Difference in Astros, ALDS opponents is one you can actually put a price on

Difference in Astros, ALDS opponents is one you can actually put a price on
These ticket prices are shocking! Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images.

Just when baseball fans thought they’ve seen everything … the 2023 Houston Astros happened.

What a wild ride it’s been, so far, and it’s far from over.

I’ll have what Justin Verlander is having. After winning the Cy Young Award and getting his first World Series victory in 2022, he started this season by signing with the clown show New York Mets and becoming the highest-paid pitcher (tied with Max Scherzer) in history. Four months later, with the Mets under .500, he was traded back to the dynasty Astros where he’s likely slated to pitch the first game of the ALDS. Verlander keeps all his money with the Mets paying most of his Astros salary.

After spending most of 2023 in the unaccustomed and downright infuriating position of chasing the Texas Rangers, the Astros were crowned American League West champions on the last day of the season by running the table on the Arizona Diamondbacks while the Rangers pulled an historic El Foldo against the Mariners in Seattle. This was like you betting on red at roulette and it comes up red 10 times in a row, the stunning cocktail waitress has written her phone number on your napkin, and when you leave the table, you spot a $100 bill on the floor. The only person luckier would be Justin Verlander.

It was a rough ride and a long haul for the 2023 Astros for sure. First Jose Altuve broke his thumb in the World Baseball Classic, missed the Astros first 43 games, and was forced to film HEB commercials with his hand inside a potato chips bag. Then he suffered a couple more boo-boos, and barely played half of the Astros games. But since his return: three homers in one game, four in a row actually, hit for the cycle, 1,000th career run scored, 200th home run, 2,000th hit, 400th double, 35th four-hit game, two-times Player of the Week, and back in the playoffs for his eighth time.

Yordan Alvarez missed a third of the season and still scared opposing pitchers half to death. Michael Brantley, sidelined for more than a year with a shoulder injury, returned and his stroke was as sweet as ever. Kyle Tucker took his place as a bona fide superstar. Rookie Yanier Diaz blasted 23 homers as a backup catcher. Jose Abreu salvaged a disappointing season by going on an RBI tear in September and coming up huge in the final series against Arizona. Mauricio Dubon became super sub at second base and center field. J.P. France and Jose Urquidy rescued the Astros injury-ridden rotation.

The Astros may have finished with a losing record at home and 16 fewer wins overall from last year. But they don’t include won-loss records when they hang banners at Minute Maid Park. To sort of borrow from Raiders owner Al Davis, the Astros just won, baby.

Sure there was some frustration and in-house backbiting. What family doesn’t endure those? But when the dust cleared, the Astros are still standing, ready to defend their 2022 championship and the American League betting favorite to make another World Series.

That’s the Astros – a family, from the players, the coaches, and front office to the guy who pops the popcorn and the fans. This was the fifth season the Astros drew 3 million fans to Minute Maid Park. To put Houston’s passion for the Astros in perspective:

The Minnesota Twins are hosting the Toronto Blue Jays in a wild card series. The Twins cruised to the post-season by winning the American League Central by nine games over the second-place Detroit Tigers. Playoff fever should be sweeping Minneapolis, and the Twins must be the hottest ticket in town, right?

Photo by Ken Hoffman

Not exactly. You can buy tickets, guaranteed to be seated together, to the Twins-Blue Jays series on the secondary market for $6 each. That’s well below face value. Tickets for the Rangers-Rays series in Tampa are going as low as $22.

The cheapest secondary market tickets for Astros Division Series games at Minute Maid Park are $60, and that’s for standing room only.

Astros home attendance this year also was tops for any American League team in the post-season – more than twice the number of fans that attended Rays home games at Tropicana Field. The other two American League division champs, Baltimore and Minnesota, both failed to draw 2 million fans.

Consider the poor Texas Rangers, at least pretend you care. Instead of getting a bye, they had to fly from Seattle to Tampa for their wild card showdown against the Rays. That’s a leg-cramping, 5-hour, 2,520-mile flight. (Note: despite announcers and radio hosts insisting that’s the longest flight in MLB, actually it’s the second-longest. Seattle to Miami is 204 miles farther.)

If you do want to care for the truly mistreated, consider the Astros TV team of Todd Kalas, Geoff Blum and Julia Morales. They toil for the entire season with the Astros, but when dessert (the playoffs) arrives, they’re told to go sit in the living room. Fox and FS1 will broadcast the American League Division Series, League Championship Series and World Series. You know what that means. TV on, sound off, Robert Ford and Steve Sparks radio on.

At least Kalas and company will do post-game shows for the first time on the Astros new TV outlet, Space City Home Network. Journalism question: like X (formerly known as Twitter), how long do we have to write Space City Home Network (formerly known as AT&T SportsNet Southwest)?

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Home sweet home. Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images.

Last night, the Houston Rockets traveled to Denver to meet the reigning NBA champion Nuggets.

With nearly a quarter of the season done, the Rockets still hadn’t won a game on the road. The Nuggets still hadn’t lost a game at home.

Gee, I wonder who won?

The Nuggets won, of course, 134-124. It was the Rockets leakiest defensive effort of the season. The Rockets now stand at an even-steven 8-8 on the season. They are futile road flops, 0-7 away from Houston, but nearly perfect homebodies, 8-1 at Toyota Center.

But why? This isn’t like baseball, where every stadium has its quirky nooks and crannies, different lengths of grass, different acreage of foul territory, distances to the foul poles, grass or artificial turf, and heights of outfield fences.

NBA basketball courts are all the same. They’re 94-feet long and 50-feet wide. The goals are all the same. The rim is orange, the diameter is 18 inches and it’s 10-feet high. The backboard is 72 inches wide. The net is made of white cord and is between 15-18 inches long.

Oh sure, in the old days, there would be dead spots on some NBA courts and some rims were tighter than others. The Boston Celtics were occasionally accused of cutting off the hot water in the visiting locker room. Today’s NBA is strictly by the book. There’s no difference in the court from Miami to Portland.

And yet the home team usually wins. From top to bottom, teams have a better winning percentage at home than on the road. Last year, league wide, including the horrendous Houston Rockets and Detroit Pistons, home teams enjoyed a 56.7-percent winning percentage.

If every court is identical … why is that?

On some levels, it doesn’t make sense. If anything, it should be the other way around. NBA players have it pretty cushy on the road. Teams stay in 5-star hotels. They’re not bothered by the neighbor’s barking dog or friends asking for tickets or Southside Place police stopping them for speeding in a school zone on Bellaire Boulevard.

When NBA teams travel, they meet at a separate terminal for celebrities and athletes at the airport. They do not go through TSA security like us mere mortals. The average NBA player makes nearly $10 million a year, but they still get $156 meal money per day on the road. Each arena supplies a sumptuous buffet worthy of a Hollywood plastic surgeon’s wedding in the visitors’ locker room.

Yet it holds, lose on the road, win at home. Look at the Rockets’ season so far. At home, they’ve beaten the champion Nuggets … twice already. The Rockets have dealt the Nuggets two of their six losses this season. The Rockets also have beaten the 12-6 Sacramento Kings twice. They’ve toppled the L.A. Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans, both of whom have a winning record.

Then they hit the road and lose to the hapless San Antonio Spurs. Also the struggling L.A. Clippers and Golden State Warriors.

There are theories why the home team wins and the road team loses. Some make sense, like the road team has to deal with jet lag, changing time zones and different altitudes that sometimes leave them gasping. Meanwhile, home team players sleep in their own beds, enjoy home cooked meals and hang out with families and friends.

Other theories are trickier and more difficult to prove. Yes, the home crowd makes a difference, but not because fans are waving their arms while an opposing player is shooting free throws. Players are used to being heckled. They’ve heard it all and most can shut out the noise. But the sound of 16,000 fans screaming their heads off may result in subconscious referee bias. According to nerds who study this sort of thing, year after year, home teams shoot more free throws than visiting teams. There may be something to refs giving the edge on close calls to the home team.

Even with all the facts and theories, it’s still a stumper why teams play better and win more games at home than on the road. I once posed that very question to Jeff Van Gundy, who has coached basketball on every level for nearly four decades. He’s seen it all.

His answer: “I have no idea. I’ve always wondered about that myself.”

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