WASHINGTON — The 2018 baseball season is almost here, but the Astros remain baseball royalty, something the New York Yankees Fan-in-Chief had to acknowledge on Monday.
“I watched our Yankees, and the Yankees were good,” President Donald Trump told the Astros players, all decked in business attire for a congratulatory reception in the East Room of the White House. “They were tough. They were about as tough as anybody. But you guys were just a little bit tougher.”
“Tough” was the byword for the president’s heady welcome under elegant chandeliers as a Marine band played “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
It was spelled out on the patches players wore after Hurricane Harvey devastated the city last August when they were on their way to winning 101 regular-season games and claiming the 2017 World Series over the Los Angeles Dodgers after beating the Yankees in the American League Championship Series in seven games.
“Congratulations on your incredible victory. It was indeed,” Trump said. “After the devastating Hurricane Harvey. Incredible what you went through with it. You’re the champions for what you went through with Harvey. ... It was a show of world spirit and Houston strong. Houston strong.”
Politics wasn’t far from Trump’s mind in an age in which pro athlete tributes at the White House have grown increasingly political. Earlier this month, the NBA champion Golden State Warriors decided to boycott Trump’s White House, and the invitation was rescinded.
The Astros organization was more amenable to the honor, with a few notable absences.
All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa was not with them, with team officials explaining a “couple of the guys” had “family issues.” Also missing was retired outfielder-designated hitter Carlos Beltran.
Beltran had said earlier that he was skipping less for anything that Trump did than for the government’s response to the storm damage in his native Puerto Rico. Correa also is from Puerto Rico but has not said why he was not attending the White House ceremony.
Trump’s baseball tribute included a vow to do more for the regions hit by last summer’s hurricanes, including Texas, which has continued to press the administration for more relief.
“Our administration will continue to stand by the people of Texas and Florida and Puerto Rico, Louisiana, even Alabama and some of the other places that were affected,” Trump said. “We’re standing by all of them.”
The boys of summer weren’t the only ones receiving the president’s accolades. Also represented were members of the “incredible Cajun Navy” who played a role in the storm rescue efforts, as well as Houston businessman and philanthropist Jim McIngvale, also known as “Mattress Mack,” for turning his Gallery furniture stores into shelters.
“He’s a real Texas guy,” Trump said.
Trump also praised the Astros who donated to storm charities, though he couldn’t help ad-libbing jokes about their ample major league salaries.
“You’ll be doing even better now,” Trump joked. “I want to be your agent.”
The task was given to right fielder Josh Reddick to present Trump with Astros jersey No. 17, to signify 2017.
“For me being a huge history buff, it was about me getting to experience the whole thing and meet our president,” Reddick said later. “I was very honored and excited to be here.”
He added that the team never considered not going to the White House.
“I heard right out of the gate we were all going to go,” Reddick said. “Some guys would go, some wouldn’t. Everybody has their own way of how they want to handle things.”
Trump also had some competitive advice.
“Now, what happens a lot of times is you get a little complacent, and bad things happen. I don’t think that’s going to happen to this team. ... Forget about last year, right? Put it down as a great memory. But no complacency.”
Trump singled out World Series MVP George Springer, who hit a record-tying five home runs, the “amazing” Jose Altuve, the 5-6 second baseman and fan favorite from Venezuela, and pitching ace Justin Verlander, whom he described as a friend and golfing partner.
“I’m a pretty long hitter,” Trump said. “This guy, he is a monster.”
Astros manager A.J. Hinch described the team as an amalgam of Houston.
“It’s the makeup of the team that so many people around Houston are proud of,” he said. “Diversity. We come from everywhere, all shapes and sizes, from different countries, different backgrounds, high draft picks, low draft picks, non-draft picks ...”
Later, outside the West Wing, Hinch described the whole experience of being in the White House as “pretty intimidating.”
With the entire team standing behind him a broad riser, Trump delivered his remarks to a standing audience of team officials, members of Congress and special invited guests. He called the Astros a tribute to “the unbreakable spirit of the great state of Texas.”
Astros owner Jim Crane recalled that the team’s World Series Game 7 victory over the Dodgers on Nov. 1 was not only the first in the franchise’s 55-year history but also the first in Texas history.
“We’re committed to try to do it again,” he said. “Our motto this year is we never settle.”