HOUSTON -- The invocation during the annual Texas Italian-American Sports Foundation luncheon on Saturday drew laughs from the audience, which is OK, considering the local nine could use a few chuckles these days.
"Please, please, please, please, please, PLEASE give our Astros the strength to work through these tough times," Sam Listi said to an amused crowd at Damian's Cucina Italiana restaurant near downtown Houston.
The Astros could use a little divine intervention these days, after they extended their losing streak to a club-record-tying 11 games on Friday. Still, even a dreaded string of losses didn't detract from the festive nature of the Scholarship Awards Luncheon, which provides scholarship money to Italian-American student-athletes from the Houston area who are either headed to college or already enrolled.
The tradition of Astros players attending the event, and presenting the scholarship checks to the students, began 30 years ago. Back in the day, Ken Caminiti, Jeff Bagwell (dubbed "Jeff Bagwelli," an honorary Italian, for this event) and Craig Biggio were regular fixtures at the luncheon. On Saturday, Milo Hamilton emceed the event, and current Astros Jason Castro, Jose Altuve and Brian Bogusevic represented the club.
The TIASF also honors a sports figure at the luncheon every year. Saturday's honoree was Joe Tusa, former Houston Independent School District Athletic Director who was instrumental in integrating high school sports in the 1960s. He also played a leading role in developing and expanding the girls' athletic program, including the addition of basketball and soccer.
After 37 years with HISD, Tusa retired in 1989 with the longest tenure of any athletic director in HISD history.
Since its founding in '82, the Texas Italian American Sports Foundation has awarded nearly $600,000 in scholarships to deserving student-athletes.
Maxwell, Altuve show sign of goodwill with fans
HOUSTON -- After getting outfielder Justin Maxwell's autograph on a couple of custom-made 50th anniversary posters on Saturday afternoon, Astros fans Danea Hall and Kathy Hoke lingered around the team store because they wanted to give Maxwell something.
In Hall's hands: a framed baseball, unseamed and laid flat in a cross, with a Bible verse printed underneath it. Once Maxwell signed his final autograph, seven minutes after he was scheduled to finish, Hall handed Maxwell the plaque.
After talking with Maxwell, the ladies were off to buy tickets for Saturday's game, which will be followed by Faith and Family Night at Minute Maid Park. Maxwell testified at the first Faith and Family Night, but will hand off speaking duties on Saturday to pitcher Kyle Weiland, first base coach Bobby Meachem and their wives.
Hall said she'll continue to support the Astros, even as they ride through a bit of a rocky stretch.
"It's been exciting to see the young guys play and get an opportunity and want to play and have that drive every night," Hall said.
Hall and Hoke have given the framed baseball to several Astros players over the years. They try to find a way to hand them to the players when they're away from the diamond.
Maxwell said signing the ladies' posters and receiving the plaque was one of the more memorable parts of his day. He had his three-year-old son, Jaidon, sitting next to him for most of the autograph session. <
All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve also signed autographs on Saturday as part of the Astros Buddies Kids Club.
"They look at you like they want to be a big leaguer someday," Altuve said. "I like spending time with those kids."
Most fans brought hats, jerseys and cards for Altuve to sign. He also signed someone's Astros debit card.
"That was kind of crazy," Altuve said. "I just started laughing, but I'll sign it."
Altuve and Maxwell appreciated the support from the fans, even as the team rode an 11-game losing streak heading into Saturday against the Pirates.
"We have great fans here in Houston," Maxwell said. "They still come out and watch us play. They know we're in a rebuilding phase right now. It's just great to have that kind of support."
"We're having a hard time right now, losing a couple games," Altuve said. "But people still come to the field, give support. When I listen to those kids, they keep saying 'Play hard.' It feels really, really good."
Fick gets fresh start with Astros
HOUSTON -- The change of scenery was much-needed, newest Astros reliever Chuckie Fick said. The Astros claimed him off waivers from the Cardinals on Friday and added him to their bullpen as what manager Brad Mills called his long reliever.
"It's a fresh start," said Fick, who joined the team prior to Friday's game. "It really is. The Cardinals, it's tough to break in and tough to stay. I had served my time there. It was time to go."
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, who drafted Fick while working for the Cardinals, called him and told him he was headed to Houston.
"He said 'You're an Astro now and pack your things,'" he said. "'You're going to Houston.'"
Fick, 26, made two appearances for the Cardinals this season in May, posting no record and a 5.40 ERA. He's spent the majority of this season with Triple-A Memphis, going 1-1 with one save and a 4.68 ERA in 42 relief appearances. The Cardinals designated him for assignment on Wednesday.
Clark Goble is an associate reporter for MLB.com. Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.