Culture / Sporting Life

Justin Verlander Chugs From the Trophy, Jeremy Peña FaceTimes Mom In & Yuli Gurriel Fights the Kids In a Dance Off — Inside the Sweetest of Yankee Stadium Sweeps For These Dominant Astros

Turning New York's Home Into a Houston Party Palace Makes This World Series Worthy Moment Even More Satisfying For This Forever Together Team

BY // 10.24.22

NEW YORK — Justin Verlander tilts his head back and just waits for one of his guys to pour Budweiser down his throat, from right out of the American League Championship trophy. With the suds splashing all the way. The Houston Astros are back in the World Series and they’re tearing it up in the visitors clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, having humiliated arguably the most storied franchise in sports history with their modern brilliance, looking every bit like a dynasty in the making.

Damn right, Justin Verlander is going to chug beer out of the AL trophy. He’s earned it. These Astros have so earned it.

Across the room, Yuli Gurriel is entertaining his younger Latin teammates by trying to match their dance moves. Gurriel, a 38-year-old man from Cuba who’s seen so much and given so much to the Astros, knows he has no shot of keeping up with Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and Luis Garcia in a dance off. And he doesn’t care.

Gurriel splashes on, the floor having pooled up with puddles of champagne by now, as the youngsters roar and spray him with every bottle they’ve got.

All the while, Jeremy Peña floats in and out of the room, still holding his ALCS MVP trophy. The rookie shortstop who somehow plays and carries himself like a 10 year veteran seems to be trying to share a moment with each of his teammates.

How Sweep It Is. The Yankees Blown Over.

Yes, the Astros come back on the Yankees twice in this weather-delayed Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, winning 6-5 to stay undefeated in the playoffs. The Astros roar into their fourth World Series in six seasons with a 7-0 record in these playoffs, four wins over the Philadelphia Phillies from becoming the first team to ever complete a perfect 11-0 postseason.

That’s a mission for later, though. This Sunday night in the Bronx which turns into plenty of Astros partying in Manhattan and stretches into this Monday morning is one of the sweetest celebrations yet for the franchise that just keeps winning.

“To be here celebrating this in Yankee Stadium,” Verlander says. “. . . I mean, I don’t really know how to put it into words. From sitting on my couch last year watching these guys and wishing I was part of it to not knowing if I was going to be able to pitch at that time. Not knowing if I was going to be good again.

“And then to find myself here after a great season, part of this run and back with the boys, it’s just a hell of a ride. And I’m enjoying every moment of it.”

They all are. These Astros demand so much of themselves and each other that these celebrations along the way become cathartic releases of pure joy. Well earned joy. Joy they make happen together.

No one’s removed on this team. No one sets themselves apart. Verlander may be married to supermodel Kate Upton and in a different class of crossover celebrity than his teammates, but this ageless ace is just as excited to party as anyone after sweeping the Yankees. After sharing some sweet moments, hugs and pictures on the field with Upton, Verlander is sprinting back to the clubhouse for some more champagne spray time wildness.

“It’s what we all dream of,” says Trey Mancini, the new Astro who fought through a stage 3 colon cancer diagnosis in Baltimore just two years ago. “No matter what we’ve all been through. Baseball, our whole lives, there’s trial, tribulations and great moments. And this is definitely a great moment.”

How Sweep It Is. The Yankees Blown Over.

Astros sweep Yankees World Series
The Houston Astros are raising trophies at Yankee Stadium, heading to the World Series for the fourth time in six years. (@Astros)

Yes, there are some brooms in the clubhouse. Yes, there is plenty of satisfaction in winning a trophy in the park of the fan base who derided, booed and hated the Astros with unmatched rabid fervor in the wake of the revelations of the 2017 electronic sign stealing scandal. In turning Yankee Stadium into Minute Maid Park North by the end of this night with Astros fans’ cheers taking over the house that replaced The House That Ruth Built.

“To be here celebrating this in Yankee Stadium.. . . I mean, I don’t really know how to put it into words.” — Justin Verlander

Aaron Judge, the new home run king who’s breathlessly nationally promoted in ways almost none of these Astros are, ends up making the final out of the Yankees’ season. Judge hits a weak little grounder back to Astros closer Ryan Pressly who flips the ball to Yuli Gurriel at first and then ends up in Yuli’s arms, locked in a dance hug.

As the Astros party overtakes the center of the field, the Yankees operations staff try to say goodbye to the Bronx Bombers’ season with one more very loud playing of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” song. Which leads to Verlander gleefully belting out “New Yoooork!” as the Astros take to a hastily constructed stage to get their latest trophy, literally dancing on the remnants of what was supposed to the Yankees’ super season of dominance. Almost everyone thought that back in June.

Back before everyone realized these Astros are in class of their own — and the only super team around.

There couldn’t have been a more perfect ending to this series for the Astros, a more fitting coronation for a franchise that’s now made back-to-back World Series for the first time.

“This is one of the meccas of the sporting world,” Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. says. “Especially in baseball. You get to celebrate here after a sweep, it’s sweet.”

McCullers is holding his 2-year-old daughter Ava Rae McCullers in his arms as he talks to a few reporters on the field. Ava Rae came running for dad in the final moments of the trophy ceremonies and he scooped her right up in his arms. Now she’s bundled in them, burying her face into dad’s shoulder, a Texas girl who is not used to this New York October chill.

Lance McCullers won that 2017 world championship with the Astros as a 23-year-old curveball slinging killer. He returns as a 28-year-old dad, a complete pitcher, one of the five Core Astros remaining to try and win another one.

How Sweep It Is. The Yankees Blown Over.

The Jeremy Peña Moment

Maybe it has to be Jeremy Peña who flips this game around, hitting that soaring home run into the left field stands to erase every bit of the Yankees’ hard-built 3-0 lead with one swing. For Peña following Yordan Alvarez as the Astros’ back-to-back ALCS MVPs just seems right.

These already transcendent 25-year-old growing superstars are going to be the new faces of the Astros. And Peña and Alvarez aren’t waiting to grab their moments.

“He’s a baller,” Astros center fielder Chas McCormick says when I ask about Peña. “He’s a great player. He’s helped us win so much. . . He’s done a great job in his rookie year and he has so much more to show.

“There’s so much more in him.”

Peña seems to almost channel the exuberant bravado of Carlos Correa, the all-star and proven playoff performer he replaced at shortstop, when he throws up his hands and shrugs halfway between third base and home on his home run trot. Right in front of the Astros dugout — and his guys.

It’s a little reminiscent of the famous Michael Jordan shrug after Jordan hit all those 3-pointers in that 1992 NBA Finals game against Portland. Of course, Jeremy Peña wasn’t even born yet in 1992.

“It just came out,” Peña laughs later when asked about the shrug.

When you have this kind of moment on one of baseball’s grandest stages, you don’t need to give a long explanation. Peña is just as excited to FaceTime his parents who are back in Rhode Island into the trophy ceremony. It’s another sweet moment for a young man whose heart sign gesture for his mom already has Astros fans swooning.

Of course, one FaceTime isn’t enough for a night like this.

“I can’t wait to get them on the phone. They should be here right now, but they don’t love me enough,” Peña cracks with a big grin before running away from reporters to make that call. And find more teammates to share a hug with.

On this most together of teams, this preternaturally calm rookie shortstop already seems to be a unifier. Everyone on the Astros seems to love Jeremy Peña.

And why not? Peña has now hit two mammoth home runs for Houston in two series clinching, sweep clinching playoff wins.

“I was blessed to be able to play with Jeremy in Sugar Land last year,” Astros rookie pitcher Hunter Brown tells PaperCity, his white American League Champions T-shirt already soaked through with several layers of beer and bubbly. “It doesn’t surprise me one bit. And I’m so happy for him. There’s a lot of things that make him different.

“His makeup. His character. He’s not going to get too high or too low. He believes in himself and he believes in everybody else on the team.”

How could you not believe in this together team?

The Stuff of Yankees Nightmares and Astros Nirvana

These Astros seem to be unfazed by anything. No matter what you throw at it, this team has a response. The Yankees jump out to 3-0 lead in the first two innings. . . No matter. Houston puts up a four spot in the third inning with Peña tying it on his soaring home run and Yuli Gurriel giving the Astros the lead with a little single into right field.

The Yankees just can’t pull away from these determined battlers from Houston. One opening, one mistake, is all these Astros need to pounce like a cougar in wait.

“It’s just an infectious want to better yourself every day. These guys prepare better than anybody I’ve ever seen.” — Trey Mancini on what it means to be an Astro

When the Yankees. botch what looks like a routine double play ball that would have ended the seventh inning after they’re up again, the Astros go for the jugular. Gleyber Torres picks up a little roller hit by Peña and throws it wide of Isiah Kiner-Falefa at second base, who doesn’t seem ready to make a catch. Everyone’s safe.

Instead of New York being out of the inning, the Astros have runners at third and first with only one out.  Yordan Alvarez promptly singles to right field to tie the game at 5. Then a very patient Alex Bregman punches the fifth pitch he sees — the fifth sinker he sees from Yankees closer Clay Holmes — into center for the go-ahead single.

It’s an ultra-disciplined at-bat for Bregman in a tense moment. In other words, all Astros.

How sweep it is. The Yankees Blown Over.

“It feels like the first time,” Jose Altuve, the Astros’ lifeline leader, says.

That’s the thing, There seems to be something different about this 2022 run. Something even more dominant. Something even more together. Something even more satisfying.

These Astros are like a vise grip of a hug that crushes anything in their path, but still provides a cocoon of caring around themselves.

“They take care of each other,” Astros owner Jim Crane says of a clubhouse culture that’s complemented by the relentless drive for winning he’s created in the front office.

Astros sweep Yankees World Series
There is no party like a World Series clinching party in Yankee Stadium. Just ask those dancing Astros. (@Astros)

Of course in the end, all the numbers don’t mean anything without the people. Without the players making sure that every one in their room feels like an important part of it.

It turns out there’s no culture like Astros culture.

“It’s just an infectious want to better yourself every day,” Mancini tells PaperCity. “These guys prepare better than anybody I’ve ever seen. That’s who they are. And that’s just how the clubhouse culture is. Once you’re on the team, you’re one of them.

“And I felt that from the moment I got traded. And that’s all that needs to be said about this group.”

How sweep it is. The Yankees Blown Over.

With the music blaring in the clubhouse and everyone happily — and largely obliviously — sloshing through those champagne puddles, reliever Hector Neris takes it all in. Neris left the Phillies to sign a two-year $17 million contract with the Astros and now he’ll face his former team in the World Series.

“It’s a great feeling for me, a great feeling for my teammates,” Neris says, leaning down so a reporter can hear him better over the din. “Because they play hard. They work hard every day. They want it so much.”

They’ll try to do it together — as their dominant selves. Two sweeps down, one to. . .

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