How an unlikely lobbyist could shape the future of the Astrodome

How an unlikely lobbyist could shape the future of the Astrodome
Photos by: Wiki photo, Harris County Sports Corps via HBJ. Composite image by Brandon Strange.
How a perfect storm has created the ideal time and reason to reboot the Astrodome

If you thought 2020 was a year of political chaos and bitter fighting, just wait for 2021, when the stakes will be even higher for ordinary Texans, especially folks who'd like to put $100 on the Rockets laying the points against the Lakers. You know, an issue that's really important.

First Amendment supporters, who love the Texans at 9 points over the Bengals this Sunday even more than freedom of speech, have their best chances ever at seeing casino and sports gambling legalized in the Lone Star State.

That's because multi-billionaire Vegas resort owner Sheldon Adelson is turning his crack team of lobbyists loose on Texas legislators to approve casino gambling in 2021. The Texas legislature meets only in odd-numbered years, and coming off the controversial presidential election and hoped-for end to the COVID-19 pandemic, you'll never find an odder year than 2021.

On one side, you have Adelson and, according to polls, the majority of Texans who would like to see casino gambling in Texas. On the other side, you see conservatives, Gov. Greg Abbott and presumably billionaire Tilman Fertitta who oppose casino gambling here.

Texas has among the strictest laws against gambling in the country, although bingo, horse and dog racing and the Texas Lottery are OK.

Here's how the Lottery works: you walk into a corner convenience store and buy $20 worth of scratch off tickets. You take a nickel and start scratching. You'll "win" about $10. You take that tenner and march back into the convenience store and buy a Slurpee and $8 worth of more Lottery tickets. This time, you "win" $4. Repeat until you have nothing left in your pocket except the nickel you used to lose your money.

Fertitta, a six-figure donor to Republican Abbott, wouldn't want gambling approved in Texas because he owns the Golden Nugget casino-resort sitting just over the state line in Louisiana. Without Texans driving to the Nugget, that place would dry up like his nationwide restaurant receipts during the pandemic. Although Fertitta, who owns the Houston Rockets, will reap a $40 million payroll reduction pretty soon, whenever the Rockets find a trade partner for James Harden.

If money talks, casino gambling may be a solid pick to pass in Texas. Adelson is worth $34 billion and donates millions to Republican state legislators. He has assembled a high-powered team of lobbyists to woo those lawmakers and remind them who's their buddy. Let the expensive dinners begin. More wine! More caviar! More votes!

Fetitta is a relative ham 'n' egger worth "only" $4 billion and something. But he's big buddies with Gov. Abbott, who's dug in his heels against casinos.

Adelson's group portrays Texas as the last great frontier for casino gambling in America. Texas already has a couple of casinos on Native American land, the closest to Houston being Naskila Gaming in Livingston, about 70 miles north by northwest. Don't expect a full-service casino, however. Naskila Gaming has three restaurants and 800 electronic games (slots and video poker).

Adelson doesn't wish to create new cities for gambling. You remember Hyman Roth's lecture to Michael Corleone in Godfather II: "Later he had an idea to build a city out of a desert stopover for GIs on the way to the west coast. That kid's name was Moe Greene, and the city he invented was Las Vegas. This was a great man, a man of vision and guts. And there isn't even a plaque, or a signpost or a statue of him in that town. Someone put a bullet through his eye."

Instead Adelson wants to build gleaming, expensive buildings near Texas' major cities. Galveston would seem a natural, geographically speaking. It's a quick drive from Houston, except during rush hours, it's near water and there's available space for new resort development.

Although Galveston perhaps doesn't need casino gambling like other struggling parts of Texas. Former Galveston mayor Lewis Rosen says Galveston is doing quite well without casino gambling, thank you.

"Galveston is a boom town right now," Rosen said. "Hotels are full, restaurants are packed, home prices are high, rentals are going fast. The thing about casinos is, people go to them, they gamble, eat, sleep and shop in that casino hotel, they don't really support local businesses. Plus Galveston doesn't have the infrastructure, like roads and water, to handle large casino resorts."

Rosen believes that the Texas legislature may pass a bill to legalize casino gambling, but leave it up to local communities to decide if they want a casino built within their city limits. Rosen thinks Galveston residents would vote against casinos.

However, he thinks a city like La Marque may give a thumbs up. After all, there's an abandoned dog track with a massive parking lot sitting there, an eyesore bringing in no money.

Wait a minute, hmm, don't we have one of those? A hundred times bigger than the dog track. A building that would be perfect for a casino-hotel, on the outskirts of Houston, with plenty of infrastructure and utilities and parking, with an available workforce?

The Astrodome!

Sheldon Adelson … do your thing! You can be the Moe Greene of Houston. Just keep an eye out (not literally) for opponents of gambling.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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