Hurricane Season

The Unforgettable Story of the 2017 Houston Astros and the Resilience of a City


By Joe Holley

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An inside look at the 2017 Houston Astros championship season, focusing on the epic seven-game World Series, the front office decisions that built a winning team, and the resilience of the city in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

On November 1, 2017, the Houston Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in an epic seven game battle to become 2017 World Series champs. For the Astros, the combination of a magnificently played series, a 101-victory season, and the devastation Hurricane Harvey brought to their city was so incredible it might give Hollywood screenwriters pause. The nation’s fourth-largest city, still reeling in the wake of disaster, was smiling again.

The Astros’ first-ever World Series victory is a great baseball story, but it’s also the story of a major American city — a city (and a state) that the rest of the nation doesn’t always love or understand–becoming a sentimental favorite because of its grace and good will in response to the largest natural disaster in American history.

The Astros’ miracle season is also the fascinating tale of a thoroughly modern team. Constructed by NASA-inspired analytics, the team’s data-driven system took the game to a more sophisticated level than the so-called Moneyball approach. The team’s new owner, Jim Crane, bought into the system and was willing to endure humiliating seasons in the baseball wilderness with the hope, shared by few initially, that success comes to those who wait. And he was right.

But no data-crunching could take credit for a team of likeable, refreshingly good-natured young men who wore “Houston Strong” patches on their jerseys and meant it–guys like shortstop Carlos Correa, who kept a photo in his locker of a Houston woman trudging through fetid water up to her knees. The Astros foundation included George Springer, a powerful slugger and rangy outfielder; third-baseman Alex Bregman, whose defensive play and clutch hitting were crucial in the series; and, of course, the stubby and tenacious second baseman Jose Altuve, the heart and soul of the team.

Hurricane Season is Houston Chronicle columnist Joe Holley’s moving account of this extraordinary team–and the extraordinary circumstances of their championship.



Hottest Game in Town


They had two big swings, we had one.


On October 24, 2017, opening day for the 113th World Series in Major League Baseball history, Los Angeles was hot enough to make a mockery of the old label “Fall Classic.” For LA’s first World Series in 29 seasons, it was desert-summer hot, Day of the Locust hot, so hot that Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s perennial sidekick on the old Tonight Show might have stumped his boss with the venerable setup question “How hot was it?”

How about this for an answer? So hot that egg-frying sidewalks were unnecessary; infield grass was skillet-hot enough, maybe even for eggs and bacon.

In palm-fringed and picturesque Dodger Stadium it was 103 degrees, the most blistering World Series game-time temperature in history. LA shattered the previous record, set in 2001 when the Arizona Diamondbacks welcomed the New York Yankees to Phoenix, where it was a comparably chilly 94 degrees. (The coldest in recent years was in Cleveland, when the Indians hosted the Florida Marlins in the ’97 Series. For Game 1, it was 35 degrees. And snowing.)

As fans seeking shade filtered in a couple of hours before game time, a pregame pitchman—just like on The Tonight Show—worked to whip up enthusiasm. A giant American flag rippled across the outfield. A sound system worthy of a Christina Aguilera concert extravaganza blasted out “Let’s Go Dodgers!” Later, the familiar faces of LA celebrities—Dustin Hoffman, Jerry Seinfeld, part-owner Magic Johnson, Jason Bateman, Lady Gaga—flashed across two jumbotrons. The celebs were on hand to watch their Dodgers claim their first World Series rings since 1988, when masterful Orel Hershiser dominated the powerful Oakland A’s and gimpy-legged Kirk Gibson hit an iconic home run. Nearly three decades was a long time.

Washington Post sportswriter Dave Sheinin observed that when “gospel singer Keith Williams Jr. belted out the national anthem, the sweat stain on the back of his suit jacket grew from the approximate shape of Vermont at ‘Oh say can you see’ to that of Idaho by ‘home of the brave.’”

For more than 54,000 sweltering fans in LA, most of them wearing Dodgers blue—with maybe a thousand orange-clad Astros fans in their midst—Sunset Boulevard traffic was more of a bother than the heat. They loved their Dodgers, winners of 104 games. They could stand the heat.

Nor did the temperature seem to bother Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw, a Dallas native accustomed to games played under a withering Texas sun. The tall Texan wore a heavy Dodger warm-up jacket as he loosened up in the outfield before the game.

“They’re from Houston, I’m from Texas; it’s going to be hot for everybody,” he had said the day before. “We’re all used to it. It will be fine.”

Kershaw, who at 29 was born the same year the Dodgers last won the World Series, was his generation’s Sandy Koufax, except bigger. At six feet four inches and 228 pounds, he overpowered hitters and had compiled a career record of 144–64, with a scintillating career ERA of .236. Every year he was a favorite to win the Cy Young Award and had done so three times. In 2017, he was 18–4, with an ERA of .231, despite missing several weeks with a back injury.

The Astros were well aware of the future Hall of Famer’s abilities; so was Dave Roberts, his manager.

“I think the fans get cheated on not getting the opportunity to see him in between starts,” Roberts told reporters. “Because… to be behind the scenes and to watch him work so diligently, with detail, every single day, that’s something that, for me, I marvel at.… I wouldn’t know what it’s like to be a superstar. But with what he does every single day, with working with a purpose, with everything he does, it makes sense.”

For all the individual honors he had won, this would be Kershaw’s first World Series appearance—and he would be facing the team with the best sticks in the majors. The Astros finished the regular season with the highest batting average, highest on-base percentage, and highest slugging percentage. They also struck out fewer times than any other team. And they were prepared. The Los Angeles Times reported that the Dodgers pre-Series scouting meetings stretched into the wee hours of several mornings.

“It’s the best lineup that we’ve seen all year,” Manager Roberts told reporters. “There’s so many ways they can beat you.”

The Astros, playing in only their second World Series in team history—the only team to represent two different leagues in their two appearances—had vanquished the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees (winners, by the way, of 27 world championships). They were young but unintimidated. Whether the heat would bother them was an open question. It gets searingly hot and humid in Houston, to be sure, but the Astros play under a retractable roof, in an air-conditioned building.

Astros leadoff hitter George Springer, unlike the traditional leadoff, is basically a cleanup hitter with the power to beat you with one swing. He represents a trend that caught on in 2016, when teams like the Cubs with Kyle Schwarber and the Indians with Carlos Santana started using their designated hitters to lead off. As Hunter Atkins of the Houston Chronicle pointed out, “These men are built like nightclub bouncers, not base stealers. They get paid millions to cross home plate, not reach first base.”

Springer is six feet three inches and 215, so he’s no Nellie Fox either, but the big-man trend worked for the Astros throughout the regular season. When Springer leads off with a home run, “there’s an energy boost in our dugout,” Hinch said. He hit 34 in all.

In LA against Kershaw he didn’t lead off with a home run; most hitters don’t. He fouled off the first pitch, a 94-mile-per-hour fastball. With his trademark hesitation windup from a relief pitcher’s set position—an unorthodox pitching motion that keeps the hitter off balance and allows Kershaw to hide the ball until the last possible moment before release—the Dodgers left-hander finished off the Astros’ young center fielder in four pitches, the third strike a devastating slider that veered downward toward Springer’s feet.

Alex Bregman, the Astros’ young third baseman, flied to left, and second baseman José Altuve grounded out to shortstop to end the top half of the inning. As the Astros went down 1-2-3, Kershaw threw just nine pitches, seven of them strikes.

Starting for the Astros was Dallas Keuchel, a dependable precision pitcher and the 2015 Cy Young Award winner. That was the year the bearded Oklahoman went 20–8 with three complete games and a 2.48 ERA. The left-hander led all American League pitchers in wins and was the starting AL pitcher in the 2015 All-Star Game. He pitched with shoulder pain throughout the ’16 season—“I sucked,” he said—and finished with a 9–12 record and a 4.55 ERA. In 2017, Keuchel rediscovered his form, going 14–5, with a .290 ERA—despite an undisclosed injury to his left foot the second half of the season.

Only three Dodgers had ever faced Keuchel. One was center fielder Chris Taylor. Keuchel retired him three times in 2014, two years before the Dodgers acquired Taylor from Seattle, before the outfielder revamped his swing and blossomed into a slugger.

The first pitch Keuchel threw to Taylor was as juicy as a rib eye at Wolfgang Puck’s CUT restaurant on Wilshire. An 88-mile-per-hour fastball straight down the middle was a rare Keuchel mistake, and Taylor took advantage. He smashed the pitch deep into the left field pavilion, an estimated 447 feet away. Suddenly, shockingly, the Dodgers were on the board.

Manager Roberts had told the Dodgers before the game to be sluggers, not just hitters. Get it into the air, he was saying, because the ball would carry farther in the searing heat. Taylor merely followed instructions. His blast was the fourth leadoff home run in the history of World Series opening games.

After that first unfortunate pitch, the Astros’ bearded ace went on to strike out third baseman Justin Turner on seven pitches, got rookie first baseman Cody Bellinger to ground out to second, and right fielder Yasiel Puig—the flamboyant and excitable fellow with the Dodger-blue mohawk haircut under his batting helmet—to ground out to short. Eleven Keuchel pitches and the inning was over. One of those 11 Keuchel would love to have had back.

Returning to the mound with an early lead, Kershaw started off the second by retiring shortstop Carlos Correa on a fly ball to center field. He caught Yuli Gurriel looking as a 94-mile-per-hour fastball streaked by and then got catcher Brian McCann to ground out to second baseman Logan Forsythe, who had shifted into shallow right field to play the odds against the pull hitter, batting from the left side. It was another easy inning for the Dodgers ace.

His Astros counterpart gave up a single to Kike Hernández to open the bottom half of the second, but got Corey Seager to ground into an easy double play to end the threat. Forsythe popped out to center.

After Kershaw started the third inning with another called strike three, this one to Marwin Gonzalez, the Astros got their first hit of the game. Josh Reddick, a former Dodger who went 0-for-22 in the postseason before his first hit in the American League Championship Series, smashed a hard grounder that darted just beyond Bellinger’s glove. But Kershaw stayed in control, striking out Keuchel on a futile effort to bunt and then Springer, up for the second time.

The leadoff hitter for the Dodgers got on base for the third consecutive inning, as Austin Barnes hit a grounder through the infield into shallow left for a single. Kershaw laid down a perfect bunt, sending Barnes to second and Taylor to the plate. The man who started the game with a home run on the first pitch hit a rope to shortstop Correa, who ended the inning by doubling Barnes off second.

In the top of the fourth, the Astros finally broke through. Bregman, a recent LSU star, hammered a Kershaw fastball over the left-center field fence, tying the game at one run a piece, and becoming the youngest American League player to hit a home run in the World Series since Manny Ramirez for Cleveland against Atlanta in 1995. Both were 23, but Ramirez was 60 days younger when he slapped a pitch out of the park.

Bregman, one of a few hitters in the Astros’ lineup who had never faced Kershaw, said the pitcher’s deceptive delivery, with its pause at the top and a strange stutter step—a way for his arm to catch up with his body—was nearly impossible to prepare for.

“Honestly, you can look at all the video you want. But until you get in the box against somebody, you don’t really know what their stuff looks like out of their hand,” Bregman told reporters. “You kind of had to sync up everything with that [pause]. Towards the end of game, I think we got a little more synced up.”

Kershaw then got Altuve and Correa on called strikes and paralyzed Gurriel on another unhittable slider. It was Kershaw’s eighth strikeout against the team with the least strikeouts in the majors.

As the San Gabriel Mountains disappeared in the fading light of day and the temperature dropped below triple digits (a balmy 99), the game settled into a classic pitchers’ duel, not surprising given the fact that two of the game’s best were dueling. In the bottom of the fourth, Keuchel, working with his usual quiet efficiency, got Turner on a pop-up to first, Bellinger on a ground ball to first, and Puig on a ground ball to short.

In the fifth, Kershaw threw another perfect inning: McCann hit a ground ball into the shift, third baseman Turner handled a trick bounce on a grounder from Gonzalez, and Reddick watched a 95-mile-per-hour fastball streak by for strike three.

On to the sixth, the game still tied. Keuchel became Kershaw’s 10th strikeout victim and Springer number 11, flailing at a changeup that was nearly in the dirt. Bregman ground out to short to end the inning. Kershaw headed to the dugout as the first Dodger pitcher to have double-digit strikeouts in a World Series game since Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax had 10 in Game 7 of the 1965 Series.

In the bottom of the sixth, Keuchel needed one pitch to get the first out, retiring Barnes on a grounder to short. Kershaw also grounded out to short. Pitching carefully to Taylor, Keuchel walked him on five pitches, which brought up Turner.

Keuchel served up three fastballs, all low in the strike zone. When a fourth 87-mile-per-hour fastball came toward the plate higher in the zone, up toward the third baseman’s messy, red beard, Turner drove it 371 feet into the left field stands for a two-out, two-run home run and a 3–1 Dodgers lead. Dodgers fans, often more laid-back than most, were on their feet and loud.

“I didn’t know if it was going to be a home run or not,” Turner said after the game. “I knew I backspun it pretty good. I knew I hit it really high. And I knew it was about 98 degrees. So when it’s that hot here, the ball does travel a lot better.… If it’s 10 degrees cooler, that’s probably a routine fly to left field.”

“That one was a tough one to swallow,” Keuchel said afterward.

Suddenly the Dodgers could breathe easier, knowing that a two-run lead with Kershaw on the mound and a superb bullpen to finish up was often more than enough. Keuchel ended the sixth by striking out Bellinger, but as Houston Chronicle columnist Brian T. Smith wrote afterward, “You knew that it was basically over.”

With their heroes down two, anxious Astros fans were happy to see Altuve lead off the seventh. The American League batting champ came through with a ground-ball single to left. It was now or never for the Core Four—Springer, Altuve, Correa, and Bregman—to break out, as they had so many times during the regular season.

Alas, not this time. Correa ground into a force-out that erased Altuve at second. Correa was forced out at second on a Gurriel ground ball, and Brian McCann flied out to center field for the third out. The innings were dwindling down.

Kershaw, who needed just 83 pitches to make it through seven innings, was done for the night. He gave up three hits, one earned run, and recorded 11 strikeouts, his only mistake Bregman’s solo home run. He became the first pitcher all season to strike out 11 Astros in a start.

In the top of the eighth, the Dodgers turned to their bullpen, a reliable bunch of arms all year for Manager Roberts. The Astros sent up three hitters, and Dodger relievers sent them all back to the dugout. In the bottom of the inning, Astros relievers got the same results.

“The Astros won Game 4 of the American League division series in Boston, but since then they lost three road games at Yankee Stadium and are three outs from losing here at Dodger Stadium,” reporter David Waldstein noted on the New York Times blog between innings. “Obviously, they can’t win the World Series if they don’t win at least one game on the road.”

With the Dodgers three outs away from victory, Kenley Jansen, the most effective closer in the National League, came on for the ninth. He got things started by catching Springer looking at a 92-mile-per-hour cutter in the upper part of the strike zone for strike three. The Astros slugger tossed his unused bat in frustration.

Bregman, who got Houston’s only run with his solo homer, flied out to center. Jansen closed things out by retiring Altuve on a fly ball to right.

It was over. The team that had never won a World Series game still was winless. They played it close but it wasn’t enough. They faced a nagging statistic: historically, the team that wins Game 1 of a best-of-seven, postseason series at home has gone on to win the series 67.3 percent of the time.

And while Keuchel pitched well, the Astros’ bats were anemic. Springer struck out four times and looked bad doing it. The Astros Core Four went for a combined 2 of 15. As for everyone else in the lineup, they accounted for a single hit.

Of course, the Dodgers’ Kid K had something to do with that. Kershaw finished as the first pitcher in World Series history to get 10 or more strikeouts while allowing no walks and three or fewer hits. His 78 game score, a comprehensive measure of the quality of a pitcher’s start, was close to one of the greatest World Series starts ever.

Afterward, Manager Hinch was matter-of-fact about the game. “They had two big swings, we had one,” he told reporters. “They had a walk right before one of their big swings, and it’s 3–1. It’s no more complicated than that.”


Team for Sale, Needs Work

We’ll spend money, but we won’t spend money we don’t have.


In January 2018, I was sitting with Jim Crane in the boardroom near his fifth-floor office in the venerable Union Station building, the Astros headquarters. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the red-brick building was constructed in 1911 as a terminal for the 17 rail lines that converged on Houston in the early years of the 20th century. The building now houses the club’s offices and abuts Minute Maid Park.

I was talking to Crane, but it was hard to ignore the dramatic view from the boardroom windows—the banks of forest-green seats, row after row of them; the emerald-green grass of the outfield; the geometrically precise lines of the dirt base paths and pitcher’s mound; the precise infield. Center field resembled a pool-table green and flawless pasture, one that looked large enough for a herd of Texas longhorns. Its spaciousness made me respect all the more the young World Series MVP who cowboys that pasture for the Astros.

In shallow right field on a gray winter morning, a dark-haired young man in shorts and a T-shirt was playing long-distance catch with a fellow in bright-orange baseball pants. He was a right-hander, throwing from a stretch each time, but from the office-building distance, I couldn’t recognize him.

The Astros owner, 63, wore a white dress shirt and dark slacks, no tie. On the walls were a framed replica of his navy-blue Mules jersey from his baseball-playing days at Central Missouri State University (now the University of Central Missouri), photos of him playing golf with President Obama and Tiger Woods and a copy of a 2015 typewritten letter from former President George H. W. Bush, a longtime Houstonian who with his wife, Barbara, has box seats near home plate. [“We hate that we didn’t stay long (it’s an age thing, Jim), but we loved every minute and are still talking about the electricity that filled the park. It was incredible.”]

Although Crane owns spectacular properties around the country—including a Pebble Beach mansion he sold for $12.5 million shortly before the Astros won the World Series—and is a millionaire many times over, he would never be described as flashy or larger-than-life. In his younger years, friends watched him vault parking meters on the streets of New Orleans while on a boozy weekend trip, but that was out of character.

A former wife described him as shy and then corrected herself. “Let’s call him reserved,” she said. In the stands at Minute Maid or at Potente—his upscale Italian restaurant near the ballpark—the medium-sized guy with regular features and wavy light-brown hair brushed back from a high forehead does not stand out in a crowd.

A business associate drew a contrast between Crane and sports wheeler-dealer Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboys owner. “He [Jones] wants to be not only the man but for everybody to know he’s the man,” the associate told me. “Crane doesn’t have that need. He doesn’t have to be The Guy. Jim’s not the guy who wants to be on the billboard.”

Jones was a college football player and Crane a baseball player, a good one. According to the associate, that experience has made Crane a better baseball team owner than he would have been.

He’s proud of his youthful diamond prowess. The legendary founder of the Astros, Judge Roy Hofheinz, used to say that as a kid he always wanted to be a ballplayer, but he had three handicaps: “I couldn’t run, hit, or throw.” That’s not Crane, who first picked up a bat and glove at age six and played baseball and basketball well.

Crane no longer plays baseball, but he’s a superb amateur golfer, a sport he first took up while caddying as a kid. At his exclusive Floridian National Golf Club in Palm City, Florida, in 2013, he played 18 holes in a foursome that included Obama. The four players split into pairs, Crane partnering with then-U.S. Trade Representative and former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk.

In the clubhouse afterward, Obama ran into Crane’s then-wife, Franci Neely Crane. “We beat your husband,” the president told her, a big grin on his face. Obama’s partner walked up about that time. “We beat your husband,” Tiger Woods said, pointing at himself.

However reserved Crane is on the outside, there’s an inner drive for perfection that’s almost obsessive. He’s relentless, never satisfied, and every detail is important. He’s been known to say that he has a key to every closet in the Union Station building and has looked inside every one of them. Talking to him, you get the feeling that he’ll always have something to prove to somebody.

Like a king surveying his kingdom, he was happy in the wake of the Astros’ World Series triumph—as happy as a man who’s never satisfied can be. When I first interviewed him almost seven years earlier, happy is not the word I would have used to describe him. On that spring morning in 2011, he was the aspiring owner of the 56-year-old Astros franchise, and he seemed worried that’s all he might ever be. Aspiring.

A pitcher in college and a thwarted major leaguer who became a wildly successful businessman, Crane had wanted to own a major league ball club for years. If he couldn’t play, he at least wanted to be around the game, and the sale of his transportation company in 2007 gave him, potentially, his owner fee.

He was already 0-for-3 when he made the Astros offer in 2011, having tried to buy the Astros in 2008 and the Chicago Cubs and the Texas Rangers in 2009. His partner in the abortive Rangers deal was Mark Cuban, although the outspoken billionaire businessman and Dallas Mavericks owner was a minority partner. Crane believes in control, as in controlling interest.

The Houston businessman, founder of the immensely successful Crane Worldwide Logistics, wasn’t all that interested in talking to a politics reporter from the local newspaper—that would be me and the Houston Chronicle—although he was eager to refute rumors about his personal life that he worried might kill the deal he wanted so badly. The exclusive interview he granted was an effort, it seemed, to get Major League Baseball to quit stalling—as he saw it—and approve his offer to buy the team from longtime Astros owner Drayton McLane. The billionaire businessman from a small town in Central Texas, for 18 years chairman and chief executive of the club, had called a press conference weeks earlier to announce the sale to Crane, for a reported $680 million.

As I sat across from the would-be owner in the film festival office of Franci Neely Crane, he complained that Commissioner Bud Selig and MLB had turned a business deal into something personal, and he didn’t like it. He grimly recounted a divorce and child-custody dispute more than a decade old that perhaps was holding up the sale. On hand that morning were his grown children to corroborate the story that he wanted to tell.

“We’ve worked very hard to own a team,” he told me. “We think we’ve put a very good proposal in place and a very good set of owners, and we’ll do a very good job with the team, given the chance. And we want to do what’s best for baseball.”

The sale of sports franchises is often a long, complicated process, since the prospective buyer must win the approval of at least two-thirds of the 30 owners and, of course, the commissioner, who has final say. The Astros’ sale was expected to be relatively easy, although it had not turned out that way. At the time, Crane suspected that Major League Baseball was stalling to pressure him into agreeing to move the Astros from the National League to the American League.

Major League Baseball wanted the switch so that both leagues would have 15 teams and three 5-team divisions. A budding in-state rivalry between the Astros and the Texas Rangers would be an added bonus. Crane told me he would consider a move, but that a move was more complicated than simply saying yes.

“We signed an agreement in May, and that agreement hinges off all the economics that were presented to us,” he told me. “We’re paying a very handsome sum for the team, and that was based off the deal that was presented to us. That was a signed contract, and we will honor that contract. If that changes, we’ve told baseball that if they want us to move to the American League we’d certainly consider that, but we have to understand all the ramifications of that. That includes travel. That includes paying for a designated hitter that we don’t have to pay for. That includes our TV contract.”

At the same time as the potential league jump was under discussion, baseball also investigated legal issues that grew out of Crane’s 1991 divorce from his first wife, Theresa Crane, who had retained custody of the two children until 2000, when Crane successfully sued for full custody. Personal issues matter to the MLB, since Commissioner Selig and the owners were still recovering from a long-running nightmare prompted by the War of the Roses divorce of Dodgers’ owner Frank McCourt and his wife Jamie. (Whether they owned the team 50-50 was part of the family feud.)

In what may have been the most expensive divorce in American history, court documents revealed that the McCourts had been diverting revenue from the Dodgers—MLB claimed that $189 million had been “looted”—to support their, shall we say, extravagant lifestyles. McCourt needed a personal loan from Fox Broadcasting to make the Dodgers’ payroll; MLB tried to take over the team.

The Cranes’ divorce was nowhere near as Hollywood-spectacular as the McCourts’, although the custody case did turn bitter. The Houston Press reported in 2000 that police were called one night to Jim Crane’s residence in an exclusive neighborhood near Rice University, over what Crane’s son Jared described in his 2011 interview with me as “basically an argument” that, according to his sister Krystal in the same interview, their mother “just blew out of proportion.”


On Sale
May 1, 2018
Page Count
272 pages
Hachette Books

Joe Holley

About the Author

Joe Holley, a columnist for the Houston Chronicle and a retired editorial writer, won a 2022 Pulitzer Prize with his team for a campaign that revealed voter suppression tactics and argued for sensible voting reforms, and was a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist for a series of editorials on gun control and the Texas gun culture. A former editor of the Texas Observer and a staff writer for the Washington Post, he's the author of six books, including Hometown Texas, a collection of his weekly "Native Texan" columns, and Hurricane Season: The Unforgettable Story of the Houston Astros and the Resilience of a City. A native Texan himself, he and his wife Laura live in Austin.

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