YMCA

There is a fitness oasis smack in the middle of downtown. The YMCA is well equipped enough, with benches, squat racks and treadmills aplenty, yet somehow devoid of that bane of the typical gym experience: other people. Those who just want to work out and go home can do so without wait times, predatory personal trainers or testosto-grunting. If you do stick around, the swimming pool, racquetball, basketball and squash courts, saunas, whirlpools and steam rooms are also both adequate and largely available. But the best-kept secret is the rooftop track, which, if you can find it, offers a secluded run amid the skyscrapers. Alas, like any oasis, this is bound to dry up. The current location will be replaced near the end of next year by a new, state-of-the-art one that's bound to attract the mirror-hugging masses.

When baseball veteran Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez signed a one-year contract with the Astros back in March, we didn't know what to expect out of the 37-year-old. We'd just lost longtime backstop Brad Ausmus to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he was no doubt a key part of our sometime spotty success. But with his veteran hustle and steely glare, Rodriguez came in and injected a new spirit and sense of excitement for the game that we sorely needed. "Pudge" began his baseball career in 1991, up north with the Texas Rangers, where he caught his first game as a big-leaguer at the age of 19, after being called up to the majors the same night as his first wedding. This season, we were lucky enough to see Rodriguez hit his 300th home run and also pass up longtime Chicago White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk for most games caught. Unfortunately, at the end of August, he was dealt to the Rangers for two minor leaguers, as the team was deep in a playoff battle and desperate for depth at the catching position. Hopefully the boys in Arlington can close out his career right with a World Series ring, because Lord knows we aren't going to here.

Hermann Park

There might be other places in the greater Houston area to chill on a pedal boat, but they're probably in wading pools in some sketchy dude's backyard. Regardless, they wouldn't be as pretty as the lush, green Hermann Park surroundings anyway. For $8, you get to spend a peaceful 30 minutes on clean water and in fresh air — think of it as a respite from your daily commute, where the only scenery is the back of some dimwit's SUV. A nice outing on a pedal boat — whether with a significant other or for some me time — is a pleasant little reminder that, yes, you deserve a peaceful escape every now and then. Even if it's just for half an hour.

Go when it's dark and park your car in the lot at Eleanor Tinsley. Then make your way to the little brick circle on the eastern edge of the lot to stretch with one of the best views of the cityscape around. You can run straight across the grass (there should be just enough light), past the volleyball court on your right and up the path toward the road. Make a left, and head down the set of stairs just before the bridge. It's a well-lit run along the bayou from here.

Brazos Bend State Park

It takes about an hour to drive from downtown to Brazos Bend State Park, but the trip is well worth it, because the park is a great way to burn an afternoon. In fact, you could probably burn an entire week hiking through the park's 24 miles of trails. A good route is the one-mile-long Pilant Slough Trail, which starts just off the main parking lot and ends at an observation tower, offering a gorgeous view from the top. Along the way, especially from the banks of Elm Lake, you're sure to see plenty of alligators swimming and sunning on shore. This place isn't the zoo, and an alligator could theoretically eat you or your dog, so the park offers plenty of tips for alligator etiquette, including, "Absolutely do not feed or annoy the alligators."

Spotts Park

Wedged between the boarded-up YWCA and Allen Parkway, Spotts Park has the winding sidewalks and leafy trees a good dog walk requires. But the real treat is the freedom to play some good, old-fashioned fetch. Beyond the sidewalks and picnic tables is an expanse of green that's rarely populated aside from the occasional sunbathers and game of ultimate Frisbee, and even then there's usually more than enough room to throw the ball or stick. It seems too good to be true, but we've never seen any lawmen spoil the fun. Just make sure your pooch doesn't end up snagging someone's Frisbee.

Richmond Arms

How do we know this place is for real? For one, the doors will open at 6 a.m. when necessary for the local fanatics to catch Arsenal and Man U live on the giant projection screen. (Worry not, latecomers: There are enough smaller TVs scattered around to provide every seat with a view.) And the edge of the manly bar is weathered enough to suggest many a pair of elbows propped up for hours on end during hard-fought wins, heartbreaking losses and wimpy European ties. The massive pub can be found from afar by following the British flag set at full mast above the sprawl of Richmond Avenue. There's a substantial array of worldly beers on tap — from Hefeweizen and Old Speckled Hen to Anchor Steam to Fuller's Porter — and enough old-country accents to make one wary of calling it "soccer." Full English breakfasts are served on weekends, and the menu also features the bangers and mash, fish and chips, hearty meat pies and roasts of the day to build up a full English belly.

Ever since Michael Lewis branded Shane Battier "the No-Stats All-Star" in The New York Times Magazine, the six-foot-eight forward has been one of those guys who is so often called underrated that he might be just a tad overrated. And it's true. After all, even after both Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady went down with injuries, Battier couldn't take the Rockets to the NBA championship, now could he? We kid, of course. In fact, we imagine that if the script had been flipped and it had been Battier sidelined instead of Yao and T-Mac, the Rockets might have gone down in the first round instead of the second. Lewis argued that Battier's mastery of things that don't show up in box scores — drawing charges, playing pesky, relentless defense, and improving the efficiency of his team's rebounding and offense in ways too subtle for all but the most astute to detect — have led to overall team improvement at every stop in Battier's journeyman career. Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey — among the first to fully value Battier's hidden talent — calls him "Lego." "When he's on the court, all the pieces start to fit together," Morey told the Times magazine. "And everything that leads to winning that you can get to through intellect instead of innate ability, Shane excels in. I'll bet he's in the hundredth percentile of every category."

Southside means different things to most parents and kids. Parents may see it as "the place where emergency room bills and hassles come from," and young skaters see it as "heaven." For years now, the venerable indoor skatepark has been servicing the board lust of skate kids in the Houston and Pasadena area. Saturdays and Sundays get pretty hectic, with skate clinics and weekend warriors making their way to Southside, so stake out a spot early near one of the park's sets and hunker down. Thursdays are epic days for skaters older than 25, when the park hosts its "O.G. Rippers Discount Day." Just don't tell the folks at the office how you broke your arm.

This has not been a banner year for Houston's top pro sports teams. The Dynamo failed to win the MLS Championship for the first time in the team's history; neither the Texans nor the Astros made the playoffs (though at least the Texans appear headed in the right direction); and the Houston Comets topped them all in ignominy by vanishing from the face of the Earth. Which leaves us with the Rockets, who limped into the postseason minus one of their superstars and yet still managed to do something the Rockets haven't done since 1997: They won a playoff series, easily dispatching the Portland Trail Blazers four games to two, despite the loss of backup center Dikembe Mutombo. And while we aren't ones to hang our hats on moral victories, the Rockets did us all proud in the ensuing series against the L.A. Lakers. Yao Ming, the Rockets' last superstar, went down early in the series with another stress fracture in his foot, and yet the scrappy Rockets extended the eventual NBA champions out to a full seven games. Not bad for a bunch of no-names.

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