When the Astros won the 2017 World Series, the team brought triumph to a city devastated by Hurricane Harvey. Millions of Houstonians—many of whom lost homes and belongings to the storm—cheered for their home team, including lifelong Texan and longtime Houstonian Joe Holley. In Hurricane Season, published May 1, the Houston Chronicle columnist and editorial writer tells the story of that unlikely championship season against the background of Harvey. Holley, a former staff writer at the Washington Post and a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist, has written four previous books, including Slingin’ Sam: The Life and Times of the Greatest Quarterback Ever to Play the Game and Hometown Texas, a collection of his Chronicle columns. Texas Monthly sat down with Holley to discuss the Astros, Harvey, and Houston’s recovery efforts.
Texas Monthly: How did this book come about?
Joe Holley: I was at the Texas Book Festival in October, and at the opening night reception I ran into my agent. We were talking about various book possibilities, and he said somebody ought to write a book about Hurricane Harvey and the World Series. He looked at me and said, “You live in Houston, you write about sports, you write editorials, why don’t you do it?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” And then he said, “Can you do it in less than two months?” My wife Laura was very skeptical that I or anyone else could do it, so she resolved to help me. For the next two months I sat at my computer and wrote.
TM: Had you been following the Astros all season?
JH: I went to half a dozen games or so, and I followed them in the paper and on TV. I was aware of the building narrative of how this was an unusual team. And it seemed like they were a bunch of likeable guys. When it started the book I don’t think I knew about the Sports Illustrated prophecy.
TM: How did you go about interviewing people for the book?
JH: The Astros organization was not particularly cooperative, so I just had to make do. I would go talk to players at a Pluckers restaurant during a live radio show, or wherever I could find them. It was a lot easier to interview people involved with the Hurricane Harvey response. Those were people I knew, that I had written about before, and many of them were eager to talk. Those were the stories that came more naturally to me. Even though I’ve written about sports, I’m not a sportswriter.
TM: For me, the most fascinating part of the book was the Moneyball aspect, about how Astros owner Jim Crane used sabermetrics and computer modeling to build a new team from scratch.
JH: I was aware of the Astros’ strategy, and I read Moneyball. I was intrigued by the idea that the Astros had taken it to a different level. But as I read more, I realized that most of the best teams are doing that these days. Some do it better than others—the Chicago Cubs, the St. Louis Cardinals, the L.A. Dodgers. What will be interesting is whether success breeds success for the Astros, or whether success breeds imitation. Will other teams learn how to do it even better than the Astros? And that goes to the question of whether the Astros will repeat [their World Series victory]. Of course, the same Sports Illustrated fellow who said they would win in 2017 [Ben Reiter] now says they will win again in 2018.
TM: I remember those wilderness years, when the Astros were losing over 100 games a year. It’s incredible that anyone would have the patience for that.
JH: Both the owner and the manager really believed. I remember going to an afternoon game a few years ago and sitting out in right field. There were so few people in the stands, it was depressing. There was an echo in the stadium. It was bad.
TM: What do you think gave Crane the confidence to believe this would work?
JH: I think Jeff Luhnow [the former Cardinals vice president of scouting and development, whom the Astros hired as general manager in 2011] gave him the confidence. Luhnow came in with a detailed roadmap to success. And he could point to the Cardinals and say, we did it there. Just give me time.
TM: What about the players? It must have been hard for them to lose so many games.
JH: I think it was terribly depressing for them. At one point, one of the Astros players [José Altuve] went to [Astros manager A.J. Hinch] and was like, “How long is this going to go on?” And Hinch replied, “It’s going to be 2016 or 2017—and here’s why.”
TM: There’s a big controversy now about whether it’s sportsmanlike to intentionally tank a team to get better draft picks. What are your thoughts on that?
JH: Well, it sort of rubs me the wrong way. But I understand the rationale. It sort of reminds me of when NBA teams clinch division titles and then rest their players, knowing they’re going to lose. I guess they haven’t intentionally lost, but they aren’t particularly interested in winning because losing more sets up their draft order.
TM: When Hurricane Harvey hit in August, the Astros were in California playing the L.A. Angels. How closely did they keep track of what was going on in Houston?
JH: They were of course calling back and forth to get news from friends and family. And from what I’ve heard, they were getting restless to get back. When they finally did fly back, their plane was flying over Houston and they could see all the flooding firsthand for the first time. And apparently it was deathly quiet on that plane.
TM: You write that the team really embraced the role of picking up the city’s spirits, wearing those “Houston Strong” patches and talking about helping the city recover. How real was that?
JH: I think they genuinely felt that way. I think Crane embraced it. You could see that there was something symbiotic going on—not only did the city draw strength from the team that was having such success, but the players themselves were drawing inspiration from the communal effort to recover. I’ve heard people argue that they would not have won the World Series without having gone through that experience.
TM: It’s true that people all over the city who had lost everything turned to the Astros as the one feel-good story of the moment.
JH: I’ve tried to think of other cities that have experienced something similar. There were the New Orleans Saints after Hurricane Katrina, and there was the 1989 World Series in the Bay Area between the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants, where an earthquake struck during one of the games. But I don’t know if their community rallied around those teams the way that Houston rallied around the Astros. So as best I can tell, the Astros are unique in terms of winning a championship after this kind of natural disaster.