HEART­BREAKER

FAM­I­LIES: Play­off run bit­ter­sweet for fans whose loved ones didn’t live to share the thrill

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Emily Fox­hall

When the Astros beat the Yan­kees to ad­vance to the World Se­ries, Danielle Still­man burst into tears be­cause her grand­fa­ther was not alive to see it.

Kier­stin Berry Casella went to find her child­hood glove. She learned about her dy­ing dad’s last words to her mom: “Go ‘Stros.”

Christo­pher Varela bought an or­ange Amer­i­can League Cham­pi­ons cap. He placed it on his fa­ther’s grave.

For Astros fans across the coun­try, the team’s trip to the World Se­ries has brought bit­ter­sweet nos­tal­gia along with the ex­pected thrill, spark­ing fond mem­o­ries of rel­a­tives, now

gone, who long ob­sessed over the sport and rooted for the team. Some find them­selves wish­ing: if only that per­son could see the Astros now.

It’s an emo­tion that builds as the 55-year-old fran­chise presses on­ward in a se­ries that could bring Hous­ton its first World Se­ries cham­pi­onship.

“Base­ball was the bond­ing be­tween us,” Varela said of his fa­ther, Joe Sr. “My dad would be very, very ex­cited that the Astros had got­ten this far.”

Over the years, the Astros have tied fam­i­lies to­gether in a bond akin to re­li­gion. Watch­ing the team play at the high­est level has only high­lighted the strength of that con­nec­tion, re­mind­ing some of cher­ished mem­o­ries and mak­ing oth­ers feel like rel­a­tives are still very much with them.

For Still­man, talk of the se­ries brings back mem­o­ries of Sun­day af­ter­noons watch­ing base­ball with her grandpa, a struc­tural engi­neer; sto­ries of how he could pay a nickel to watch the Buf­faloes, or “Buffs,” a mi­nor-league team that pre­ceded the Astros; the im­age of him keep­ing score at games un­til the very last out.

The 30-year-old Hous­to­nian fig­ures her grand­fa­ther, Ge­orge Still­man, who died in 2007 at age 80, would have loved this team, es­pe­cially Jose Al­tuve — who stands only 2 inches taller than her grand­dad was. She now hopes to learn how to fill out a score­card her­self.

“He liked mint choco­late chip ice cream, crossword puz­zles, base­ball (es­pe­cially the Astros),” his obituary read. ‘I feel his pres­ence’

Casella, who re­dis­cov­ered her old glove, har­bors mem­o­ries of play­ing catch with her dad, John Berry, in the front yard and watch­ing games with him on the week­ends.

Now 44 and a Nashville res­i­dent, she re­mem­bers the feel­ing of walk­ing from the park­ing lot to the sta­dium, bub­bling with en­ergy. She has not for­got­ten the rou­tine of go­ing straight for hot­dogs and drinks — a beer for dad, a Coke for her.

Those were mo­ments when she saw his stress from work as an ac­coun­tant melt away. She took it as a chance to ask about his child­hood and about why he loved the game.

“I liked be­ing able to just see that side of him, of re­ally en­joy­ing some­thing,” she said. “It wasn’t so much about lik­ing base­ball... It was more about shar­ing that ex­pe­ri­ence with him.”

Some­times, they would go to James Coney Is­land just to eat hot dogs and talk about the sport.

Her dad never turned his back on the Astros. He lis­tened to games on the ra­dio from his hos­pi­tal bed in 2005. The team was on the way to its first World Se­ries, and he was strug­gling against the lung can­cer that would claim his life, at age 61, days prior to the start of the Se­ries.

An­drew An­ders’ dad, Rus­sell, kept watch­ing games too, even as ALS weak­ened his body, un­til he died on Oct. 28, 2010.

The fa­ther had never been too busy to help his son learn the sport.

Grow­ing up, An­ders said, he found he­roes in base­ball play­ers. His dad helped him to draw life lessons from what they did, such as learn­ing how to carry one­self with dig­nity through fail­ure. He cherishes the mem­ory of watch­ing the 1989 base­ball film “Field of Dreams” with his dad on their last Christ­mas to­gether, though it was dif­fi­cult to watch the emo­tional fi­nal scene of the dad play­ing catch with his grown son.

Be­fore the Astros faced the Yan­kees in Hous­ton last week­end, An­ders took one of the or­ange rally tow­els from a game to his fa­ther’s grave. The 36-yearold talked with him about how the Astros had played, then he left the towel be­hind.

“The Astros be­ing in the World Se­ries, it brings back a lot of good mem­o­ries of my fa­ther,” he said. “I feel his pres­ence with me. That might not make sense to a lot of peo­ple ... it’s just some­thing I can’t re­ally ex­plain”

An­ders, who lives in Lake Jack­son, was plan­ning to at­tend the game on Satur­day, the sev­enth an­niver­sary of his dad’s death at age 64. Help­ing a fam­ily heal

The Astros’ win clinch­ing the Amer­i­can League pen­nant came on Oct. 21, the first an­niver­sary of the death of Phillip Jones’ 66-year-old dad, Car­roll. It was a mo­ment both happy and sad. One of the last things the Jones fam­ily had all done to­gether was at­tend a base­ball game.

Jones had promised his dad after the World Se­ries loss in 2005 to buy him a ticket to the Fall Clas­sic if the Astros ever made it again.

“He was con­fi­dent up un­til the end of ev­ery­thing that it was go­ing to hap­pen for them soon,” said Jones, 41.

The mem­o­ries go on: There’s Jan Hurt, who re­calls the si­lence in her child­hood home in the Pan­han­dle when the Astros played — ex­cept for the sound of the ra­dio, which she lis­tened to with her dad, Don­ald. She learned to like the sport. When her dad died at 52, they buried him with a base­ball.

“When I watch them, I still see him,” she said

Then there’s Robin Wet­more, 62, who re­mem­bers her fa­ther, John She­lander, lis­ten­ing through an ear­piece while mow­ing the lawn. She wired the 2017 AL pen­nant to the silk flow­ers on his head­stone.

“I wanted him to be a part of it,” she said.

It’s not just mem­o­ries of fa­thers or grand­fa­thers.

DeAnna Wil­liamson, 45, re­flected on the base­ball cards her nephew gave her be­fore he died in an ac­ci­dent in 2005 at age 23. Dur­ing the Astros’ World Se­ries run that fall, games helped the fam­ily as they pro­cessed his early death — and the team still serves as a re­minder of him.

Ch­eryl Miku­len­cak, 60, thinks now of her mother, Brenda Run­nels, who used to make din­ner, clean the kitchen and then rush to her bed­room to lis­ten to games. Three of the four chil­dren be­came de­vout Astros fans be­cause of her, Miku­len­cak said. She and her sis­ter planned to at­tend the game Sun­day, in part as a way to honor her.

“If she were here ... she’d be go­ing with us; I know she would be,” she said. With them in spirit

Varela, who left the cap on his dad’s grave, and his sib­lings all are cheer­ing on the team, too, decked out in Astros gear.

“It is be­cause of my dad,” Varela’s sis­ter Dolores, 65, said. “He watched it re­li­giously.”

On Thurs­day morn­ing, Dolores got an ex­tra copy of that day’s Hous­ton Chron­i­cle, with a pho­to­graph of Ge­orge Springer after he’d launched his win­ning tworun homer in the 11th in­ning. She tacked it to par­ti­cle board and placed it among the other Astros para­pher­na­lia al­ready dec­o­rat­ing the grave, in­clud­ing a cap from the divi­sion win, a pen­nant and a sticker or­dered by one brother, Joe Varela Jr., 63, de­pict­ing the Astrodome.

The kids still re­mem­bered the awe of first see­ing the Dome them­selves. They also watched games at home, dur­ing which Christo­pher re­called the smell of his dad’s ci­garettes and swat­ting at mos­qui­toes.

Were their dad alive, the kids fig­ure they would be watch­ing the Se­ries with him, maybe eat­ing bar­be­cue and drink­ing his pre­ferred Miller Lite. But they feel his spirit. Dolores talks to his photo on her man­tel as the games play on TV.

Her brother Arthur, 62, has watched nearly ev­ery game with a lam­i­nated print­out of his fa­ther’s obituary that sur­vived the flood­ing of his home dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Har­vey.

If the Astros win the cham­pi­onship, the Varela sib­lings plan to add to their dad’s grave-side dec­o­ra­tion. They will bring a World Se­ries cap. And a bot­tle of cham­pagne.

Brett Coomer / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Jose Al­tuve’s face spoke vol­umes as the Astros blew an op­por­tu­nity to take a 3-1 lead in the se­ries when L.A. ral­lied late to win.

Steve Gon­za­les / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Christo­pher Varela and his sib­lings have been dec­o­rat­ing the grave of their fa­ther, a de­voted Astros fan, with team para­pher­na­lia at For­est Park Lawn­dale Ceme­tery.

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