It Happens Every Spring

added 4/19/2010 by Bob Hulsey

This is the time of year when classic movie channels trot out the 1949 baseball movie "It Happens Every Spring" with Ray Milland as a nerdy professor who invents a wood repellent and decides to use it to craft a Cy Young-like career for himself. It's a family-friendly film that every young baseball fan should see at least once even though the video tricks (and the science behind the premise) are a bit outdated. TV fans from the 1960s might also note the brief appearance of a young Alan Hale Jr. before he became universally known as the "Skipper" on "Gilligan's Island".

But I didn't intend this column to be a movie review. No, it was intended to lament the annual frustration fans in Central Texas have trying to find Astros broadcasts in the opening months of the season.

In the Houston area, the games are almost always available on Fox Sports Houston. The radio call is almost always on KTRH-AM. For those outside the Astros' "home territory" as deemed by Major League Baseball (most of Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana), the diehard Astros fan can opt for MLB Extra Innings or, through their computer, on MLB.TV.

But those stuck outside the Houston market but inside the home territory are frozen into a zone of indifference by local broadcasters where catching an Astros game seems to be more about programming conflicts and the priorities of the sports seasons.

The rights for most Astros telecasts are held by Fox Sports which, in Texas, is broken up into three zones. Fox Sports Houston focuses on Houston-area sports. Fox Sports Dallas focuses on Dallas-area sports, including the Texas Rangers, Dallas Mavericks and Dallas Stars. Fox Sports Southwest, which is what Central Texas fans receive, was made necessary because of the territorial rights of the NBA San Antonio Spurs. Broadcasts of the Spurs override any Houston or Dallas-based teams unless those teams happen to be playing the Spurs.

The NHL Dallas Stars are also shown regularly on Fox Sports Southwest and each team has their own fan following in this area. The Stars and Spurs also have a knack for going deep in the playoffs (something rare for the Mavericks and Rockets) which complicates things even more.

So, for a Central Texas Astros fan to hope to see that night's game, you have to hope that the Spurs are not playing, the Stars are not playing and the programmers have chosen the Astros over the Rangers. In recent years, choosing the Astros over the Rangers was a no-brainer but it has become more difficult to justify that decision since Craig Biggio retired and the Rangers have become more competitive.

As the cable/satellite universe has expanded, some folks get a second Fox channel to mull over but there's still no assurance the Astros will win out among their several programming choices.

Oh, but there's also radio. Austin fans have a different problem to deal with there. The rights-holder of Astros radio broadcasts for several years has been KVET-AM (also known as "The Zone"). They have a contract with University of Texas athletics for all their sporting events and they all take priority over the Astros. If the Longhorn women's tiddlywinks team is playing that night, it gets aired instead of the Astros. This year, the owners of KVET have added an FM affiliate so perhaps there will be more room for Astros games but there's no assurance of that.

Once spring turns to summer, the problem goes away. The basketball and ice hockey seasons end. Longhorn sports, like their students, are gone for the summer. There are routine ways to follow any pennant races. In the fall, Astros games will sometimes take a back seat to football on the weekends but, otherwise, their coverage is dependable.

The agony of spring is long forgotten. Until it returns the following spring much like oak pollen.

Perhaps there will come a day when Major League Baseball decides their territorial rules are antiquated and need to be modified, if not removed. In an age when every dollar counts, MLB should realize that, when fans attend a game, they do so because they want to be there, not because they are compelled by blackout rules. They really shouldn't make viewing their product difficult for their fans. I'd like to be able to dial up MLB Extra Innings or MLB.TV and watch my favorite team and not be punished for being 180 miles away from their home base.

But, for now, I'm stuck with the daily stress of trying to find the Astros game through whatever venue will carry them each day. And, if not, maybe I'll try to find another airing of "It Happens Every Spring".