Houston Astros vs. Seattle Mariners

Orbit performs to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” amidst a crowd of cardboard cutouts during the seventh inning stretch of a game between the Houston Astros and the Seattle Mariners on Sunday, July 26, 2020 at Minute Maid Park.

Sports are officially back.

Yes, I know auto racing, mixed martial arts, golf, soccer (congratulations to the Houston Dash, by the way, for winning the NWSL’s Challenge Cup Championship on Sunday) and one of my new personal favorites, cornhole, have returned during the more than four months since the sports world shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But, it never felt like sports were truly back without regular season games for one of this nation’s big three professional sports — MLB, the NBA and the NFL — being played. Thursday, fans rejoiced when MLB’s regular season began. And for Houston sports fans, the long sports drought ended Friday with the Astros’ season opener.

It was different, for sure.

With no fans in attendance, generic crowd noise that basically just sounded like quiet murmuring was piped in so Minute Maid Park would not be completely silent. Also, there was the voice of the Astros’ public address announcer (Galveston’s own Bob Ford), the presence of mascot Orbit and Minute Maid Park’s train conductor Bobby Dynamite (a personal friend and, no, not his real last name) and the typical ballpark music being played.

It was still quiet enough that every crack of the bat sounded amplified, and viewers could overhear player banter, which should be a fun aspect of this unusual season.

MLB games won’t be quite as enjoyable without the pop of cheers whenever the home team rakes a big base hit or sits down the road team with a strikeout or without the chorus of jeers whenever an umpire blows a strike call.

But I still enjoyed once again watching the Astros very much, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

For the first time in my sports-watching life, I actually recorded a regular season game this weekend when I was unable to watch it live. Before the pandemic, my attitude was that if I missed a game, “Oh well, it’s a long season, I’ll catch the next one.”

But I’ve missed watching sports so much that, now, I don’t want to miss a thing — to quote the smash hit Aerosmith song from the soundtrack of 1998 summer blockbuster “Armageddon.”

Simply put, sports fans need their sports. They’re entertaining and a distraction from life’s troubles, which is something I think everyone could use right now. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that, to quote another group of rockers, Cinderella, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

READY TO WELCOME BACK THE NBA

Now, we go from rockers to Rockets — the Houston NBA franchise, that is.

Like MLB did last week, the NBA will return with two marquee games Thursday before everyone comes back Friday to resume the regular season. Having both the NBA and MLB playing will be nearly a return to normality for sports fans.

Having seen some of the NBA’s scrimmages, the lack of fans in attendance has not been as noticeable as it is in the MLB games, so the games — which are all being played at a court in the NBA’s “bubble,” also known as the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida — should be plenty enjoyable to watch

For the Rockets, these final eight regular season games are crucial to their early postseason hopes.

The Rockets, currently seeded sixth in the Western Conference, probably won’t be able to catch the third-seeded Denver Nuggets, who are 2.5 games ahead of them, but they can still improve their playoff seeding by moving ahead of the Utah Jazz, who are one game ahead of the Rockets, and the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are tied with the Rockets.

A first-round matchup with the Jazz or Thunder would likely be a more favorable pairing for the Rockets than the Nuggets, whose size could give the small-ball Rockets some issues. Meanwhile, the Rockets will be looking to avoid falling behind the Dallas Mavericks because that would mean a first-round date with an elite L.A. Clippers team.

Whatever happens, this ought to be fun for NBA fans.

James LaCombe: 409-683-5242, james.lacombe@galvnews.com or on Twitter @JamesAtGalvNews

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