April 2012

Chipper on Hall of Fame bubble

LOS ANGELES — As Braves third baseman Chipper Jones is making his farewell tour around Major League Baseball before he retires at the end of the season, the recurring question has been whether he is dead bang, first ballot Hall of Famer.

“Why not? He’s pretty much at the top of every category,” said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly on Wednesday at Dodger Stadium. “He’s played a long time. He’s been consistent. He’s been productive. I mean, yeah.”

Actually, that description accurately depicts, Mattingly, who isn’t in the Hall of Fame and may never be.

Like Mattingly, Jones has been a fine player with excellent credentials, but he plays a position that’s inhabited in the Hall by some of the all-time greats. There are only 14 third basemen enshrined. Of the most recent, Wade Boggs and George Brett each have in excess of 3,000 hits. Mike Schmidt and Eddie Matthews both hit more than 500 homers.

Jones went into action against the Dodgers on Wednesday night with 2,624 hits and 457 homers. Very nice. Schmidt’s 548 homers are tops among third basemen. Brett’s 3,154 hits are the most among the pure third sackers. As a switch-hitter, Eddie Murray is way beyond Chipper in both categories with 3,255 hits and 504 homers. Mickey Mantle, a fair switch-hitter in his own right, has the most at 536.

Jones is a .304 lifetime hitter. Boggs hit .328. As the stat freaks reminded me last winter when I left Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell of my Hall of Fame ballot, I should have taken a close look at OPS — on base, plus slugging percentage. Bagwell’s .948 OPS is 22nd in history, but it’s still far down the list of first basemen.

Using the same metric, Jones at .935 is 31st. Mantle at .977, is 11th and the top switch-hitter. Alex Rodriguez at 20th with a .952 OPS is tops among third baseman. A-Rod, who came up as a shortstop, has played his entire nine-year Yankees tenure at third. Veering away from third baseman for a moment, Todd Helton, a first baseman, is 15th at .970. Larry Walker, an outfielder, is 16th at .965. Neither Helton nor Walker are getting into the Hal of Fame any time soon, if ever.

He may ultimately be voted in, but this all puts Chipper firmly on the Hall of Fame bubble.



Gwynn Sr. on the mend from cancer surgery

SAN DIEGO — Tony Gwynn Sr. won’t be at Petco Park on Thursday when his Padres open the season against the Dodgers. But his son, Tony Jr., will be at the ballpark nestled on San Diego Harbor, wearing  a Los Angeles uniform.

“Typical Aztec and Padre luck,” the elder Gwynn said on Wednesday.

Still, it was wonderful to see the eight-time National League batting champ, Hall of Famer and man called “Mr. Padre” board a bus outside the yard bearing his name Wednesday on the campus of San Diego State. Gwynn coaches the Aztecs, who were about to embark on a six-hour drive to Las Vegas where they are scheduled to play University Nevada-Las Vegas during the next three days while the Padres are battling the arch-rival Dodgers. That’s the way the baseball bounces.

It was little more than six weeks ago that Gwynn had a malignant tumor removed from inside his right cheek. The tumor was wrapped around a nerve that controls movement on that side of his face. Doctors transplanted a nerve from Gwynn’s right shoulder, hoping to limit the damage. Gwynn’s cheek is still swollen and that side of his face is lopsided. He also says his ear is numb. But he’s talking clearly and is slowly working his way back. He knows it could have been much worse.

“I could be dead,” Gwynn said bluntly.

Gwynn has had two serious surgeries on that cheek in the past 19 months. Doctors discovered cancer of the parotid or salivary gland when they removed a tumor in 2010. Because that tumor was wrapped around the nerve, doctors hesitated to remove it at the time, fearing permanent paralysis if they did. Instead, they opted for months of aggressive radiation therapy. That tact worked for awhile.

Gwynn went for monthly blood checkups and this past January doctors suspected that the tumor had recurred. That diagnosis was confirmed by a biopsy.

“I was stunned,” Gwynn said when he learned that the tumor was back. “I figured, ‘That’s it.’ Then you get over it, rebound and try to figure out what to do next.”

The procedure took 14 hours and began in the morning hours of Feb. 14. Gwynn, obviously, wasn’t aware of the length of the surgery until he finally awoke in recovery at 4:30 a.m. the next day.

“I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Great, I’m still here. I’m alive,'” Gwynn recalled.

He then reached for his right shoulder and couldn’t extend his left arm. He had been positioned on that arm all day. Now he’s in rehab to rebuild strength in his right shoulder. He’s hoping that the transplanted nerve will regenerate, giving him full function on that side of his face. That could take as long as a year. He suspects the cancer sprung from a lifetime of chewing tobacco and has quit the terrible habit, replacing it with a non-toxic herbal blend.

Asked last summer if he still thinks about chewing tobacco, he responded: “Every minute of every day.”

Still, life is good. He’s back teaching kids, which is what he loves to do best. And though he won’t be in San Diego on Opening Day, he hopes to be there on Easter Sunday so he can possibly see his son play in at least the finale of the four-game series.

He said his energy level isn’t nearly what it should be yet, but that hardly matters. “You just don’t know how good it feels to be back to work,” he said. “I’m busy and it keeps my mind off all these other things.”





Jake wows as Bruce hits New Jersey

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — I had been wondering how Bruce would replace the dearly departed Clarence Clemons on his latest concert tour, which began in earnest on Tuesday night with a date at the packed Izod Center in his home state of New Jersey.

The answer was a full out horn section with Jake Clemons, replacing Clarence on the sax. Jake is not Clarence’s son. He is his nephew. But the resemblance is uncanny, both in the way he looks and sounds. Jake took the solos on such standards as Thunder Road and Born to Run. Not only did he fail to miss a beat, but he added a youthful vitality to the legendary E Street Band that is now bulging with more than a dozen performers and a big sound.

Bruce has been around so long he noted that the band began playing this particular building in the swamps of Jersey 30 years ago when it was “named after a person,” former Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne. Since then, “it has been renamed after an airline and now a shirt,” Bruce said. So the bigger the sound and the younger the musicians, well, the more the merrier.

This was the third time I’d seen some version of the band in this building over the years and seventh in the Meadowlands. The other four were at now gone Giants Stadium, for which the song “Wrecking Ball” was written three years ago as Bruce played the last series of concerts in the old stadium. Hence, the name of his latest album and this tour. As it turned out, it would be the last time Clarence would work with the group. He died from complications of a stroke this past summer.

Bruce paid homage to Clarence in two moments, during the show. The first was while the band was performing a somber rendition of “My City in Ruins.” After Bruce introduced the current members of the band he implored the crowd by asking if anyone was missing? When the response was a resounding and repeated affirmative, he responded:

“Do I have to say his name?” That was the way he introduced Clarence in the old days. “No, I don’t,” Bruce now added.

At the end of the show as he finished with “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” Bruce stopped at the line, “when the Big Man joined the band” and thrust the microphone toward the crowd in front of him. The music stopped dead in its tracks and a five minute ovation for Clarence ensued. It was dramatic and good stuff. A subtle tribute that pulled the heart strings. When the music continued the message was clear. Life goes on “Within you and without you, ” as George Harrison once wrote. It does without Clarence and now with his younger personification in Jake, who helped carry the show and revitalized the Viagra taking, history making E Street Band.