HOUSTON — The last loyal Astros fan is easy to spot.
Alone in section 124, row 36 at Minute Maid Park, wearing a bright orange jersey against a sea of empty forest green chairs, is Greis Perez.
Greis (pronounced Grace) is a 34-year-old who, unlike most of her city, has not given up on the home team. There are other Greis Perezes here, but it’s just a few as the Astros close in on their third straight 100-loss season.
An average of 19,659 fans attend games at the 42,000-seat stadium. The number has fallen steadily since the team filled up this place in the wake of the 2005 World Series. This is the Astros’ lowest average attendance since 1995, when they still played in the Astrodome.
“I think the announced attendance are tickets sold,” Greis says. “There are never 20,000 people here. I guess a lot of people who bought tickets are not showing up.”
But Greis is. She makes it to about 70 home games a season and even makes three or four road trips a year.
Greis still cares.
“Even bad teams need fans,” she told the Houston Chronicle.
She understands why she often seems to have the place much to herself, however.
“I get why the fans are all gone now,” she says. “There are a lot of reasons.”
It’s a young team full of players who are anonymous to the general public, and they are new players, too, with trades and players coming up from the minor leagues altering the team on a regular basis.
“I guess I can just still see the bigger picture, and we are rebuilding,” Greis says. “I still have hope that things will get better. Someone should be here to cheer them on until that happens.”
The game is still a couple of hours away on the Tuesday after Labor Day.
Greis parks in a metered spot a few blocks from the stadium. It’s her favorite spot, and it is almost always available. It’s just not hard to find a spot near the ballpark these days.
She chats with the security guards at her entrance and the ushers as she walks to her seat. They know her by name.
She brings a red tote bag covered in tiny Astros logos to every game. Inside are her necessities — phone, iPad, a bag of peanuts, a backup phone charger for long games and a Ziploc bag with a baseball, a marker and a sheet of paper.
The ball is her 2012-13 team ball. She has a list of everyone on the team — it is longer this season.
“Usually I am trying to get about 25 signatures; this year it has been like 50 with all the trades,” she says.
She has 21 signatures.
Greis walks down to the dugout, where four other fans are waiting for autographs.
“I think I have everyone here today,” she says.
“I got Brett Wallace yesterday,” she says, pointing to a black signature near the red stitches on the ball.
She puts the ball back in the plastic bag and heads back to her seat.
She kills time on her phone, playing games and catching up on social media.
The game is still an hour away.
Greis is a diehard Astros fan and has been for as long as she can remember. Since her early 20s, she has gone to as many games as she can.
There are two other tiers of fans, she says. The ones in the middle follow on social media, watch the games when they can, maybe go to a few. Then there are the bandwagon fans who show up only when the team is winning.
“I think at all levels, people want the Astros to win,” she says. “They just don’t want to spend the money on watching them play.”
She says the failed Comcast television deal makes it harder for the casual fan to care. Dynamic pricing on tickets makes it tough, too. The better the opposing team, the higher the price — that isn’t great when the home team is losing, she says.
“The only way this place is going to be full again is if the team starts winning again. I think they will, but it might be a few years off.”
The pregame festivities include the announcement of the stadium’s employees of the month. Greis claps for several of them.
One of them, John Kelly, a vendor, comes to her a few minutes later, just as the game is starting.
“I heard you cheering, Greis,” he says with a huge grin.
“I’m so happy for you,” she tells him. “Enjoy the game.”
The visiting Twins score two runs in the top of the first inning.
The cheering from the Minnesota faithful is noticeable.
“You can always hear the opponent’s fans cheering here,” Greis says. “Sometimes they have more fans than the Astros. I am surprised there are this many Minnesota fans in Houston, though.”
Robbie Grossman singles to start the bottom half of the first inning for the Astros.
Greis knows almost everything about every Astro.
“He is a local guy,” Greis says of Grossman. “He went to Cy-Fair. I am glad to see him getting so much playing time.”
The next batter, Jose Altuve, a former All-Star and one of the few recognizable players on the team, grounds into a double play.
The Twins build their lead to 4-1 on a two-run homer, but the Astros respond with two runs in the bottom of the seventh to pull within 4-3.
As the game approaches the final stretch, there aren’t enough fans to start a rally cry or the wave.
As Greis encourages the Astros, her voice echoes down the first base line.
Greis’ dad, Hugo, used to come to a lot of games with her. He is the one who got her into sports when she was young. If she asks him to join her now, he declines.
There are better things to do, he says.
Her parents, and many of her friends, don’t understand why Greis has not moved on from her constant support.
“I stopped checking into games on Facebook because my parents are on there and they would make comments about me spending my money on watching a bad team,” she says. “But it is my money, and I could be spending it on heroin or something. This is a much better habit.”
As the bottom of the ninth begins, about half the fans from the game’s start are here.
More are leaving by the minute, as the Astros trail 6-3.
“They either need to win it here or lose it here,” Greis says. “I really shouldn’t be out too late tonight.”
Minutes later, Brandon Barnes hits a three-run home run, tying the game and sending it to extra innings.
Greis cheers wildly, then sits and says, “I jinxed it.”
Another inning goes by, then another. The stadium empties.
“I’m not leaving,” she says. “It’s not allowed.”
In the 12th inning, the Astros’ Kevin Chapman allows three runs — one on a wild pitch and two more on a double.
The Astros lose 9-6, their seventh loss in an eight-game stretch.
“The losing is really frustrating,” she says. “So much losing. And like this — 3-2, 6-4, close losses. That’s even harder to watch.”
Greis grabs her Astros bags and walks out, saying good night to all the Minute Maid Park workers on the way.
The team has a day game the following day that she can’t make, then it hits the road for a six-game trip. There are only a handful of home games left this season.
Alone in section 124, row 36 will be Greis Perez.
The last loyal Astros fan.