HOUSTON -- They play baseball in front of thousands of people every day seemingly unfazed, but put them in front of a couple hundred people in a more intimate setting and they sweat bullets.
Five brave Astros players did their best to shake off any stage fright in the minutes leading up to their dancing debuts Sunday night at the House of Blues, unsure of what they were getting themselves into as the guinea pigs in the inaugural "Dancing with the 'Stros presented by Minute Maid" fundraising event.
"Don't mess up, don't fall," Jake Elmore told himself before it started.
Each player was paired with a professional dancer, and they had approximately 45 minutes to practice the routine before showtime. There was no time for diddling around or obsessing over footwork. They pretty much had to go with what whatever natural abilities they had before this night, bringing new meaning to the phrase "Don't quit your day job."
The professional dancers brought their A-games, while the players simply brought whatever courage they could muster, while risking losing a little bit of dignity and pride. But, heck, what's a little public humiliation among friends, especially when it's for a good cause?
The event was designed to highlight the new focus of the community partnership between Houston-based Minute Maid and the Astros Foundation to support an expansion of programming and outreach to at-risk youth. Proceeds from Dancing with the 'Stros will benefit the Astros Foundation's Urban Youth Academy.
A large crowd gathered to watch the players get their groove on, and judging by the hooting and hollering and outright laughter, it's unlikely anyone left disappointed. That includes the non-dancing Astros players, who sat on the stage with dry-erase boards so that they could write comments after each routine.
First up was Elmore, wearing, in his words, "a 1970s John Travolta-esque" sparkly red shirt with a red belt and blue jeans. He was picked by his teammates a couple days ago as the contestant who possessed the most rhythm, although Dallas Keuchel was picked to be the sleeper -- not for his dance moves, but because he's by far the most competitive of the group. More on that later.
Elmore lived up to billing. Grooving to "U Can't Touch This," he managed to keep up with his highly energetic partner, Katia Kuznetsova, while also holding his own as he got his boogey on.
"He was my pick from the beginning," Jason Castro said. "He didn't miss a spot."
"Elmore," Marwin Gonzalez wrote on his board, "You are my idol."
Brett Oberholtzer nodded in agreement.
"Jake knows how to shake it out there," he said.
And Josh Fields: "I'm speechless."
Next up was Trevor Crowe and his red sequined hat and sparkly suspenders. His version of the merengue has to rank up there among the best of anyone who ever grew up in Oregon, so there's that. But Crowe's attempt to slide under the legs of his partner, Yana Kristal, in the grand finale fell short. By several feet. This, of course, delighted his teammates.
"It was way too late," Crowe said. "And terrible."
Toward the back of the stage, an incredulous Carlos Corporan lamented, "I don't know what happened. That is not merengue." He then grabbed Kristal and spun her around, winning points for the best impromptu moment of the evening.
Jose Altuve, a crowd-pleaser wherever he goes, opted for a more traditional merengue. And he was a smashing success. The kid has rhythm, as did his partner, Julie Rodriguez.
On his dry erase board, Philip Humber had this to say: "She's taller."
Asked to assess the performance, Brett Wallace said, "I think he has a little Bruno Mars in his game."
Next up: Jarred Cosart, wearing some purple haze-ish psychedelic number and dancing to Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger." But Cosart moves like, well, Cosart.
He nailed the shimmy, however.
"I forgot everything," Cosart said when he finished his routine. "Terrible."
Lyles wrote on his dry erase board: "I'm glad he throws 98."
For the grand finale, there was Keuchel, going straight up Neil Diamond with a silver sequined disco-ball shirt and looking like he was ready for a night out at Studio 54. His partner, Jeanine Stewart, did a handstand and somehow ended up on Keuchel's shoulders. The look of concentration on Keuchel's face as he lifted her screamed "Oh my God. Don't drop her."
That move alone probably earned Keuchel first prize, which he won handily.
"I might cry myself to sleep," Elmore, the second-place finisher, said. "But I'll get over it."
Keuchel said later that the Dancing with the 'Stros event was more nerve-racking than any baseball game he's played in -- ever.
"I was more nervous for that than I was for my first Major League start," Keuchel said. "I was unfamiliar with the routine and obviously, I didn't want to break [Stewart's] leg."
Elmore mustered up as much graciousness as possible, while assessing the outcome, acknowledging it would be hard to top Keuchel and Stewart's acrobatic shoulder lift stunt.
"After he did that move, I said to him, 'I still have more moves than you do,'" Elmore said. "'Your girl was just more creative.'"