Nest egg omelet time for some. No fooling!
De end for DeLay

Batter up!

Baseball_bat_2 Thank the sporting gods! Baseball is back!

Don't get me wrong. I'm a native Texan and cut my teeth on football. I think there might even be something in the state constitution about required early childhood lessons on the game.

But Texas is a big state, and there's plenty of room here for the more deliberative game of baseball. The two are the yin and yang of spectator sports, as comedian George Carlin so wonderfully noted in this stand-up routine.

And today the safe-at-home season begins anew.

Yeah, I know a game was played last night. In case you couldn't stay up through the rain delay, the White Sox beat the Indians. But that was just for the sake of TV dollars.

I'm still enough of a traditionalist to think that baseball season doesn't truly start until a ball is tossed out during daylight hours. That's one of baseball's most appealing aspects. A few, although way too few anymore, games are still played during regular business hours, giving fans a reason to take an extra long lunch or play office hooky altogether.

When we were in the Washington, D.C., area, we regularly attended Opening Day, first in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, which the Orioles shared with the real Colts, then in their new baseball-only digs at Camden Yards. Special fan thanks must be paid on this day each year to U.S. Representative-turned-Senator Wyche Fowler, a diehard Atlanta Braves fan and my first employer in the nation's capital.

My first spring on the job there, I was thrilled to learn that Wyche declared Opening Day an office holiday and accompanied his staff up the road to Balmer's ballpark. Even after changing jobs, the hubby and I always took a personal vacation day to continue the tradition.

When we moved to Florida, we still got to see the Os, but only in spring training. Now we're about three hours from Houston, home to my husband's childhood team, but we're not making it to Minute Maid Park today. Oh, we will eventually, if for no other reason than to keep the hubby's Astros stadium streak alive.

Colt45s_logoHe's seen the team play as the Colt 45s (welcome to Texas, pardners!) in Colt Stadium and then in the Astrodome when they became the more politically correct (although back then, more fashion challenged -- rainbow jerseys, anyone?) Astros.

In preparation for today's opening ceremonies, we took a 40-minute drive north Saturday afternoon to see two of Houston's minor league clubs face off. The AAA Round Rock Express hosted their AA little brothers, the Corpus Christi Hooks. Either way, we were going to see an Astros' affiliate win. For the record, the Hooks hung on for a one-run victory.

We now have lived in close proximity to four levels of professional baseball: Major league (the Os); AAA (the Express); AA (Bowie, Maryland's Baysox, an Orioles farm club); and the A-league Jupiter, Fla., Hammerheads (a Florida Marlins team). All we need is a rookie league connection (although my hubby notes that some rookies played morning games at the Jupiter facility).

I like minor league ball. There is a wide variety of skill levels on display, from enthusiastic but a bit out-of-control guys just getting into the game at the professional level to those fellows who are winding down their careers. And you occasionally get to see rehabbing ML stars getting their touches back.

This past Saturday was a showcase of one of the guys that minor league team marketers like to hype: a star of the future. I don't know about the future, but Round Rock's young centerfielder, Mike Rodriguez, was definitely a star this day. He made two spectacular fielding plays and launched a monster home run way past the centerfield fence's 405 mark.

It was just the kind of thing that thrilled the hometown fans, most of whom were families. Not a big surprise, since minor league sports are usually touted as family friendly events. Some of the sales pitch is economic; the tickets are much cheaper than their major league counterparts. The concessions, however, are still pretty steep and we had to pay for parking.

Rr_mascots_2 The promise of family fun also is bolstered by before, during and after game events. Music blares, team mascots wander the field and stands, contests are held, little leaguers join the pros on the field for the national anthem, the outfield video screen runs goofy games and candid shots of fans in the stands. It never stops.

Between the sugar high of Sno-Cones and syrupy soft drinks and the external stimuli, I'd be stunned if parents can get their kids into bed after a game before midnight.

In the third inning, a family with three boys took their seats in the row just in front of us. By then, they had already missed the Express' first homerun, a coupon for free windshield wiper fluid from an auto parts store and the distribution of rally towels imprinted with "2005."  Hey, gotta get that storeroom cleared out somehow before the 2006 season opens!

Even though they missed the loot, mom and dad most likely knew what they were doing. Six innings was probably all these boys could handle. They, and most of the other kids their ages (which looked, to a nonparental eye, to be about 9, 7 and 5; my dear husband persisted in referring to them as Reese, Malcolm and Dewey), really weren't into baseball.

Dad kept trying to school them on the game (although I cringed each time he referred to "runs" as "points"), but the boys mostly focused on the aforementioned sugary items, as well as hot dogs and corn dogs and peanuts. Still, perhaps something about the sport sank in subliminally.

At least they seemed to be having non-game-related fun and maybe the overall good memory of the experience will make them more inclined to give baseball another shot when they are older and their attention spans are a bit longer.

TODAY'S TAX TIP: Staying in the baseball motif, here's a lineup of child-related tax considerations and potential tax savings for all you parents.

Batting first, the dependency claim. By listing your children as your dependents, you'll get to count each one as an exemption and on 2005 tax returns that translates into $3,200 per kid that you can subtract from your adjusted gross income. Most parents won't have any problem here, but just to make sure your youngster meets the IRS rules, which were changed a bit this year, check out this story on the uniform definition of a child.

A Social Security number for your child is in our second slot. Each of your kids must have a tax ID number before your can claim them as dependents or take advantage of other child-related tax breaks discussed a little lower in our batting order.

Coming to the plate third is child care. If you paid someone to look after your kids while you worked, you might be able to recoup some of your costs by claiming the child and dependent care credit.

Batting clean-up are a couple of tax breaks that could knock a $1,000 per child off your IRS bill: the child and additional child tax credits. Credits are better than deductions because while a deduction reduces your taxable income, you get to subtract a credit directly from what you owe Uncle Sam.

The one downside to this tax break is that if your tax bill is less than your credit amount, you lose the excess. That's where the additional child credit comes into play. By doing a little more paperwork, some parental filers are able to get some of the lost credit back. Details on the credits are here.

If you took out a loan to put your kid through school, the fifth spot in our child tax-break batting order should interest you. You can deduct up to $2,500 of the interest you paid on that loan. Find out how here.

Sixth in our batting order are a couple more education tax breaks, this time in the more tax-advantageous form of credits: Hope and Lifetime Learning. The Hope credit could provide with a break of up to $1,500 per student. The Lifetime Learning credit could shave $2,000 more off your tax bill. If you're paying for your kids' college or other post-secondary school training, check these out.

So much learning, so little time. In our seventh slot is the Coverdell Education Savings Account that let's you put up to $2,000 a year into this account to help pay for your child's schooling. You don't get an immediate tax break for the money you contribute, but it will grow tax-deferred until your child needs it to pay for educational expenses. These costs don't have to be at the college level either; some elementary through high school expenses also are eligible to be paid from a Coverdell. Details here.

Eighth in our order is the adoption credit. It can help you defray via your 2005 tax return more than $10,000 you spent to add to your family. More on this credit can be found here. 

Is your child always bugging you for money? Sorry, stupid question. Well, instead of just handing over cash on demand, if you own your own business, consider this ninth item in our child tax break lineup: hire your kids.

When your minor child is an employee of your company, you get several tax benefits. You might be able to deduct the youngster's salary (it's got to be more than regular allowance, though!). You also don't have to withhold FICA or unemployment taxes for minor children on your payroll. More on the tax benefits of hiring family can be found here.

And we're using a DH today, although personally, I think it's a crutch for bad managers and spoils the game. That gives us a 10th tax-time slugger: medical expenses.

Kids are always getting into scrapes and thankfully, most of the time it's no big deal. But if the chip off the old block manages to fall off a little league scoreboard and break his leg (this really happened to my little brother), your doctor bills may be way more than you planned.

If you itemize, you can deduct medical expenses that are more than 7.5% of your adjusted gross income. To reach that amount, count medical costs incurred by you, your spouse and, as we noted at the top of our line-up card, your dependents. Check out some of the ways to maximize your medical deductions here.

Hope some of this helps as you're winding up your annual tax-filing duties. You also can get an overview of child-related tax breaks in this story.

I'm taking a break now. ESPN has a triple-header coming up shortly. Locally, the nightcap will be a match-up of our former Florida team, the Marlins -- OK, we only went to see them once; they played the Orioles and we yelled for the Birds, but the Fish beat the Yankees in the World Series so they'll always have a place in my heart -- and our 2005 National League Champion 'Stros down in Houston.

Willis vs. the Wizard of Oswalt. It should be good.

Play ball!


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