SAN DIEGO — You never know who you’re going to run into at the ball game and on Tuesday night at Petco Park it was Bill Walton, the former center who was one of my closest friends back in the day when having a great big man meant everything in the pre-Magic, pre-Michael, even pre-Dr. J. NBA.
Walton threw out the first pitch prior to his hometown Padres tilt against the Reds and needed three shots at it to get the ball from the rubber over the plate without a bounce. But give him his space. He’s nearing 60, survived spinal fusion and three years on his back. In his day, he was the best big man at moving the ball around the court I’ve ever seen.
“I come from the era of three to make two,” Walton explained. “That was from 15 feet. This is 60-feet, 6-inches. That’s a long way. That’s two-thirds of the court.”
Walton was so counter culture back then. There was the relationship with Jack Scott. He never told me whether he harbored the kidnapped turned fugitive Patty Hearst. But he was a Dead Head and great to talk to. And when he was signed by the San Diego Clippers, I jumped at a chance to cover him even though a foot injury kept Walton from playing any more than one game a week. I learned more about the tarsal navicular bone back then than I could have ever imagined. But that was life covering Bill. He was eclectic and loved basketball. Still is. Still does.
Here’s a little piece of his philosophy: “Basketball has nothing to do with size and strength. Skill. Timing. Position. It’s a thinking man’s game. You win when you’re the smartest and you make the emotional commitment to be the champion.”
Walton was referring to the Lakers bringing star point guard Steve Nash into the fold to play alongside Kobe Bryant in the same backcourt.
“I’m just as excited as I can be,” he said.
Walton was wearing a Padres jersey with his trademark No. 32 on the back. On the front were mustard stains, signs of a night well spent at the ballpark.
Walton is a San Diego native through and through. Played his high school ball at Helix High. Played his college ball up the road at UCLA. Won his NBA championships leading the Portland Trailblazers and playing understudy to Robert Parish with the Boston Celtics. His characteristic red hair is all white now. He has outlived two of his heroes: Coach John Wooden and Jerry Garcia, the lyrical soul of the Grateful Dead. And he considers himself “the luckiest guy in the world.”
“San Diego is home for me. I’m the proudest and most loyal San Diegan there is,” he said. “This is the most fantastic place in the world to live.”
ATLANTA –- Surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Mariano Rivera’s right knee went off better than expected on Tuesday when no repairable damage was found in the meniscus in the damaged knee, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
That was good news.
“The less you have to do, the better off you are,” Girardi said before Tuesday’s rematch against the Braves at Turner Field. “I’d think that’s good news. I’m sure Mo is anxious to get going.”
The 42-year-old Rivera tore the ACL and reportedly damaged the meniscus in his right knee while shagging fly balls in the outfield May 3 before a game in Kansas City.
He would have had the surgery sooner, but doctors discovered a blood clot in his right calf after the knee injury and he had to take blood-thinning medication to eradicate the clot. When that was fully dissolved he was able to undergo the knee surgery, which was performed in New York by Dr. David Altchek, the Mets’ team physician.
“He got it repaired,” Girardi said. “It’s another step toward him coming back. We’re all expecting to see Mo next year. I don’t think we’re going to see him pitch again this year.”
Rivera, the Major League all-time leader with 608 regular-season saves and 42 more in the playoffs, tweeted on Tuesday afternoon that the surgery had gone fine.
“My surgery was a success, it went perfectly,” he wrote. “I am looking forward to beginning my rehab soon. Thanks as always for your prayers.”
Girardi said there was no timeline for Rivera’s return. Rivera had said in the days after sustaining the injury that he wasn’t going to end his career on a sour injury note and would work hard to return next season.
“A lot of guys, it’s whatever their bodies allow them to do,” Girardi said. “They can give you a timetable, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be before or after. I think we expect him next year.”
ATLANTA –- If Yankees left-fielder Brett Gardner knows what the outcome will be of the examinations this week on his strained right elbow, he wasn’t saying in the clubhouse prior to Tuesday night’s rematch against the Braves at Turner Field.
He saw Dr. James Andrews for a second opinion on Monday and is scheduled to be examined by Reds orthopedic physician Timothy Kremchek for a third stab at it on Thursday. Surgery is certainly a possibility, delaying his return until well into the second half of the season.
“I prefer not to talk about what Andrews said at this point,” Gardner said. “I’m going to see Kremchek on Thursday and I’ll tell you guys what the decision is after that. I want to get all the information together before I say anything. Hopefully it will be positive and we’ll go from there.”
Gardner has been on the disabled list since making a diving catch at Yankee Stadium against the Twins on April 17. He’s tried to recoup twice, but has shut it down both times. The elbow injury is particularly bothering him when he takes his swings at the plate.
He played in nine games and was batting .321 at the time of the injury. Gardner said that the goal undoubtedly is to play again sometime this year.
“That’s what the hope is. That’s what it certainly is in my mind,” Gardner said. “I’ve done everything I can do and the training staff has done everything it can possibly do over the last seven weeks to get me back out on the field. It hasn’t worked out the way we thought, but hopefully I’ll be back soon.”
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.
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.”
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.
MESA, Ariz. –- Padres outfielder Kyle Blanks will likely start the regular season on the disabled list if he doesn’t quickly recover from an impingement in his left shoulder, manager Bud Black said on Monday.
Blanks has been out for the past five days with soreness in the shoulder and his immediate return is not on the horizon.
“He got a cortisone shot a couple of days ago and he’s feeling much better,” Black said in his office at the Peoria Sports Complex only hours before the Padres played the Cubs at Hohokam Park. “We’ll see how it resolves itself in the next couple of days. Then there will be a clearer indication of what’s happening.”
Blanks’ injury comes at a time when Carlos Quentin is recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Quentin will miss at least the first month of the season, leaving left field wide open for now with the season opener slated against the Dodgers at Petco Park on April 5.
“It’s kind of a bummer for Kyle just because of the Quentin situation,” Black said. “That provided an opening for him to get a lot of at bats and maybe make the club. That window is sort of closing.”
Blanks split his 2011 season between the Minors and San Diego, playing in 55 games for the Padres. His 2010 season was cut short after undergoing Tommy John ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow. Last year, he batted .229 with seven homers and 26 RBIs. Blanks is batting .208 (5-for-24) this spring with a homer and two RBIs in nine games.