The Astros will make the ballpark as safe as possible. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images.
In two weeks the Houston Astros will start their 2021 journey filled with more questions and answers than Champions Week on Jeopardy. And not just on the field, where manager Dusty Baker is still deciding who'll bat leadoff and where and how often Yordan Alvarez fits into the lineup.
The biggest open-ended uncertainty is a returning problem from 2020 – how will COVID-19 affect the baseball season and fan experience?
The Astros will start the season with about 25-percent occupancy in Minute Maid Park, subject to hopefully increase as vaccinations rise and hospitalizations drop during their 14 home games in April.
But will fans want to return to the ol' ballpark? Baseball hasn't exactly been a growth industry in recent years, with league attendance and TV ratings in slow, steady, measurable decline. MLB attendance in 2007 was 79 million. Attendance in 2019 (the last full schedule) was 68 million.
More fans attended baseball games in person two decades ago than in 2019. World Series TV ratings peaked in 1978 when the games averaged 44 million viewers. Last year's World Series, including major market Los Angeles Dodgers, had the lowest audience ever, averaging only 9.7 million viewers.
Four of the five least-viewed World Series have been in the past decade. The five most-watched Series were pre-1985.
The troubling COVID infection rate in Houston may have an impact on Astros attendance, especially in April and May as Pfizer and Moderna are bigger draws than Altuve and Correa.
The Astros will make the ballpark as safe and inviting as possible, with social distance seating upon request and hand sanitizing stations everywhere. MLB protocol mandates that fans must wear a mask except when "actively eating and drinking." Do not be an anti-mask Karen. You won't get away with nursing a Snickers candy bar in your hand for nine innings to avoid wearing a face covering. Minute Maid Park is not a public building. The Astros are the boss of you there.
"We will have masks available to fans as they enter the building if they do not have one. We are counting on our fans to be respectful of the rule and of each other," said Anita Sehgal, senior vice-president of marketing and communications for the Astros.
"We will have signage, announcements and staff monitoring with reminders. As per MLB protocols, we reserve the right to request a fan to leave if they are not adhering to the policy."
Remember the woman who refused to wear a mask in that bank in Galveston last week and challenged police, "What are you going to do, arrest me?" Done. There's a warrant out for her arrest. You don't want to embarrass yourself and your buddies by doing the walk of shame out of Minute Maid Park. You'll end up on YouTube. Simple rule: be a good fan. Wear a mask.
My prediction/solution: special seating sections for fans who are fully vaccinated. Do I have to come up with every good idea around here?
Apples to apples … or baseballs to basketballs: the Houston Rockets are operating with limited capacity at Toyota Center and still have trouble drawing fans. Much like the Rockets themselves, ticket prices on StubHub and other secondary market sites have hit rock bottom.
While you can chalk up the deep discounts to the Rockets' frustrating losing streak, the team was offering sale prices even when they had superstar James Harden and a winning record earlier this season.
It will be interesting to watch fan reaction when the Astros hit the road this season. The Astros were spared, let's say polite, commentary from fans in Yankee Stadium last year because of the shortened schedule. The Astros will visit The Bronx on May 4-5-6. Suggestions to Astros outfielders, wear profanity-canceling headphones. Full body armor might be a good idea, too. Boisterous Yankees fans don't adhere to the playground "no mothers" rule when hurling insults at opposing players.
The Astros might not receive tender bon mots from fans in Dodger Stadium on Aug. 3-4, either.
As the Astros prepare to play their first game of spring training against the Nationals this Saturday, we're starting to see reports about how the players approached the offseason, and what tweaks they made to improve in the 2024 season.
Cristian Javier is a player Astros fans are hoping bounces back this year, as his ERA jumped from 2.54 in 2022 to 4.56 in 2023. Workload was thought to be one of the main factors causing his regression, he dealt with a dead arm last season and threw more innings than ever before (162).
Another explanation could be the pitch clock. This was another new element all pitchers had to deal with last year, and that also likely played a role in his struggles.
But according to The Athletic's Chandler Rome, Javier believes he was carrying some extra weight last season. Add that to some mechanical issues he was experiencing, and his struggles in 2023 make a lot more sense. And to be fair, he wouldn't be the first person to get a little fat and happy after winning a World Series.
Cristian Javier said he lost around 15 pounds this offseason. He acknowledged that some of his struggles last year could be attributed to some extra weight he was carrying around in addition to the already-documented mechanical flaws he had.
— Chandler Rome (@Chandler_Rome) February 22, 2024
In an effort to get back on track in 2024, Javier said he lost around 15 pounds this offseason. With the pitch clock not going anywhere, pitchers need to be in better cardiac shape than ever before.
Hopefully this modification helps Javier return to form and put up jaw-dropping numbers like he did in 2022. This rotation needs Javier to be the dominate pitcher we all know he's capable of being. With Justin Verlander behind schedule and Framber Valdez trying to bounce back from his own down year, Houston will depend on Javier like never before.
The Astros are certainly counting on it after giving him a 5-year, $64 million contract last season. Javier will definitely be a player to watch this spring.