TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME

For all of the Astros uncertainties, you are their biggest of all

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.

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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