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City of Houston going wild over 'Stros

City of Houston going wild over 'Stros

HOUSTON -- Albert Pujols' tear-the-heart-out-of-Houston home run in Game 5 tested the most devoted Astros fan.

A little more than 48 hours later, the city bubbled over with excitement for the Astros' first World Series appearance in franchise history.

"After the Pujols home run, I didn't think they were going to make it," said 48-year-old Steve Schares, a fan since he became an Astros "buddy" at age 10. "They ran all the Houston disasters in the paper."

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A city known more for sports letdowns than championships, including the former Oilers dropping a big lead in a playoff game at Buffalo, the University of Houston upset by North Carolina State at the NCAA Final Four and countless Astros disappointments, there was room for reasonable doubt.

"Here we go again," said Jimmy Disch, a professor of kiniesology at Rice who once taught Astros slugger Lance Berkman. "We're just doomed."

Wednesday night's 5-1 win at St. Louis changed all that.

Many fans watched Game 6 projected on the wall of a building in downtown Houston. A T-shirt company began printing Astros National League champion shirts the second the game ended.

Academy, a sportswear store, stayed open until 2 a.m. CT selling the shirts and caps (limit two to a customer) and faced a long line of people waiting outside Thursday morning, queued as if they were buying World Series tickets instead of T-shirts.

The city quickly organized a send-off party for 9:30 a.m. on Friday, when the Astros will leave Minute Maid Park by bus for the airport and their flight to Chicago.

"It's going to be a 10-day party," said Rice baseball coach Wayne Graham, who coached Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte when they played at San Jacinto Junior College, and Berkman with the Owls.

Mayor Bill White declared Friday, Saturday and Sunday "No Socks" days in the city, preparing to do battle with the evil forces from Chicago who dress in pale hose.

"We had a staff meeting [Thursday] morning, and everybody was talking about the Astros," said Clay Hoster, president of Republic National Bank. "All the bars are full, everybody's talking about it."

Craig Biggio, in his 18th season with the Astros, talked about how long he waited to get to the World Series.

The city waited even longer.

"I thought that would be our year in '98 when we got Randy Johnson [for the second half of the year]," said Disch, who attended the second home game in Houston history when the Astros were called the Colt .45s and played at Buffs Stadium. "I had a good feeling going into Game 6."

Disch plays baseball in an over-55 league. His team name? The Colt .45s.

"This will show the type of spirit Houstonians have," said Schares, who deals in sports memorabilia as a sideline to his microscope business. He purchased 50 photos of Chris Burke's 18th-inning homer that eliminated Atlanta from the NLDS.

"After we helped people in the hurricane, it will put more of a spotlight on the city."

Hotel rooms in Houston are scarce.

Approximately 10,000 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina remain housed in Houston hotels and motels. Then there's the International Quilting Festival in town this weekend with approximately 50,000 strong.

Tickets are even tougher to get.

One Astros fan bragged on TV on Thursday night that he had purchased two tickets for $950 apiece. Schares said seats in the Crawford boxes, those just above the left wall that attract many homers, are going for $2,000 apiece.

"Maybe they want to catch the first home run in Astros World Series history," Schares said.

Many are too young to remember that the city once played home to the Cardinals' Double-A farm team, the Houston Buffs.

Houston is hungry for a winner. Only the Rockets, who won NBA championships in 1994 and '95, have brought titles at the highest level to this town. The WNBA Comets and Minor League hockey Aeros each won numerous championships.

But this is different. This is bigger.

"I remember feeling this way when the Rockets won the championship," Hoster said of the Astros just making it to the World Series.

"This could turn Houston into the baseball capital of the world," said Graham, noting all the Major Leaguers who grew up in the Houston area. "Seeing Major League Baseball every day really opened it up. It enhanced the dream."

Few will enjoy the Series more than Graham.

"It's pretty nice to have people to pull for," he said. "Berkman's so easy going, he's going to go out there and have fun. He'll make a lot of new friends if Chicago gets anybody on first base."

The city that held the 2004 MLB All-Star Game, the 2004 Super Bowl and will host the 2006 NBA All-Star Game should have a chance to win fans on its own.

"They love winners here," said Graham, quickly adding the difference between Houston and some other cities. "Like [General George S.] Patton said in his opening speech, they won't tolerate losers."

Gene Duffey is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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