HOUSTON (AP) – Nearly every seat in the stadium was filled more than 30 minutes before the first pitch and chants of “Let’s Go, Astros” broke out as soon as the national anthem ended.

Then came “the moment we’ve been waiting for, for 44 long seasons,” as public-address announcer Bob Ford put it.

“Here come your National League champion Houston Astros,” Ford said to even louder cheers and a whiteout of clicking cameras.

The first World Series game in Houston and the state of Texas got off to a roaring start Tuesday night, even if the Astros came into Game 3 having lost the first two to the Chicago White Sox.

“It’s exciting to see the fans so enthusiastic about it,” said local hero Nolan Ryan, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Jeff Bagwell.

They were spurred on by a welcome sight: the banner drop in center field, changing from a back-to-back Wild Card champions flag to one that boasted 2005 NL Champions, with “We Believe!” below it.

Not even Major League Baseball’s decision to have the roof open could dampen the spirit of longtime team executive Tal Smith. He joined the club in 1965 and, like everyone who has followed the club since its birth in 62, he’s been waiting a long time for this night.

When it finally – finally! – happened, he knew exactly what to wear.

On the left side of his blazer, Smith clipped a pin featuring the words “World” and “Series” around the team’s old logo that featured baseball orbiting the iconic shape of the Astrodome. It was made in 1980 and was supposed to be destroyed after the Astros lost the NLCS to the Philadelphia Phillies. All but one were.

“I knew exactly where it was,” said Smith, now the team’s president. “I had it put away with some other keepsakes, so to speak, and made a point to get it out. I hadn’t forgotten.”

Smith said he’s been through a lot of emotions since the team clinched the NL title in St. Louis on Wednesday, including being at their first Series game Saturday in Chicago.

“But tonight is even more special because it’s a home game – first one in Houston, first one in the state,” he said.

Manager Phil Garner, who played on the 1986 Astros team that also nearly broke through, saw another significance.

“I think this really validates what the organization has accomplished over the years,” he said. “Let’s face it, you have to get to the World Series to say things have gone well.”

Hall of Fame officials were on hand looking for keepsakes to commemorate this night in Cooperstown.

“We’re trying to find the best way to define the first World Series game in Texas,” said Hall spokesman Brad Horn, adding that the early candidates included a game program and the ball Ryan threw.

Despite the disappointment of the open roof reducing the crowd noise, the clear sky and cool temperature made for a pleasant mid-October experience unlike any other in state history. It was especially cozy to fans who remember feeling swallowed in the vast openness of the Astrodome.

“I’ve had people come up to me and practically break down and cry, they’re so happy that we made it,” said Larry Dierker, a club broadcaster who was an All-Star pitcher and later four-time division winner as a manger. “It’s had quite an effect on me. I didn’t think they could do it this year.”

Nearly every seat was filled long before the start. Every version of every uniform in team history was visible, with one father and his young son donning the rainbow jerseys of J.R. Richard and Cesar Cedeno. Orange caps dotted most sections, too.

Signs were everywhere, with many referencing the club’s “We believe” slogan or the team’s Killer B’s theme. Some combined the two: “We bee-lieve.”

A few rows up in the stands, 80-year-old Sofia Garza, a regular at games since 1966, was decked in everything from Astros logo earrings to the lucky frog she wears around her wrist. She’s become close to many players through the years, having called Garner “my boy” since he played for the team in the 1980s.

“I’m 80 years old and I keep asking God to let me live long enough to see the Astros play in a World Series,” she said. “It’s here and I know they’re going to go all the way.”

Former Astros Bob Watson and Art Howe also were among those soaking in the pregame scene on the field. As an MLB executive, Watson can’t root for any team – but as a Houston resident, he could appreciate the significance.

“This means a whole lot for the city, for the state of Texas,” he said. “It’s just fantastic.”

AP-ES-10-25-05 2143EDT

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