4th and a mile with Paul Muth

Here's what to expect at a socially distanced Texans game

Things look just a bit different from a typical Texans game. Photo by Paul Muth

The Houston Texans play host to the New England Patriots this Sunday in a battle to decide...nothing.

The Patriots are bad. The Texans are bad. The only thing this game offers in utility is something to nap through while nursing a Saturday night hangover.

If ever there was a season to avoid watching or going to a Texans game, this would be it.

Also 2013.

Also 2005.

The only reason this season could be worse is that it is being played in the middle of a pandemic. To be fair though, their on field performance warrants even less fan attendance than the current 13,000 allowed.

In spite of their current Masterclass season of ineptitude, curiosity got the better of me a few weeks back. I had to see what a socially distanced NFL game felt like. So I grabbed a ticket to the Jacksonville game and did just that.

It already felt weird before my buddy and I had even made it to the stadium. We knew something was off when we were able to pull up and park without wading through the infamous soul-crushing Texans traffic. Be it known that my super secret off property parking spot was utilized in conjunction with a quick METRORail ride up to NRG Park. There was absolutely no justification to spend money on gameday parking passes considering that tailgating was forbidden.

With tailgating out the window and stadium beer prices still ridiculous we were forced to watch an 0-4 Texans team face the Jaguars sober. Coincidentally this was also the first in-person Texans game ever that I had actually watched sober. I didn't know that was allowed.

Security checkpoint? Walk right through. Ticket scan? Breeze on by, buddy. Food and beer? Come and get it. It had shades of 2007-2016 Astros-level entrance efficiency, mainly because no one was going to those games either. You can skip and twirl with your arms outstretched throughout the concourse all the way to your seat with nary a chance to bump into other fans.

Once we were inside, though, the mask went on and stayed on. They're serious about it, too. So much so that they've deployed roving bands of mask police in red polos to patrol the concourse. Armed with a sign that says "Please wear your face mask. Thank you!" These sentinels have been deployed to root out problem makers and ruthlessly point at their sign until compliance is achieved.

We reached our section and headed down to our own personal row behind the goal post. That's right. When we purchased the seats, they were being sold in groups of four. Since we were the only two that purchased any, the other two were discarded. When we arrived I had expected to have at least two empty seats near us to stretch out as a result. Wrong.

Every seat not sold is strapped shut with steel strapping typically reserved for bailing machines. They were definitely not playing around with enforcing the distancing.

At the bottom of each row you'll find another mask monitor, back turned to the field. They will harass your section the entire game to make sure everyone complies by passive-aggressively pointing at the person and then pointing at their "Please wear a face mask. Thank you!" sign. It's merciless.

Once we settled in, I had the pleasure of listening to the man with the toughest job of all: the PA announcer trying to hype up an empty stadium.

It's "Texans tradition" during the player entrances that the PA announcer says the player's first name, and the normally packed crowd yells out the player's last name. This crowd certainly did not pull their weight.

PA: "DESHAUN"

Crowd: [incoherent mumbling]

I'm not going to bother talking about the game because it was terrible. But the game experience itself? It was weird. The timeout productions were all on the video board, the cheerleaders were sequestered into different corners of the stands on makeshift stages. Toro the mascot donned a mask. Even with the manufactured crowd noise on loop, it was uncomfortably quiet.

Then came the bombshell.

"ALL RIGHT TEXANS, IT'S TIME TO GET LOUD FOR YOUR HOUSTON TEXANS!"

"This should be great," I thought to myself.

The video board then switched to a graphic of a decibel meter, while the cameraman struggled to find a rowdy crowd big enough to zoom in on. The decibel meter read 105 dB.

I pulled up the decibel meter app on my phone to compare (don't ask why I have a decibel meter on my phone), and my heart sank.

70 dB. We were being deceived. The app equates the decibel level to similar noise levels, with 70 dB equating to "busy traffic." In lieu of "Go Texans!" or "Let's go!" during key situations, we resorted to just yelling "BUSY TRAFFIC" for the remainder of the contest. Our trust had been broken.

Final verdict?

Watching sports in person truly lacks a critical dimension without a crowd. It was uncomfortable and eerie, and the Texans just aren't good enough to merit a trip to Kirby Drive, even if you don't have to worry about lines or crowds. I did the work so you don't have to. If you simply must watch the Texans, stay home, and stay comfy.

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Mattress Mack and the Astros host Pearland Little League at Wednesday night's game. Photo by LittleLeague.org

Sure, it’s impressive that the Astros have made four World Series appearances in recent years, but they’re not alone. There’s another baseball team around here that’s also headed to its fourth World Series since 2010.

Pearland defeated Oklahoma, 9-4, on Tuesday to win the Southwest Regional and qualify for the Little League World Series starting Aug. 17 in South Williamsport, PA.

Most fans and media say the Little League World Series is held in Williamsport, but it’s South Williamsport, just a 5-minute stroll across a bridge over the Susquehanna River in north central Pennsylvania.

Pearland is on a torrid 13-game winning streak that swept through district, sectional, state and regional tournaments to earn the Little League World Series bid.

Here’s how difficult the road to the Little League World Series is. There are 15 teams in MLB’s American League. If the Astros finish with one of the two best records, they’ll have to win two playoff series to play in the World Series.

Little League is a little bigger than MLB. Little League is the largest youth sports organization in the world, with 2.5 million kids playing for 180,000 teams in more than 100 countries on six continents.

Pearland, representing East Texas, had to defeat All-Star teams from West Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, Arkansas and Colorado to win the Southwest Regional. The Little League World Series will host 20 teams - 10 from the U.S. and 10 from international regions.

If you have children that play Little League, or you’re just a fan, attending the Little League World Series should be high on your baseball bucket list.

I covered the Little League World Series in 2010 when Pearland made its first appearance and made it all the way to the U.S. championship game. It may have been my most fun assignment ever.

The Little League World Series is played by 11 and 12-year-olds in Little League’s major division. When ESPN and ABC air these games, they’ll present the players as innocent little kids, like Beaver and Wally or Tom and Huck. They’ll show the kids playing Simon Says with the Little League mascot called Dugout. They’ll ask the kids who’s their favorite big leaguer.

I was a Little League coach. I followed Little League All-Stars across Texas all the way to South Williamsport. These kids are absolute baseball maniacs with $400 gloves, $500 bats and Oakley sunglasses. I thought the Astros might call and ask where they got their super neat equipment.

Especially in Texas, these kids are built tough with long ball power and play year-round travel baseball with high-priced private coaches. This isn’t a choose-up game in the park where kids play in their school clothes, one kid brings a baseball and the players share bats. I looked at some of the Little Leaguers and wondered if they drove to the stadium.

I half-expected, when ABC asked who their baseball idol was, they’d answer “me!”

Here’s how seriously good these kids can play the game. Justin Verlander throws a 97-mph fastball. That’s pretty fast. It’s not rare anymore for a Little League pitcher to reach 70-mph on a fastball. The Little League mound is 46 feet from home plate. A 70-mph pitch in Little League gets to home plate in the same time as a 91-mph pitch from 60 feet 6 inches in MLB.

In 2015, a pitcher named Alex Edmonson fired an 83-mph heater at the Little League World Series. The reaction time a Little League batter had against Alex’s pitch was equal to a Major Leaguer trying to hit a 108-mph fastball. Good luck with that. Alex pitched a no-hitter and struck out 15 batters in six innings at the Little League World Series. Now 20, Alex is a relief pitcher for Clemson.

The Little League World Series is a trip. The easiest way to get there is to fly into Philadelphia and drive to South Williamsport. I sat next to CC Sebathia’s mother on the plane.

Admission to all Little League World Series games is free and snack bar prices are reasonable. A hot dog is $3. Alcohol and smoking are prohibited.

The first Little League World Series was held in 1947. Only 58 players have played in the Little League World Series and later played in MLB. The most famous are Cody Bellinger and Jason Varitek. Only two players from the Houston area made the leap: Brady Rodgers and Randal Grichuk both played on the 2003 team from Richmond, about 30 miles from Houston in Fort Bend County.

While you’re in South Williamsport, you should visit the Little League museum and Hall of Excellence. Among the inductees: Presidents Joe Biden and George W. Bush, Astros manager Dusty Baker, Kevin Costner, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dick Vitale, Rob Manfred and someone who’d later play stadiums in a different way, Bruce Springsteen.

Speaking of Springsteen, I shattered a record at the 2010 Little League World Series. The record was Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. I was talking to a Little League executive while teams were warming up on the field. Born in the U.S.A. came over the stadium loudspeakers.

I told the executive, I’m a big fan but maybe this isn’t the best song you should be playing. The executive asked why not? Well, you might want to listen to the words. Born in the U.S.A. is a depressing song about a U.S. soldier who is sent to Vietnam and can’t find a job when he gets back home. It’s not exactly Yankee Doodle Dandy. You have teams from Asia here (Japan won the tournament that year). The executive said, please tell me you’re kidding. Here’s one verse:

Got in a little hometown jam

So they put a rifle in my hand

Sent me off to a foreign land

To go and kill the (what is considered a slur for Asians).

Later I got an email from the president of Little League International.

“Quite honestly, I've never listened closely to the words of Born in the USA. I see clearly how it is offensive to our Little League friends from Asian nations. I have directed our folks who coordinate the stadium music to discontinue playing it in the future.”

Play Centerfield by John Fogerty instead. The message of that song is, “put me in coach.” Little League couldn’t say it any better.

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