Irma is barreling in on Florida, and as residents there board up and flee, a rubbernecking nation watches and waits. From afar, the post-Harvey problems of Houston can seem so last week. There won’t be a Dolphins game in Miami on Sunday, so routines and traditions in South Florida are clearly altered, property threatened, lives in danger. But there will be a Texans game in Houston, and the Astros have returned, so the highlights from NRG Stadium and Minute Maid Park all seem normal, if only because the 50-yard line and pitcher’s mound aren’t underwater.
“But I’m telling you,” Bill O’Brien said by phone, “there’s a huge shelter right across from our stadium. We have players, we have coaches and support staff, people who were absolutely affected. Our trainer, he got crushed.”
“There’s guilt,” A.J. Hinch said by phone. “We wanted to be there to help, to help our wives and kids, to provide a little bit of the protection that people need at a time like this. And then the perspective was: Most of us weren’t that greatly affected, but we saw parts of our city devastated — bridges being wiped away, people being trapped underwater in cars. There’s guilt there, too.”
We can’t say for sure what will happen to South Florida as Irma bears down. We know what happened in Texas, where Harvey displaced more than a million people and damaged more than 200,000 homes, destroying lives. So there must be people in those places, now unrecognizable, to prop up the populace, however they can.
O’Brien is the coach of the Houston Texans. Hinch is the manager of the Houston Astros. Each signed up to lead a franchise seeking his sport’s ultimate goal. Neither signed up for what he wakes to every day, what’s ahead in coming months. They are coaches. But now they’re spokesmen, too.
“We’ll be the face of a lot of the sports outreach in our communities,” Hinch said.
Larger forces are at play here than just these two guys, regular people if not for their positions. Both the Texans and Astros, as pro sports franchises and local businesses, have organized relief efforts and raised money. Texans star J.J. Watt used social media to raise more than $25 million. Astros owner Jim Crane said the team would donate $4 million to help the city mend. Players on both teams have delivered food and supplies, have read to stranded children, have volunteered their time.
“We really have an incredible group of guys,” O’Brien said.
“What we’ve seen is our guys are humans first,” Hinch said.
And yet each day O’Brien and Hinch must face the media, answering questions about defensive fronts and starting rotations, sure, but also about how their teams might help the city. Each has said — and repeated in separate phone conversations over the past several days — what his hope is: that his team can provide three-hour respites from what otherwise might be misery. But each has had moments since Harvey hit when he considered how to handle the situation — not just for his family but for his team, his city.
The Texans were in New Orleans during the preseason when the hurricane struck, and they couldn’t get home. They were diverted to Dallas and had to watch from afar as their city was pounded.
“You end up, pretty quickly, being like: Forget about football for a second,” O’Brien said. “You got to allow these guys to deal with their families. Here’s six feet of water coming in. You’ve got to give them time. I said, ‘Look, family first.’ ”
Hinch and the Astros were in Anaheim, Calif., when the storm hit, then had to go to St. Petersburg, Fla., where they faced Texas in a three-game series that was relocated from Houston. So Hinch didn’t arrive home until nearly a week after the storm hit. He drove onto Interstate 45 and headed north toward his home in the suburb of the Woodlands.
“I could get on the freeway, but I couldn’t get off,” he said. “Part of 45 was like an ocean. The streets just continued like canals. The levies, they’ve got to open some and purposefully flood a few neighborhoods because that’s the only way they can get water out. It’s like, ‘Hey, man, I’m about to flood your house.’ I can’t even fathom that.”
O’Brien is 47, a husband and the father of two boys. Hinch is 43, a husband and the father of two girls. Neither is in his position because he was a star player.
O’Brien played defensive end and linebacker at Brown, served as an assistant at four stops in college — including running backs coach at Maryland for a couple of seasons — then rose from low-level assistant to offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots before replacing Joe Paterno at Penn State and, finally, accepting the Texans job.
Hinch was a catcher at Stanford who played 350 major league games over parts of seven seasons, hitting .219, then served in a variety of front-office positions with Arizona and San Diego — interspersed with a short tenure as the Diamondbacks’ manager — before landing the job in the dugout with the Astros.
The two work eight miles from each other and are two of the most prominent athletic figures in Houston, but they know each other only casually. In this situation, they have texted support and encouragement. Each knows the task for his team.
“The rest of the NFL is not really waiting for us,” O’Brien said. “These teams are moving forward. We have to move forward, and we have to win.”
What O’Brien and Hinch share — entering the Texans’ first game, Sunday against Jacksonville, and the Astros’ final push to the American League West title — is a responsibility that is different than it was three weeks ago. This season won’t just be remembered for its final record. It will be remembered for how these two men, and their teams, handled Harvey’s aftermath.
“You don’t put football over anything that’s happening here,” O’Brien said. “But maybe, if we go out and play some good football, maybe that helps the city, the people, feel better.”
And maybe Adam Gase, the coach of the Miami Dolphins, and Don Mattingly, the manager of the Miami Marlins, should pick up a phone and call their counterparts in Houston, asking for advice on how to handle what’s ahead. A storm is coming to Florida. Another already knocked down Houston. And after it did, O’Brien and Hinch have shown they know exactly how to deal with the tasks presented them — games, for sure, but the more nebulous and more important job of helping a city pick itself back up.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.