Houston spared brunt of Rita

Houston spared brunt of Rita

CHICAGO -- The Houston Astros did everything they could do to protect Minute Maid Park from Hurricane Rita, but in the end, the fierce Category 3 storm veered northward and made landfall at 2:30 a.m. CT just east of Sabine Pass, on the Texas-Louisiana line, largely sparing Houston and already battered New Orleans.

Rita came ashore with 120 mph winds, but within four hours had weakened to a Category 2 storm as it moved inland toward Beaumont and Jasper, Texas. There have been reports of broken windows, fires and widespread power outages, but so far no reports of fatalities as the vast majority of the region's 3 million-plus residents heeded the lessons of Katrina and evacuated.

The roof of Minute Maid Park was tied down and sandbags were placed around the park in an effort to minimize any potential damage from the storm, but there had been no immediate report on its condition. However, Houston mayor Bill White said early Saturday that the city appeared to be in good condition, all things considered.

"So far, Houston is weathering the storm," White said.

As of Friday, no decision had been made about where the Astros' final home series against the Cubs would be played had the ballpark been damaged, but the Astros and the Commissioner's Office have been exploring options. Initially, however, it appears that no contingency will be necessary.

A number of Major League stadiums are available for the final weekend of the regular season, including those in Atlanta, Kansas City and Cincinnati.

Another option being considered is playing the final series with the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Cubs team president Andy MacPhail said he has talked to Major League Baseball executive Bob DuPuy about the possibility. The Cubs plan on beginning construction on a bleacher project as soon as the regular season ends.

"It's not without some difficulty ... but it's a possibility," MacPhail said.

Astros GM Tim Purpura said the club would rather play on a neutral field, but it might not be possible. The one venue that has been eliminated from consideration is the Dell Diamond, home of the Astros' Triple-A club, the Round Rock Express.

"If that's the only option we have, it would be something to re-look at," Purpura said. "But you want to play a championship game in a Major League stadium, if at all possible. The field surface would be perfect, but the lighting is not Major League standard."

In Chicago, the Astros are doing their best to go about business as usual. Many families of players and personnel flew to the Windy City on Sunday, and some may remain with the club through the series in St. Louis, which ends Wednesday.

Brad Lidge's wife, Lindsey, is not in Chicago. She, like hundreds of thousands of Houstonians, attempted to drive away from the city in the last couple of days, only to sit in gridlocked traffic for hours.

After 14 hours on the road, Lindsey, whose car was overheating and about to run out of gas, received some good news.

Royce Huffman, an infielder in the Astros' Minor League system, lives in Dallas, and Huffman's father had a connection to an owner of a private plane. Lindsay was picked up in Brenham and flown to Dallas, where the Huffmans live.

"That's seriously awesome of them to do that," Brad Lidge said. "She has our daughter and our dog with her. It could have been disastrous. All the gas stations don't have any more gas."

For those who decided to stay put and remain in their homes during the storm, loved ones in Chicago can only keep their fingers crossed.

Bench coach Cecil Cooper and his family live in Katy, Texas, and the Cooper clan is staying home. At this point, it would be counterproductive to get on the highways, if it means sitting for days at a time with barely any movement whatsoever.

"The more we talked, the more [my wife] was able to convince me, why get on the road and be stranded?" Cooper said. "The more I'm seeing, the more I think she made the right decision."

Galveston native Brandon Backe, who lives in nearby League City, spent a sleepless night worrying about friends and relatives he hasn't spoken to. His mom is safely tucked away with his brother in north Houston, and he's fairly confident his dad would make it to his destination after an entire day of driving. But contacting the rest of the family hasn't been easy.

"It's just my friends, people I can't get in touch with," Backe said. "That's the part that stinks. I woke up time and time again last night. I just couldn't sleep."

Craig Biggio's mother, who was scheduled to undergo open heart surgery on Monday, will have to wait until Tuesday. The operation was rescheduled because of weather concerns.

Biggio has arranged for flights home, but he hasn't decided whether or not he will miss Tuesday's game in St. Louis in order to be with his mother.

Although they're hundreds of miles away, the Astros are keeping tabs on the progression of Hurricane Rita. The televisions in the clubhouse have been tuned to The Weather Channel and CNN, and the conversations among players, coaches and reporters are more about hurricanes, with a little baseball peppered in here and there.

The images of the gridlock on Houston's major highways was the most disturbing element.

"If you're a family, you're sitting on that freeway for eight hours, you're out of gas, you're hot, now you run out of food and water, what are you going to do?" manager Phil Garner said. "Where are you going to go? You've got kids, what do you do? Mom can't carry them six miles. That's a tough deal.

"As prepared as we've been about trying to get people out, there are glitches like this. You're 10 miles out of the city, and nobody can get to you with these kinds of conditions. It's a big deal."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. Associated Press reports contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.