Stros had coveted Verlander earlier this season, working hard to swing a deal before the July 31 trading deadline. But nothing came of those talks, and the Astros ultimately settled for minor moves around the periphery of their roster.
Now, they’re adding a bona fide star. Verlander has long been the face of the Tigers franchise, pitching to a 3.49 career ERA over more than 2500 innings. After a slow start to 2017, the 34-year-old righty has been on a tear. Over ten starts since the All-Star Break, Verlander is 5-2 with a 2.41 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 67.1 innings.
The ‘Stros paid dearly for his services, sending three top prospects to Detroit in the deal. But moves of this magnitude are about the present. Verlander unquestionably makes the 2017 Astros a stronger team. Line him up with fellow Cy Young Award-Winner Dallas Keuchel and curveball specialist Lance McCullers Jr., and the Astros have the makings of a dominant playoff rotation.
For many in Houston, checking the box score in the coming weeks will feel like something of a luxury. Verlander, who is known in Detroit for his charitable giving, gives fans something to smile about. The Astros are getting an ace pitcher; the city is getting another small way in which to unite, connect, and celebrate itself.
Verlander will make his Astros debut on Tuesday against the Mariners in Seattle.