The end of March usually brings at least a little hope to Astros fans -- after all, every baseball team starts the season undefeated -- but hope is in short supply this year.
The team's unofficial rallying cry is "Hey, the rest of the Central Division sucks too!!" which is about as inspiring as a Sanjaya Malakar power ballad.
If you're looking for positive signs, Spring Training in Kissimmee was not the place to be: Let's just say that as of our deadline, Brad Lidge's ERA was 11.57. (At least it's less than 12, haters.)
The Houston Press blog HouStoned at www.houstonpress.com is beefing up its sports coverage with the addition of John W. Royal and Jason Friedman, who've been blogging our local sports agony at www.theclownvisionchronicles.blogspot.com and www.houstonsportsauthority.blogspot.com, respectively.
We asked them to provide some answers for the upcoming season.
Hair Balls: What team will be the most unpleasant surprise to its fans this year?
Royal: Cleveland Indians. They were the smart-guy pick last year, and finished behind Minnesota, Detroit and Chicago. This year the Indians are once again the smart-guy pick, but the pitching's still not as good as Minnesota, Detroit and Chicago. But it's not all bad: The Indians will still finish in front of Kansas City.
Friedman: The Chicago Cubs. Their off-season spending splurge won't pay off, which means we'll be subjected to nonstop whining from the Windy City all summer. I can't wait.
HB: Craig Biggio's range at second base is approximately equal to: a) Stephen Hawking; b) one of those big heads on Easter Island; c) the recently deceased Gerald Ford; or d) other.
Royal: Other -- the Great Pyramids in Egypt have more lateral range.
Friedman: That's not fair. Craig Biggio is an Astros legend who should not be mocked or ridiculed under any circumstances. Oh, and the answer is C.
HB: When does Carlos Lee first hit the injured-reserve list?
Royal: Can you go on the DL for being overweight? I'll be optimistic and say right after the All-Star break.
Friedman: June 15, when he develops a massive tummy-ache after accidentally eating Adam Everett during a late-night snack attack.
HB: Which is scarier, the Astros' starting rotation or the bullpen?
Royal: Brad Lidge or no Brad Lidge, the starting rotation is scarier. It's going to be Roy Oswalt and pray for four days of rain.
Friedman: This one's easy. It's the bullpen, of course. Did you watch Brad Lidge pitch last year?
HB: Does Lidge still shudder uncontrollably when he sees even a picture of Albert Pujols?
Royal: Brad Lidge shudders when he hears a Cardinals score on the radio.
Friedman: Who's Albert Pujols? On a completely unrelated note, the electroshock treatment I received during November 2005 has really worked wonders.
HB: Will Brad Ausmus be over the Mendoza Line at the end of the year?
Royal: Brad Ausmus will hit for a higher average than Adam Everett. I'm not committing to anything else.
Friedman: Of course. Provided he uses a potent mixture of HGH, Nandralone and Stanozol. And they put the ball on a tee for him when he's facing two strikes.
If, despite all the doom and gloom, you still want to go to an Astros game, there's further great news: It's going to cost you more.
They haven't gone up all that much, but it still may cause some sticker shock when you realize you're plunking down $96 for two seats 30 rows back from first base.
Becky Wallace is executive editor of the publication Team Marketing Report, which covers the business of pro sports. Each year she puts together the Fan Cost Index, which calculates what it costs two adults and two kids to attend a major-league game, including parking, drinks, hot dogs and souvenirs.
The index assumes the fans use season tickets, which cost a lot less than single-game seats. The official results won't be released until April 1, but Wallace says the Astros' "fan cost" for one game is $195.59, a 2.8 percent increase from last year.
That's not as high as in Boston ($313.83) or at Yankee Stadium (about $215), but it's not bargain-basement, either.
"The Astros will definitely be in the top ten," she says.
Look at it this way -- not only are you paying almost 120 bucks less than a Red Sox fan, but you get the privilege of watching Wandy Rodriguez pitch. For a while, anyway.
We've Got Taste
Netflix, the gigantic DVD-renting company, has been adding new features. For the past year or so, customers can -- as with Amazon -- see what's popular in their city.
On March 22, when we first discovered this, the list of "Local Favorites" for Houston included Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which makes sense, as did 12 Angry Men, since a stage version of that had just been in town. But leading the pack was something called Another Gay Movie, which is apparently a Date Movie-type spoof of, we guess, gay movies.
That's the biggest local favorite? Really? "That's not the most-rented movie in Houston, that's the movie that's rented more in Houston than anyplace else in the country over this [weekly] period, in addition to the most popular rentals," says Steve Swasey, director of corporate communications for Netflix.
The company doesn't give out specific rental figures for its DVDs, but Swasey says "a certain amount of critical mass...into the significant hundreds" of Houstonians added Another Gay Movie to their rental queue to cause it to top the list.
"It's just another data point we put out," he says. "We have all this information. Why not share it with our members? It's kind of interesting what your neighbors and friends are renting."
Well, we guess you can't blame your friends and neighbors for not renting the 2006 Astros highlight film.
The Really Dark Horse
Congressman Ron Paul, who we think we're safe in saying is the only GOP member of the House to support medical marijuana and oppose the death penalty and the Iraq war, has announced he's running for president as a Republican.
Paul ran for the office on the Libertarian ticket in 1988 but, as even the most Xbox-addled of you must know, he didn't win. For the past ten years he's been representing the 14th District in Brazoria County, easily winning reelection despite his somewhat oddball policy positions.
Steve Olafson has been a dedicated follower of Brazoria County politics for a long time, both as a Houston Chronicle and Post reporter and in his current guise as blogger extraordinaire Banjo Jones (http://brazosportnews.blogspot.com ). We sought his analysis of the man who might be our 44th president.
Hair Balls: How does Paul keep getting elected? Are the folks in the 14th a bunch of war-hating, pot-loving, death-penalty opponents who despise the Federal Reserve and long for the U.S. to return to the gold standard? Or does Paul just give great constituent service?
Banjo Jones: Well, the folks say his office is real responsive when they've got a problem that needs fixing. I hear that all the time. Evidently, he runs an efficient operation. People down here mostly just want to be left alone, whether or not they're potheads, antiwar or worried about the government printing money whenever it pleases 'em. It might have something to do with Brazoria County being where Stephen F. Austin set up the first colony back when this was Mexico.
HB: Okay, but why hasn't some chamber-of-commerce type businessperson put up a big challenge to him? Is Paul a great one-on-one campaigner?
BJ: The chamber types are mostly concerned with keeping Dow Chemical happy. So far as retail politics, I've heard people remark that they like the fact [Paul] can attend something like a memorial or a funeral for a soldier killed in Iraq and not work the room shaking hands and slappin' backs. He'll just sit there and pay his respects like anyone else. And he'll tell you what he thinks, whether it's a NASA audience in Clear Lake or a bunch of rednecks west of the Brazos.
HB: Do you have a favorite Ron Paul moment?
BJ: Maybe the time he voted against giving Mother Teresa the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The thing I liked about it was he didn't give a shit if people thought he was a grump for voting against it.
HB: Has being a gynecologist helped his political career?
BJ: I've heard he never met a Caesarean section he didn't like when he was a practicing OB/GYN, but I wouldn't know about that.
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HB: Do you think he'd be fun to get high with?
BJ: I think he gets high talking about the Constitution. And pot makes you stupid, right?
Things Have Changed
Just a year ago, the Astros were starting their season fresh off an appearance in the World Series. True, they got wretchedly embarrassed in that Series, but still they had at least won the pennant. But that 2006 team, and this years model, are very different. Click here to see just how different.