Kara McCullers has had one hell of a year. Like the rest of Houston, she watched in horror as Harvey wreaked havoc and destruction and, less than three months later, rejoiced when the city's team pulled off a World Series win of epic proportions, clinching the first title in franchise history. The main difference, though, was that McCullers saw the latter from the front lines. Her husband, Lance McCullers Jr., was largely responsible for getting the Astros there after pitching four scoreless innings for his first career save against the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS, securing the 'Stros their shot at the Series.
Kara McCullers still gets chills when she thinks about it all.
"What a whirlwind—just an absolute whirlwind," she tells Houstonia. "These people who were in a time of such desperation, only a few months after could be given such joy by something they've waited for forever. Bringing a championship home to the city was exactly what needed to happen, and it's awesome that we were able to contribute to that."
Through it all, it's been Kara and Lance—they married in 2015, but the couple started dating nearly a decade ago in high school in their native Tampa. Kara, then 17, was the rare senior who went for a younger man: Lance, then 16, who'd go on to play for the minor leagues in California and Texas while Kara worked her way through school. Lance earned a spot on the Houston Astros starting rotation; Kara earned a graduate degree in speech language pathology.
The pair eventually moved to Houston full-time, buying a house here last year, which Kara says is a testament to their commitment to the Bayou City, where they're equally committed to a particular cause: animal rescue. Through the Lance McCullers Jr. Foundation, the couple supports pet adoptions and no-kill shelters across Houston and the nation. The non-profit invests, fundraises, and creates programs for stray animals and their advocates; Lance regularly takes to his own social media to find homes for animals facing euthanasia. More often than not, he's successful.
"There are so many shelters; every week there's a group of dogs that can be euthanized by the next morning. That's one of the great things about being able to use a platform as an athlete," Kara says. "Harvey was also an awful time, but it helped Lance realize, 'I need to capitalize on the fact that I have a platform in the city, and what can I do to help?'"
Next month, they'll answer that question for the second year in a row with an event called Team Up for Kids and K9s, which raised over $100,000 last year. On May 17, Lance and Kara will again host "an intimate evening filled with great food, drinks, and a silent auction" at Tootsies alongside fellow Astros Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel. Proceeds will benefit the McCullers' charity and the Sunshine Kids Foundation, which brings free programming and events to children with cancer.
Ahead of the annual event, Kara spoke with Houstonia about the foundation, her relationship, Lance's preferred start-day meal, and her favorite thing in her closet.
Do the Astros love each other as much as they seem to?
We're like one big giant family, honestly. It really is that way. I'm very blessed to be a part of—I say 'we' like I'm on the team—Lance is very blessed to be a part of this team, and I along with him am very blessed to be a part of it. The guys on the team have very close-knit relationships; you can tell the chemistry on the field these guys have is second to none. That causes a lot of the girls [to grow close]. ... Especially in a city where you're not from, they become your home away from home, they become your family away from family.
It really does show how close of a team this is. I think that we have a really good group of girls. I’m terrified of ever playing on another team because I’ve heard horror stories, and everyone’s like, ‘There’s nothing like the Astros, there’s nothing like the relationships that I’ve created on that team.’ ... I think we’re very blessed. I’ve met some of my best friends on the team.
Do you think that's played a part in the team's tremendous success?
Absolutely, 100 percent. It’s definitely something that you can tell. When people vibe well with each other, it’s very obvious, and you want to go out there and give. I’ve heard Lance say it, you want to go out there and give 100 percent every time you step on the field … you never want to let each other down.
What do you think of Houston?
Houston as a whole is awesome; Lance and I obviously like it because we chose to move here full-time. We really made this our home base, that's how much we love Houston. I have so many wonderful neighbors with children who are like, 'This is the best place to raise kids.' I don't know if I'll be able to raise my kids here, but I just think this is a wonderful place to live. We love the neighborhood we're in. It's a great foodie city–way better food scene than our hometown, Lance and I agree. On top of the food, there's great shopping ... those are two things that we love.
What are the McCullers' favorite places to shop and eat?
Lance probably goes to Tiny's No. 5 like once a week. That's where he does his start-day meal; whenever he pitches he'll go. I know Reef closed after the hurricane and they're going to reopen soon, Reef is a great seafood place that we frequented a lot last year. There are smaller places, places that don't seem really big and grand that are awesome and hidden away. Coltivare and Roost, those types of places are fabulous. La Table is really good. And Steak 48.
For shops, obviously the Galleria–we're pretty blessed with that; we have some great department stores. The shops in the River Oaks District are awesome, and actually a lot of times I won't even go to the malls if I just want to run somewhere and grab something. If there's something in particular that I want, it's at Tootsies.
What's your favorite thing in your closet?
Let me look. I'm really into white booties, like a statement bootie, but especially white. I like cool platform tennis shoes, like Stella McCartney. I go to baseball games a lot, so I'm into things like tennis shoes. You try to look as cute as you can without looking a little ridiculous. And any nice handbag ... I'm really into mini bags right now, the smaller the better.
Tell me about your dogs.
We have two dogs: Minka is our Siberian Husky, and we've had her for four years. Riggs is our black lab mix. We have two big dogs. Riggs we just got about a year and a half ago from the Houston Humane Society. He's really sweet; he's a rescue baby.
How did the Lance McCullers Jr. Foundation get started?
Lance and I have always been big animal people, we grew up with dogs in both of our families, and it really has been something near and dear to our hearts for quite some time. When Lance was in the minor leagues he had a bunch of different ideas on how to raise money for animals because he feels that it's a cause that can be overlooked a lot of times. He wanted to do something smaller where he would raise money every time he struck someone out or something, and try to get players to match it. He had ideas, but never anything that really took off.
Then once he was called up to the big leagues ... he wanted to make a greater impact on the city of Houston and really capitalize on the connections he had made within the dog and animal rescue world at the time. In 2016 we both decided that we wanted to do something more and make a direct impact on a lot of those rescues and a lot of those animals that come in from the shelters.. We created our foundation ... we help with a lot of different things. We have a medical granting program where if a dog comes in and there's no other hope—he could get adopted but he doesn't have the funds to have whatever surgery he needs—that's when we step in and provide the funds for those dogs that would otherwise be euthanized. Houston unfortunately is a kill city—there are pretty high euthanasia rates, and we do everything we can to try to save them.
What's the hardest part and the best part about being married to a professional athlete?
Hardest I would definitely say was when we were apart. When I was in grad school, Lance was in California during most of that time, playing for one of the minor league affiliates, so we were hours apart. When we were engaged, he was three hours away, I was planning a wedding, it was a very crazy time. It was a high-stress time.
Luckily the next year he was playing in Texas, which was easier, and I was finishing school. That was after he got called up to the big leagues, and I was able to move here full-time. Being able to finally do what I wanted to do for myself and finish my goals, because I know that is very difficult for girls to do, and then come out and be able to enjoy what he does. And, hello, the World Series!