PLAY BALL!

Here's your all-inclusive guide to Astros opening day

Photo by Bob Levey /Stringer/Getty Images.

Baseball is finally back for the 2020 season, we'll hope and see for how long. But at 8:10 p.m. next Friday, Justin Verlander will take the mound at Minute Maid Park to throw the unceremonial first pitch of what has to be the strangest season in Astros – and every other team's – history.

Teams will start the COVID-shortened, 60-game season, with a 30-man roster, which will be whittled down to 26 players after about a month. Both the American and (gasp) National Leagues will use designated hitters. The Astros have a new manager, Dusty Baker, and new general manager, James Click, for their season of vindication. Relievers will have to face at least three batters unless the inning ends first. Players won't be allowed to spit or high-five each other. The Astros third baseman shaved his head again. Phillies infielder Didi Gregorius will wear a face mask during games. Extra innings will start with a runner on second base. Fun fact: if that runner crosses home plate, it will be scored an unearned run.

Subject to change, here's the Astros starting pitching for the opening 4-game set against the Seattle Mariners. Verlander on Friday night, Lance McCullers goes Saturday (3:10 p.m.), followed by Zack Greinke on Sunday (1:10 p.m.) and Josh James on Monday (6:10 p.m.) Like most of the schedule, the games against Seattle will be televised on ATT SportsNet SW. Unlike the NBA, baseball teams will not be confined to a coronavirus-protective bubble, which means everything about this season really is subject to change.

The Astros will play 40 games against American League West rivals and 20 games against the National League West. No Yankees, no Red Sox. The season will be split evenly, 30 games each at home and on the road. The Astros will be trying to repeat as American League champions, win the American League West for the fourth consecutive time, and top last year's 107-game win total. It would be the first time the Astros have done any of those.

Baseball's opening day always has been special, since April 22, 1876 when Boston beat Philadelphia, 6-5, in what is regarded as baseball's first professional opening day. The game took just over two hours to play. Wouldn't that be nice? We could be home in time for Dominique. Here's how the N.Y. Clipper newspaper covered that first contest: "Weather was favorable and the attendance large, over 3,000 persons being inside the inclosure."

While today's players are far superior to those of 1876, so are today's sports writers. I'm sure my baseball scribe buddy Richard Justice would have written "more than 3,000 fans" and "enclosure" instead of "inclosure," which I'm not sure is even a word. Next week Justice will report that the paid attendance at Astros' Opening Day will be, in the words of George Costanza, "absolute zero." The 2020 baseball season, at least at the start, will be played without fans. Forget Dollar Dogs on Tuesdays.

Baseball, being a game of stats, has a special column for Opening Day. Tom Seaver holds the record for most Opening Day starts with 16. In 1940, Cleveland's Bob Feller threw the only Opening Day no-hitter, beating the Chicago White Sox, 1-0 in old and cold Comiskey Park. Temperature at game time: 35 degrees. Largest attendance for an Opening Day: 74,420 at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium to watch the hometown Indians beat the Tigers, 2-1. Henry Aaron hit his 714th homer, tying Babe Ruth's all-time record (at the time) on Opening Day in 1974. Presidents often have thrown out first pitches on Opening Day. In 1950, ambidextrous Harry Truman threw out two pitches – one righty and one lefty. Frank Robinson holds the record for most home runs on Open Day – eight dingers for four different teams. Three players have hit homers in four consecutive Opening Days: Todd Hundley (1994-97), Gary Carter (1977-80) and Yogi Berra (1955-58). Astros soon-to-be free agent George Springer (sign him!) enters 2020 riding a three Opening Day homer streak.

The strangest Opening Day game, though, had to be way back on April 11, 1907, when the Philadelphia Phillies beat the New York Giants … by forfeit. If you had to guess the reason for the forfeit, you'd be here forever still guessing.

New York forfeited the game because a Giants fan hit umpire Bill Klem in the head with a snowball.

Snow had fallen in New York the night before the game. The Phils were leading 3-0 in the top of the ninth when fans began throwing snowballs at each other. Some fans ran on the field and one of them threw a perfect strike, clobbering Klem in the head with a frozen fastball. Since the home team is responsible for stadium security, Klem stopped the game and gave the win to the Phillies by forfeit.

Whoever threw the snowball beaned the most famous umpire in baseball history. Klem umped big league games from 1905 to 1941. The "Old Arbitrator" worked games in 18 World Series (a record) and is credited with being the first to use arm signals to indicate balls and strikes. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953. His plaque does not show him getting smacked with a snowball.

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans loss rests squarely on this decision

Another tough loss for the Texans. Photo by Getty Images.

There are times in which you gamble and it pays off. Then there are times in which you gamble and lose badly. Today was definitely the latter. The Texans fell to the Titans 42-36 in an overtime thriller. The loss rests squarely on the head of interim head coach Romeo Crennel and his ill-timed gambling at the end of the game.

It started with the gamble to go for it on 4th&1 on the Titans' 35-yard line with 4:37 left in the game. That move said two things: A) we're on the road at 1-4 against the 4-0 division leader up by one point so let's try to end this, or B) I don't trust our kicker to make a 53-yard field goal. They converted because David Johnson is good for slamming into the backs of the offensive line for at least a yard or three. The next gamble came eight plays later. It was 4th & Goal from the 1-yard line. The play call was a pass. Deshaun Watson found Randall Cobb after scrambling to extend the play and putting the ball in a tight window on the sideline where only Cobb could catch it. Here's where I started to have a problem with the gambling.

That touchdown made it 36-29 in favor of the Texans. Up by seven with less than two minutes left in the game, the "right" call would be to kick the extra point to potentially go up by eight. That forces the opposition to have to score a touchdown and convert a two point conversion in order to tie the game. Alas...Crennel gambled by trying to force things, went for two, and came up short. Kenny Rogers once said: You've got to know when to hold 'em. Know when to fold 'em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run.

The porous defense, however, gave up the game tying touchdown and extra point with four seconds left to send the game into overtime. From there, the Titans got the ball in overtime and drove down the field for the game winning score. A team that played a game on Tuesday evening bullied a team on Sunday at noon. Let that sink in. Sure, Derrick Henry is a linebacker playing running back, but the amount of yards you gave up to him was unacceptable.

Not kicking that extra point to go up by eight with less than two minutes left (1:50 to be exact) was the key coaching move that I feel cost them the game. There's no coming back from blunders like that when you're now 1-5 and would need to go at least 8-2 with tons of help down the stretch to have an outside shot at the newly created seventh spot in the playoffs. You had the division leader down and were in position to get a division win to go to 2-4. Instead, you're now in position to help the Dolphins continue to improve their franchise from the boneheaded decisions Bill O'Brien made before his exit. Crennel and staff coached a good game, until the end when it mattered most. With an extra playoff spot available, they still have an outside shot to make it, but it'll be difficult.

This city and fanbase deserve better. One day, they'll get it and get a winner. Until then unfortunately, they'll have to settle for purgatory, disappointment, and mediocrity. Hold tight. I see good things coming one day Houston football fans.

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