Ryan Stokes is a tough, physical defense man for the Houston Aeros, not afraid to pile up the penalty minutes or take on the other team's banger in a fight. But he also has another title: Reigning Connect Four Champ at the Aeros' Power Playroom. The playroom is in Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital, and Stokes is a constant visitor, taking on all comers in Connect Four but also giving time to the patients. He's been active in educational projects, especially an anti-­bullying effort in HISD. (Who better to help you take on a bully than a burly hockey defense man?) The Ontario native may eventually follow fellow defender Derek Boogaard up to the NHL's Minnesota Wild, meaning maybe some of those sick kids will finally get a chance to win at Connect Four. Not that they're complaining, of course.

This hasn't been Craig Biggio's finest year. The 41-year-old has struggled in the batter's box and on the field, and sports-talk has been filled with calls for him to be taken out of the lead-off position. But Bidge, in 2007, broke into the ranks of one of baseball's most select groups: players who've gotten more than 3,000 hits. While the push for the milestone has been uglier than it should have been, the controversy shouldn't detract from the accomplishment. Or from all that Biggio has done over the years in Houston with his tireless work for his Sunshine Kids cancer charity. Biggio's a future Hall of Famer, he's provided years of thrills for Astro fans and he's been an inspiration off the field. We'll miss him when he's gone, no matter how much of a struggle the twilight of his career was.

Hockey's a sport that truly needs to be seen in person. And the Houston Aeros make it possible to see the games while sitting in great seats with the best prices in Houston. The Aeros aren't a major league club. The team plays in the AHL minor league. But the team offers something that one doesn't see most nights with the Astros, the Rockets or the Texans: a group of kids who care. These kids need to hustle, to play at full speed, with passion and fire. That's the only way they're going to advance to the NHL. And one can sit in the lower bowl of Toyota Center for only 13 bucks and hear all of the hits and bangs. It's the best game in town for the best price in town.

Who ever thought the small school out on South Main would ever develop a sports dynasty? Rice's best athletic days were thought to be mere nostalgia, but that's changed big time, thanks to coach Wayne Graham. College baseball has evolved into a sport for rich white kids (players who are poor and/or minority tend to head to the minor leagues out of high school), and Rice, with its reputation for academic excellence, is tailor-made for that demographic. Graham, a crusty old-timer who once played for Casey Stengel, is just as good a fit when it comes to coaching those guys. He's led the Owls to a slew of appearances in the College World Series, winning it all in 2003. He can be a bit hard on his pitchers — some of whom have had a hard time in the pros because of injuries — but what other coach in town is regularly expected to be competing for the championship each year?

Forward Tina Thompson was the first-ever draft pick for the WNBA, and she's been proving why ever since. Part of the 2004 gold-medal-winning Olympic team, the 6-foot-2-inch Thompson was key to the Comets' sweep of the first four WNBA Championships (1997-2000). Thompson has earned a slew of MVP and All-Star nods, including MVP for the 2000 All-Star game. She holds the record for the highest percentage of team points scored by a single player in WNBA history: a career-high 35 points that was 56.5 percent of Houston's total points in a game against the New York Liberty. She was the second player in the league to score more than 3,000 points and once hit 13 of 13 free throws in one game.

The sports commentator ­doesn't give the facts. He fills in the lines that connect the facts. He helps the fans, serious and casual, understand what's happening in the game, and why it's happening. No one in Houston does this better than Jim Deshaies. The former Astros pitcher latched onto the Astros broadcast crew after retiring, and he's never looked back. He knows that baseball is just a game, and while he wants everyone to understand this game that these big boys are playing, he wants everyone to have fun. The stadium is Deshaies's living room, and you're watching the game on his big screen. He fills in the blanks, gives a few laughs. He does his job. So the Astros might lose, but at least you'll know why.

Last year's winner returns victorious! To its credit, it is a darn fine dog park; to the city's shame, it's not like there are a bunch of great, centrally located dog parks to choose from. This is quite a hike for Inner Loopers, but if you want to give Fido a really sweet treat, this is the place. Its 13 acres include dog ponds and showers, walking paths and benches so you can rest your barkin' dogs while your dog is playin'. See what we did there? Well, all we're saying is that this dog park is worth the trip.

While Brian Ching was away representing the USA during the World Cup, Dwayne De Rosario proved why he should have been there, too. Of course, the Canadian native would have to play for his own country's team, but still, he should have been there. Instead, the six-year MLS veteran gave a terrific show during nearly every game of the season: He was ejected during a Kansas City game, forcing him to miss the following game against D.C.; he was a finalist for Goal of the Year for his perfect shot midfield against Chicago on August 30; and he was nominated for the 2006 MLS MVP. Oh, and he was a crucial part of the victory against the New England Revolution at the MLS Cup.

Texans love to blow up stuff, and we take serious pride in doing it. Naturally, then, it's important to us to have the best facilities. And when Houstonians feel the need to start shooting, there's no better place to do it than American Shooting Centers. This 563-acre adult playground of a gun range is like Pebble Beach for NRA members and other gun lovers. You can buy a brand-new piece in their pro shop, take lessons on how to use it and, when you're done, take courses to get your concealed handgun license. That way, you can carry your gun like a good red-blooded Texan.

It's fun to stay at the YMCA. It's fun to stay at the YMCA. It's also fun to exercise there, in the no-nonsense weight-machine area downstairs and the austere classroom areas upstairs. This isn't the place to see and be seen. It's a place to work out for real. You can even toss around a medicine ball if you want (and if you actually know what the heck you're supposed to do with one). Young man, take a walk up the street. It's a place there called the YMCA. They can start you back on your way.

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