Schmoozing with Al Roker: Astros “Lend a Hand Today.”

Baseball players are, in general, more accustomed to late nights than early mornings. After all, their work day doesn’t start until mid-afternoon and normally lasts deep into the evening, with bed time often arriving hours after most of the “normal” section of society shuts it down for the day.

But a handful of Astros were up at the crack of dawn — like, Spring Training early — Wednesday morning, and were happy to do so. They were invited to appear on the TODAY Show with Al Roker as part of his “Lend a Hand Today” tour, a cross-country trek that started in Alaska on Monday, stopped in Las Vegas Tuesday and arrived in Houston Wednesday.

It took no coaxing on the Astros part to convince Mark Melancon and J.R. Towles and manager Brad Mills to participate in this event (even if it meant meeting at the ballpark parking garage at 6:30 a.m.). Roker, one of the most famous and well-liked personalities in morning television, has been traveling the country for 10 years, “Lending a Hand” and shining light on five exceptional charities each year and surprising them with truckloads of donations.

The TODAY Show’s visit to the Bayou City was the most lucrative in “Lend a Hand” history, bringing in $2.7 million for Casa de Esperanza, a safe place for children in crisis due to abuse, neglect or the effects of HIV.

The chosen charity is top secret until Roker does a live, on-air reveal. He’s flanked by hundreds of cheering volunteers and representatives of the various businesses and organizations that donate money, supplies, food, clothing, linens, toiletries, games and toys. Toys R Us was there. Babies R Us, too, as was Jordache Jeans and dozens of others — including the Astros, who presented Roker with a check for $5,000 on behalf of the Astros in Action Foundation, and 1,000 tickets to future Astros games for the kids.

Texas native Jenna Bush Hager, a TODAY Show correspondent, was instrumental in the effort to have the “Lend a Hand” series visit Houston and, not surprisingly, she was a very popular presence among the onlookers at the big reveal. The scene was loud and frenzied and wonderful. And as an added bonus, Roker’s a really nice guy — as friendly and congenial and he comes off on TV. Bush Hager is warm and approachable and I lost count of how many kids from Casa de Esperanza ran up to her. She embraced every one of them.

There are two videos from the appearance — the clip from the TODAY Show website, and our exclusive, behind-the-scenes perspective. It’s kind of fun to watch footage from the same event, from two different angles.

And as always, we took lots and lots of photos…

Among the items we carried in to the event were baseballs to be autographed for future charity events, an oversized symbolic check for $5,000 and boxes of caps to hand out. Towles and Melancon found this to be the easiest way to transport the caps.

The group, after the check presentation.

We gave the players a pretty heady task: get Roker to wear the Astros cap during the broadcast. Roker enthusiastically put the cap on and said, "I'm an honorary Astro." Mission accomplished.

Among the adoring onlookers were Britanny Towles and Mary Catherine Melancon, who collected some autographed Roker/Bush Hager loot for the upcoming Wives Gala.

Jenna Bush Hager poses with the Astros, a fitting photo considering how many games her grandparents attend every year.

Roker snapped about as many pictures as we did. It was fun to see him taking in the scene and enjoying the experience, while tending to his duties as the main "Lend a Hand Today" correspondent.

Towles and Melancon pose with country music singer Clay Walker...

...and then they all exchange phone numbers. Man love at its finest!

The Astros contingent -- including Junction Jack -- unloads the truck full of items donated to Casa de Esperanza.

During commercial breaks, the players asked Roker to sign a few baseballs, which the affable weather man did willingly.

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