Hunter Pence hit the big leagues like a man on fire last season. Any ball that came close to him, he hit. And any ball that came close to him in center field, he fielded. Not even an injury slowed him down. This season, Pence has become Mr. Indispensible to manager Cecil Cooper. He bats first, second, third, fifth, sixth or seventh, and he hits from any spot in the order. More importantly, Pence moved from center to right field this season without complaint, and already his glove and arm have saved several games. But Pence is also the Best Astro because of his attitude. He always hustles, always runs. He never complains. He just does his job the best he can. Every at bat, every game.

YMCA

The courts at the Downtown YMCA are a solid place to find a pickup game. Or, if you don't have the stamina to physically run the length of a basketball court, there's usually enough space to find an open hoop where you can just shoot around. There's a group of older guys that play Monday nights, but the 50-somethings can hoop. And you know the old guys play dirty. Learn the times for league games, though, because those usually dominate the courts later in the evening and can get intense, especially when the local Pro/Am league swings through. If you're interested in watching the oil industry's finest live out their hoop dreams, check out the Corporate A and B leagues.

If your idea of paradise is a long, secluded beach with gently rolling waves and miles of sand to dig in, you won't find a better place than this. Besides sunning and swimming, fishing is popular at Crystal Beach — both surf (wade out into waist-deep water on the second sandbar) and jetty fishing (you can walk two miles out on the rocks). There are plenty of bait camps and charters that can point you in the right direction. And don't forget to bring your crabbing gear, too. There are plenty of beach house rentals and low-cost motels, in case you want to spend the night. Crystal Beach also offers a wide variety of restaurants, from Mexican and Italian food to good ol' Gulf Coast seafood, so you won't leave the beach hungry.

Hockey is a wonderful sport to watch live. It's even better to watch up close. And there's no better or cheaper place to do both than at a Houston Aeros game at Toyota Center. You can sit center ice, just a few rows back, for $31 — the same seats the Rockets will charge you a couple of hundred dollars for. The cheap seats, in the lower bowl, go for just $13. The sport is fast, and the hits are brutal. The team's cheerleaders greet you as you enter, then walk through the stands during the game. There are lots of fan contests. The Houston Aeros provide the best bang for the sports buck in the city. No contest.

Hermann Park

Where can you meet Inda the Orangutan, see Shakespeare under the stars or learn how to play the bongos? Where can you play on one of the first desegregated public golf courses in the U.S., meet a butterfly up close or ride a pedal boat? All while enjoying the great outdoors? Just one place: Hermann Park. The park has seen a resurgence in popularity, thanks to efforts by a dedicated conservancy group. Along with acres and acres of live oaks and tall pine trees, McGovern Lake, the Japanese Garden, and loads of lawns and gardens, the Houston Zoo, Miller Outdoor Theatre, the Houston Museum of Natural Science and golf course all call Hermann Park home.

There's something to be said for a team that moves to a different city and then wins two championships in its first two years. That's what Dynamo Coach Dominic Kinnear helped achieve when his San Jose Earthquakes moved to Houston in 2006. Previously, Kinnear had led the Earthquakes to the MLS Supporters' Shield. Then, in 2006 and 2007, the Dynamo nabbed the MLS Cup. It's kind of cool to see a brand-new Houston team kick ass right out of the gate, as opposed to, say, the Texans' continual failures and the absolute freaking waste of $22 million on a pitcher who couldn't deliver. But we digress — this is no time for name-calling. It's a time to give props to Mr. Kinnear, who has helped to give us not only a great team, but a sense of excitement and vitality that's a nice change of pace from the rather staid corporate franchises we call professional sports teams. As of this writing, the Dynamo are second in the Western Division — an especially great achievement given that the team lost six starters at the beginning of the season. That's the kind of thing that makes a coach prove his or her mettle.

Now in her 11th year in the WNBA, the six-foot-two Thompson was the first-ever player selected in the inaugural league draft. Back then, she was in the shadow of teammates Cynthia Copper and Sheryl Swoopes, but no longer. She's the undeniable leader of the team (and the only original member left). Thompson is also a league leader: A member of the All-Decade Team and Olympic gold medal winner, she's missed only one WNBA All-Star game (she was busy giving birth to her son Dyllan). She's in the top five in the league in all-time points (No.2), rebounds (No. 4), three point shots (No. 2) and minutes played (No. 2).

Jim Deshaies had some tough shoes to fill when he took over the Astros analyst spot from Larry Dierker. But let's just say, as J.D. settles into his second decade as the Astros TV analyst, that he has not only surpassed Dierker, he has perhaps surpassed every other analyst in baseball. The former starting pitcher knows the ins and outs of the game, from pitching to hitting to fielding to strategy. Best of all, he's not a homer, and if the good guys goof up, he'll let you know how and why. And then there's his quick wit and his ability to throw out a Seinfeld reference or obscure pop culture trivia at a moment's notice. Nothing gets past Deshaies, and, if you pay attention, you'll learn more from him than just about any baseball geek in the country.

Yeah, yeah, we've all heard dozens of Aggie jokes — but the joke might be on us. Aggies call Bryan/College Station home, and the area is a lovely corner of open spaces, bluebonnets and historic buildings. Just two hours northwest of Houston, Bryan/College Station offers great restaurants, a restored downtown, dozens of antique stores and art galleries, and several family attractions, all with a down-home attitude and (here's the really good part) down-home prices. There are a number of excellent museums, among them the George Bush Presidential Library, the Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History and the Brazos Valley African American Museum. If you time your trip right, you can attend events including the annual Texas Reds Steak & Grape Festival, the Messina Hof Winery & Resort Harvest, rodeos and minor league baseball games.

Mulligan's Golf
Photo courtesy Mulligan's

Mulligan's Golf is a laid-back place where you can have a good time and shank a few balls without being called a "trunk slammer." The range is hidden along a stretch of FM 1960 filled with empty retail strips. But Mulligan's has survived for close to 15 years. It's a family-owned place, and the owner's son, Stephen Pierce, recently returned to serve as Mulligan's teaching pro. Pierce, who met his wife at Mulligan's, offers lessons by appointment. The pro shop will re-grip or re-shaft your clubs, and beer is also for sale. There's also a nine-hole, par-three course if you feel like getting off the range. Both the range and the course are open until 9 p.m. and lighted.

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