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Monday, June 30, 2008

The Natural ...

Standing proudly in his Atlanta Braves uniform, that wide, infectious smile running from ear to ear, a shiny Louisville Slugger resting nonchalantly on his shoulder ... Jeffrey Braden Francoeur, born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 8, 1984, the son of Karen and Dave Francoeur, who attended his first Braves game in 1986 (he doesn't remember being in the stands the same day Bob Horner launched four homers) ... was the cover story for the August 29, 2005, Sports Illustrated, Volume 103, Issue 8 ... printed in the center of the page were these words "The Natural" followed by "Atlanta Rookie JEFF FRANCOEUR Is Off To An Impossibly Hot Start. Can Anyone Be This Good?" ... but what about that "SI Jinx"? ... Growing up, it was apparent at an early age that Jeff had the potential to become an immensely gifted and successful athlete, he possessed speed, quickness and strength, and showed interest in several different sports, excelling at them all ... he spent countless hours playing alongside his best friend Brian McCann, who lived just up the street ... by the time the blossoming athlete enrolled in high school he had narrowed his focus to the two sports of which he loved ... football and baseball ... with the pigskin, Jeff starred as both quarterback and safety (also making All-State as a defensive back) to help his school win the state championship during both his junior and senior years ... it was baseball, however, that attracted the most attention to the then up-and-coming young star ... As a junior in 2001, while alternating between playing center field and closing games as a reliever, Jeff batted .500 with 20 homers leading his school to a Georgia 5-A championship, a 32-4 record and the #9 national ranking ... Jeff's efforts that year earned him the honor of being named as a second-team All-American ... for his team's 2002 opener, scouts from 20 major league teams showed up three hours early just to watch Jeff take batting practice ... that season he batted .487 with 16 homers helping his school rise to the #3 national ranking, ultimately wrapping up his high school career with a batting average of .443 with 55 long balls ... during the state championship, his dramatic homers twice broke late-inning ties, and he finished each game on the mound ... in the final game, Jeff put his team ahead with a homer in the sixth and then came to the plate again with the bases loaded in the same inning ... an heroic grand slam blew the game wide open helping his team to clinch the title ... After high school, Jeff had several attractive options, one of which was an offer for a two-sport scholarship by Clemson, which he accepted with the understanding that college would be a fall-back position if he wasn't happy with the outcome of the then upcoming baseball draft ... Clemson's scholarship would be left to collect dust as he was selected 23rd by the Atlanta Braves in the first round ... he was now part of the organization he had dreamed of starring for since almost birth ... Jeff was assigned to the team's advanced Rookie League outfit in Danville, Virginia, meanwhile, the Braves were in the middle of an amazing streak of 14 consecutive division titles, and with depth up and down their minor-league system, they were deliberate in moving him through the system ... his next stop would be Class-A Rome of the South Atlantic League, where he spent the entire 2003 season ... he would have his first four-hit game as a pro on May 16 against Lake County, equaling it two weeks later against Asheville ... for the year, he ended up batting .281 with 14 homers and 68 RBIs helping to anchor a team that included his longtime pal Brian McCann, who was also drafted in 2003 ... Francoeur would split his time between Class-A Myrtle Beach and Class-AA Greenville in 2004 where the 20-year-old would make a name for himself with his impressive range of skills, and was named Baseball America's Top Ten Prospect in the Carolina League ... but his hopes for a September call-up to Atlanta was short-lived due to his being hit in the face with a pitch while squaring around to bunt ... he did return a month later and was immediately promoted to Greenville ... Jeff never made it to the big club in '04, but he did get a taste of major-league ball that year when he played in the annual Hall of Fame Game in Cooperstown, New York ... he homered in his first at-bat against a major league pitcher sending notice to the Braves that his stint in the minors would be a short one ... In the spring of 2005, Jeff found himself at Atlanta's major league camp at Walt Disney World, but realized that he had little chance of starting the season in the bigs ... the Braves had planned on keeping him at Class-AA Mississippi that entire season ... he accepted the assignment without complaint ... however, back in Atlanta, the Braves were struggling to field a healthy team, consequently, Francoeur was rushed to the big leagues on July 7 making his debut that day in a doubleheader against the Chicago Cubs ... in the eighth inning, he walked to the plate and promptly launched a three-run homer, becoming just the ninth player in Braves history to go deep in his first big-league game ... Jeff rapidly became the leader of a group of 17 rookies called the "Baby Braves" -- including McCann -- who joined Atlanta when rosters expanded in September ... the Braves had soared back to the top of the NL East ... During Francoeur's rookie season the hits kept coming, and the national media had taken notice ... Jeff found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated, hailed as "The Natural" ... and partly due to his competitive spirit and contributions on the field, the Atlanta Braves achieved yet another division title ... Jeff's grandmother had passed away before he had reached the big leagues, and now his grandfather Melvin, who then resided in a nursing home, had something to smile about by watching Jeff play on TV or listening to Braves games on the radio ... Rolling into spring training in 2006, after competing for the United States in the World Baseball Classic, Francoeur swung the bat well, but began slumping at the start of the season ... pitchers were beginning to discover a glaring weakness ... he was up there hacking wildly at everything ... as a result, he began seeing fewer and fewer strikes ... but Jeff wasn't the only Brave getting off to a slow start, and the Braves lost 22 of 28 that June, including a 10-game winless streak ... in spite of that, a big moment came for Francoeur when he homered in extra-innings for a win against the Reds ... after his teammates had mobbed him at the plate, he told them the homer was for "Pops" -- his grandfather Melvin had passed away just hours earlier as a result of a painful illness ... despite Jeff's heroics, Atlanta's long run of division titles ended in 2006, and the team finished with a record of 79-83, far out of the playoffs ... Francoeur had ended the season with respectable numbers, and opponents had learned not to test his arm, but plate discipline had remained his main problem ... he had walked only 23 times in nearly 700 at-bats ... In 2007, the Braves had turned things around a bit ... Francoeur had become more selective at the plate raising his on-base percentage 45 points, although at the cost of a reduction in power ... he also gunned down a remarkable 19 runners, one short of the team record held by Andruw Jones, winning a Gold Glove for his efforts ... after a two-year absence from the playoffs, the Braves headed into 2008 with many questions ... some of which pertained to Jeff Francoeur ... did he have 40-homer power? ... could he knock in 120 runs? ... would his batting eye mature enough to boost him into batting title contention? ... and most importantly, would he be ready to assume a leadership mantle with the Braves? ... one thing no one questions, however, is Jeff's popularity with the Braves ... in the stands and in the clubhouse ... and his teammates constantly marvel at his ability in the clutch and his desire to play the game the right way ... So what seems to be the problem? ... Francoeur hits for power, but scouts have stated that he is nowhere near patient enough to become a star ... the ball explodes off his bat, but he is too much of a free swinger and still offers at pitches at his eyes ... he has improved somewhat, but the Braves want him to become far more selective, although he is still a dangerous hitter despite his lack of discipline ... on defense, Jeff's athleticism shines through immediately, he gets a good jump on the ball and has a rifle for an arm ... opponents know not to run on him, and he threw out 12 runners at home plate in 2007 ... What are the Braves to do with this young man so overflowing with potential? ... should he be dropped in the lineup? ... should he be benched or sent to the minors, although the Braves are hurting as far as injuries are concerned? ... should the team trade him while he still has some value? ... should the Braves utilize the same patience that they are trying to instill in Francoeur at the plate, and continue to work with him on his approach? ... or could Jeffrey Braden Francoeur's problems simply be blamed on that cursed "SI Jinx"? ... I don't think so ... but maybe someone should hang a rabbit's foot around his neck just in case ... --sja

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Allegiance ...

The sultry days of summer had all too quickly skidded to an undesirably abrupt conclusion ... along with the first phase of my burgeoning childhood ... propped up on the floor at the foot of my bed rested a large paper sack crammed to the top with many of the supplies needed for me to endure an entire year of first grade academic pedagogics ... spiral notebooks, writing paper, #2 pencils, (no pens or calculators allowed) erasers, a box of 64 Crayola crayons, scissors, paste and glue, along with a canvas bag featuring a picture of a grinning 'Babe' on the front ... other than text books, anything else required for a top-notch education was supplied 'free-of-charge' by the school system ... lying there on my bed were three brand new, long-sleeved flannel shirts, two pairs of Levi's overalls ... we called 'em overalls back then ... a jacket, socks, underwear and a shiny pair of leather boots, all new ... the stage had been set ... yet part of me yearned to remain somehow trapped in a time warp and forever continue those playful days of summer ... the other part was anxious about the prospect of meeting new friends, and excited to learn about all the interesting things which existed just beyond the realm of my imagination ... the only task yet to be done in preparation for my first day of school was to get a neat haircut down at the old barbershop ... I found school to be a bittersweet experience ... I longed for those long carefree days of summer ... but at the same time, I enjoyed time spent with classmates, along with all the interesting activities I was able to participate in each day ... at the start of each morning, the entire class would rise to their feet and stand facing a large American flag which stood solemnly in the corner, and with our hands covering our hearts, we would all recite in unison Francis Bellamy's (1855-1931) Pledge of Allegiance which was written in August, 1892 ... afterward, we were given a few moments of silence with which we were permitted to individually pray if we so desired, and we did ... also there were large black Bibles placed in prominent locations in each classroom ... if the weather was favorable, no rain, snow, sleet, hail or gusty winds, another huge American flag was unfurled and hoisted up the tall, metal flagpole and left there to fly proudly until evening when it was promptly lowered, properly folded and carefully brought safely back inside ... the flag was never allowed to touch the ground ... Discipline was quick and decisive, imposed primarily from fear of embarrassment and fear of the big wooden paddle leaning conspicuously in the corner of the principal's office, and it didn't exist merely for the purpose of effect ... I can remember walking home many an evening after school with my back side still warm from the forceful strokes of the "board of education" ... teachers also utilized wood products in their efforts to maintain good behavior and assure the continual preservation of peace and order in their classrooms ... those twelve-inch oak rulers weren't only used to draw straight lines ... they also were used to occasionally reprimand unruly knuckles attached to misbehaving fingers ... milder forms of punishment included staying late after school, skipping recess, standing in the corner or writing some sentence or phrase relative to an alleged offense multiple times on the chalk board and ultimately expulsion ... but the form of punishment usually fit the severity of the transgression, so nobody complained ... I reckon some of the most egregious wrongdoings back then were things like running at inappropriate times in the wrong places, talking too much or too loudly, not paying attention nor completing assignments in class, chewing gum or 'Hagen' inside the schoolhouse and other minor acts ... ADD and ADHD were unheard-of, instead, a child who exhibited those traits were said to be either extremely creative, or that they simply weren't paying attention ... a far cry from the current propensity for students to bring guns and knives to school ... the possession, sale and use of illicit drugs ... the spreading of sexually transmittable diseases among students ... teen pregnancy ... assault of school staff and fellow students ... theft of property ... open disrespect for teachers and fellow students ... and generally showing little to no interest in academic progress or achievement ... We had good times during those days ... my favorite times of day were the morning and afternoon recess periods, when we were encouraged to go outside (although such encouragement was never required) and immerse ourselves in some sort of physical activity such as playing tag, hide-and-seek, dodge ball, touch football and many other popular games ... there were no video games, video players, cell phones, ipods, computers, laptops or other similar portable electronic devices available with which to occupy our time ... creativity was an exceedingly essential element in those days ... back in the classroom, considering we had little to no outside distractions to sway our concentration, we focused most of our energy and efforts solely on our school lessons and assignments ... my next favorite time of day was lunch time, we either carried our lunch to school in a brown paper sack or splurged an outrageously exorbitant .75 cents per week for the school's 'hot lunch' program ... the school cook made some of the best brown beans and cornbread that I have ever had the pleasure of tasting, and I will never forget those peanut butter and honey sandwiches ... looking back, it was indeed a special time, although unrealized and unappreciated at the time ... I wish I could go back and do it all over again ... I'm not sure of what exactly went wrong with our public schools ... there certainly exists many complex and difficult facets as far as identifying the ultimate causes ... however, it is my humble and unlearned opinion, that the disintegration of our public school system began to accelerate at an increasingly rapid pace shortly after prayer was abolished in our classrooms ... now when there is an unthinkable and tragic incident like the one at Columbine, one of the first things out of folks' mouths is, "Where was God in all this?" ... well, sometime around the year 1962, the United States Supreme Court informed God that He was no longer welcome in America's public schools, and that our children would no longer be permitted to openly commune with the Creator of all things ... I believe that has much to do with our present school problems ... I Pledge Allegiance To the Flag Of the United States of America And to the Republic For Which it Stands One Nation Under God, Indivisible, With Liberty And Justice For All --sja

Monday, June 16, 2008

Boys Of Summer ...


The brumous August morning that dawned bearing a foreboding threat of rain had reluctantly given way to radiant sunbeams threading their way through billowy clouds floating proudly across a cerulean sky ... gentle breezes conducted the dulcet redolence of yellow honeysuckle intermingled with the delightful aroma of hot buttered popcorn, hot dogs, boiled peanuts, cotton candy and candied apples all throughout the old ballpark ... the temperature had risen to a pleasant 71 degrees ... a perfect day for baseball ... and for the boys of summer ...

There was nary a vacant seat in the place ... many folks were standing wherever they could gain a suitable view of the playing field ... excited fans had stocked up on food and cold drinks before settling in for the game ... a beautiful rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" had just concluded, players had all been announced, and the visiting nine had assumed their respective positions on the field as the pitcher took his final warm-up tosses ... the opposing hitter strolled into the batters' box as the ump gave the signal while shouting "play ball!" ...

Butterflies were dancing a frenzied version of the "Jitterbug Waltz" in the pit of the young ace's roiling stomach inducing waves of galling nausea, however this was not uncharted territory for the lanky right-hander as he posed on the mound, peering in with a sneer toward the catcher crouching behind home plate ... those butterflies had little to do with fear, but much to do with a desire to compete, and to win ... the husky catcher dropped the sign, and Gibson unleashed a beautiful bender far from the strike zone which danced back in painting the corner of the plate, freezing the stupefied batter in his tracks as the implacable umpire sternly bellowed "Stee-rike!" ... time to showcase the patented fast ball ... the scowling flamethrower let loose with a grunt, and you could hear the blistering sphere buzzing like an angry bumblebee as it approached the dish, veering in on the hands of the unnerved hitter, coercing him to swing through the pitch, then slapping the catcher's overstuffed mitt with an emphatic pop for yet another exigent "Steee-rike!" ... the now confident hurler received the fuming ball back from the catcher with a smart snap of his Rawlings glove before taking a leisurely stroll like a haughty peafowl around the dusty mound ... he was finally coming to the welcome realization that those fluttering butterflies were mercifully settling down ... and so was he ...

For the strapping batsman, his soul had also been seared amidst the raging flames of that same competitive fire, he had faced notorious pitchers of this caliber countless times in the past, many with great success, and was determined to thwart the efforts of this worthy opponent poised defiantly on the mound from getting the better of him ... not on this perfect day for baseball ... Williams believed that the crafty righty would in all likelihood deliver another filthy curve ... he dug in ... waggled his bat ... and waited ... but instead it was a hard scorcher, too high and called for a ball ... alright, maybe next pitch ... again he took the sizzling heat for a ball ... Williams was now wondering if Gibson had finally lost command of his "good stuff", and may be incapable of getting his fast ball over for a strike ... he was convinced that a breaking ball would assuredly be forthcoming ... he took a long, deep breath, firmly planting his nails in the sandy soil as he anxiously waited like a coiled viper stalking it's prey ... Gibson toed the rubber while coldly staring Williams squarely in the eyes, and with a scowl on his determined face, he propelled the baseball toward the plate with a menacing growl ... the seasoned slugger had gauged it just right, and the ball looked as large as a watermelon floating seemingly in slow motion toward him ... Williams unleashed his trusted Louisville Slugger as smoothly as a lumberjack laying the keen edge of a broadaxe to the root of a decaying jack pine as he made lethal contact with Gibson's meandering curve ball ... the clobbered orb arched skyward as it tauntingly disappeared over the left field wall before the eyes of the jeering throng ...

As Williams triumphantly rounded the diamond, he was showered with a deluge of stinging condemnation from the dispirited, hometown faithful ... Gibson stood motionless on the lonely mound, his head lowered toward the ground in humiliation ... the home team eventually went on to win the game that day 5 to 4 ... but there is a thin line between the thrill, and the agony ... at first glance you might think this story is touching on some fantasy match-up involving the great Hall of Fame pitcher Pack Robert "Bob" Gibson, born in 1935, or the incomparable Hall of Fame slugger Theodore Samuel "Ted" Williams (1918-2002), also known as "The Thumper" ... far from it ... this brief narrative pertains to a game played by a ten-year-old pitcher by the name of Grant Gibson of the Pocahontas Warriors and an eleven-year-old slugger named Jackie Williams of the Clarksville Mudhawks, one in a series of games held in the Little League regional championship tournament in Nashville, Tennessee ... truly a perfect day for baseball ... and for the boys of summer ...

"Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel, not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better than someone else. This is the nature of man and the name of the game" --Ted Williams

--sja

The More Things Change ...

The seasoned old umpire just turned and walked away from the protesting ballplayer as he softly murmured to himself, "I'm almost certain Herman tagged him." Then it came to him, and he almost wept. For the first time in his long and stellar career, he only 'thought' a man was tagged! The 'Old Arbitrator', William J. Klem, dean of major league baseball umpires retired that afternoon ... Klem would often insist that he had never called one wrong, though in later years he would solemnly place his hand over his heart and add, "from here." ... Klem worked a record 18 World Series Games, for a total of 104, including five straight from 1911 to 1915. His first World Series Game was 1908 (Cubs-Tigers) and his last 1940 (Reds-Tigers). Klem also umpired the first All-Star Game in 1933. During his 36 year career, he was behind the dish for five no-hitters, the last being Paul Dean's over Brooklyn (9/21/34). He also officiated a race around the diamond between Hans Lobert and a horse in 1914 at Oxnard, California ... Klem declared the horse to be the winner by a nose! ... Among the many memorable games that Klem umpired was Opening Day at the Polo Grounds in 1907. A winter storm had left piles of dirty snow around the field. In the eighth inning, with New York leading the Phillies 3-0, unruly spectators began hurling snowballs at the visiting Phillies, umpires and each other. Klem promptly forfeited the game to Philadelphia because responsibility to keep order was up to the home team. Among other great Hall of Fame umpires such as Al Barlick, Nestor Chylak, Jocko Conlon, Tommy Connolly, Billy Evans, Cal Hubbard, and Bill McGowan -- Bill Klem was regarded as the greatest umpire in the game's history ... Klem umpired exclusively behind the plate his first 16 years because of his acknowledged superiority in calling balls and strikes ... Early in his career, Giants manager John McGraw threatened to have him fired. Klem politely replied: "Mr. Manager, if it's possible for you to take my job away from me, I don't want it." Klem's integrity helped secure the reputation of umpires as impartial and honest, bringing dignity to the game, along with pride and competence ... Over the years, professional baseball has become less of 'America's Pastime', and more about corporate bottom line ... the emphasis has become less on the sport of baseball, and more toward alternative forms of entertainment and flashy gimmicks all designed for the purpose of generating enormous profits ... America's grand ol' game has become Corporate America's grand ol' gain! ... nevertheless, one of the constants in baseball has been it's umpires ... little has changed since the days of Hall of Fame umpire William J. Klem ... and although change in MLB usually comes about at the pace of an aged tortoise, unfortunately, due to a recent rash of 'blown calls', that could soon change at the blinding speed of a panic-struck jackrabbit ... Major League Baseball has announced that it is now earnestly pushing to put instant replay in use by August '08 ... in time to 'fine-tune' the system by the playoffs ... Players, managers and umpires have mixed opinions as to whether or not instant replay is needed in our beloved game of baseball, but Major League Baseball and the umpire's union will have to reach an agreement before replay can be tried, and both sides are now talking. However, when all is said and done, Commissioner Bud Selig will ultimately decide when MLB wants to put replay in place. Selig has been a staunch opponent of instant replay in the past, but a spate of missed boundary calls last month -- fair or foul, over the fence or not -- left Selig leaning toward it's limited use. Veteran umpire John Hirschbeck, president of the World Umpires Association, said their organization would be willing to listen to whatever proposals MLB have ... An unnamed person briefed on Major League Baseball's preliminary plan told The Associated Press that baseball wants to create an NHL-style "war room" in New York where video feeds would be reviewed by a supervisor. The umpire crew chief would not see replays -- instead, the supervisor would describe what he saw, but leave it up to the umpire to make the final call. It was unclear whether managers, umpires or the video supervisor would request a replay ... Notwithstanding his apparent shortcomings, Bud Selig has always been one of the game's traditionalists, preferring the human element in baseball, which meant tolerating an occasional wrong call by an umpire. He has also been concerned about bogging down a sport which has been criticized for it's slow pace ... I tend to agree with Commissioner Selig's sentiments ... The NFL, NBA, NHL, some NCAA sports and major tennis tournaments all employ replay in various forms ... Major League Baseball does not need instant replay! ... many times I have watched video replays of close plays over and over again, in slow motion, without being able to make a definitive determination, while the majority of the time the umpire had made the correct call in real time ... their proficiency is indeed extremely impressive ... I believe instant replay would merely serve to add more confusion and length of time to the game ... if MLB decides to use instant replay, I hope it's in a very limited fashion, such as to determine whether or not a ball was a home run, that's all ... the umpires are also adamant that they do not want replay used to review close plays on the bases or ball-and-strike calls ... I reckon I'm just old school, but I prefer the human element when it comes to just about everything ... especially the game of baseball ... and along with the human element comes human error ... which is also part of the game ... it's always been that way ... It started with QuesTech ... now it's instant replay ... I say no to both! ... and I would imagine that if Hall of Fame umpire William J. Klem were alive and umpiring today, he would wholeheartedly concur ... and as he wipes beads of sweat from his furrowed brow and warm tears from his gleaming eyes ... amid the chorus of the cheering crowd ... the 'Old Arbitrator' would most likely proclaim without hesitation to instant replay -- "You're outta here!" ... "It is not up to the umpire, under the rules, to point out a player's failure to touch a base. The team on defense must spot that lapse. That's why I allowed the tally (game 5 of the 1911 World Series)." - Bill Klem (1874-1951) --sja

Monday, June 9, 2008

Comes A Time ...

Several years ago, I purchased a brand new farm tractor. At the time, that tractor was one of the best on the market, powerful diesel engine, well built, tough and solid. It was capable of plowing fields or making hay continuously from sunrise to sunset without faltering ... it could be fitted with a bucket for loading feed or moving dirt, or a blade for grading a road ... it could handle just about any farm implement one could think of ... As years passed and hours accumulated on that fine machine, it began to have an occasional mechanical problem ... a busted this ... a cracked that ... nothing major or insurmountable as far as downtime was concerned ... a few minor repairs and it was back to work ... but seemingly overnight, that tractor began to experience those busted this and cracked that problems at a more frequent pace ... soon I realized that the now old and tired contraption was costing me valuable time, production and money ... there comes a time ... it was a difficult thing for me to do, I had become so accustomed to using that old tractor, it was comfortable and familiar ... it had been so dependable for so many years ... almost seemed like part of the family ... but fields weren't getting plowed and grass wasn't being cut ... and on a farm, time and timing is everything ... finally I was forced to replace my old "friend" ... Chipper Jones, born April 24, 1972, in Deland, Florida, went straight from playing baseball at Bolles High School, to being drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 1990. Jones spent the next three years in the minor league system before making his first major league appearance in '93, playing in just eight games that year, collecting two hits in three at bats. He would miss the entire '94 season with a torn ACL, but returned at full force in '95 with 23 homers and 86 RBIs to help the Braves win a World Series title ... While spending his entire career with the Atlanta Braves, Chipper has consistently posted impressive numbers each year. Since missing the '94 season, Jones has hit over 20 homers each year, over 30 homers six times, and over 40 homers once; he drove in over 100 RBIs nine times, including eight consecutive seasons from '96 to '03, and batted over .300 nine times. Jones has been a five-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger, NL MVP in '99, and World Series champion in '95. His career totals through 2007 include a .307 batting average, 386 home runs, 2,117 hits, 1,299 RBIs, and 425 doubles ... As of today, Chipper is leading the majors with a .420 batting average, and Thursday he launched career home run No. 400 courtesy of the Marlins ... today Jones has a day off after sitting out yesterday's game against the Phillies with a quadriceps tear, an injury which could result in his missing a few more games. Chipper has stated that he strongly desires to play at least four more years, possibly five or six, all in a Braves' uniform, if the Braves want him. The Braves have an option that would pay Jones $8-11MM in '09 depending on performance. If Jones can remain healthy, he could command far more cash on the open market after the '09 season, although Chipper has said he has no desire to play elsewhere, or for a larger contract ... Chipper Jones is an exceptionally good ballplayer, one of the best, powerful, tough, a solid workhorse and always a popular fan favorite in Atlanta. But over the past few seasons, he has experienced those 'busted this' and 'cracked that' problems at a far more frequent pace ... and although we're all accustomed to seeing Chipper poised near third base or standing in the batters' box ... his steady stream of nagging injuries are costing the Atlanta Braves valuable time, production and money ... and on a major league baseball team, time and timing is everything ... Jones has been so dependable for so many seasons ... and he almost seems like part of the family ... will it be time for the Atlanta Braves to make the difficult decision to replace our old friend after the '09 season? ... I certainly hope not ... but, there comes a time ... --sja

Friday, June 6, 2008

How Good A Golfer Is Atlanta Braves Ace John Smoltz? ...

Your golf buddy Tiger Woods has referred to you as his "personal ATM." Is that typical smack talk from him? Smoltz: Oh, yeah, He's up there with the likes of Larry Byrd and Michael Jordan when it comes to the way he dishes it out. [Laughs]But, yeah, it's both apropos and funny. How many strokes does he give you? Smoltz: Anywhere from two to three a side... Whoa, that's all? Smoltz: For me, when I'm playing the way I want to be playing, which is rare with him, that's a fair match. But, to borrow a baseball term, I have not had a good bullpen down the stretch with him. It's all about how you finish, and he's the ultimate closer. And a pretty good starter, too. You've been both a starting pitcher and a closer, which require two very different mentalities. Which are you as a golfer? Smoltz: In a regular round, I try to make any kind of shot, no matter the risk involved. When I play in an official tournament, I'm a lot more conservative, a lot more of a starter. The hardest part is containing the beast in me that wants to pull off the shot. Any plans to trade professional baseball for professional golf? Smoltz: I have a couple of goals. One would be to make a cut, one cut, on the PGA Tour, and then to play on the Champions Tour. But I want to see if I can do some of the things that baseball has prepared me to do. I want to test my mental toughness at that level. --by Steve Beslow ASSISTANT EDITOR, GOLF MAGAZINE

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Bo Diddley - Rock's Rhythm King Dies ...

ROCK'N'ROLL has lost a founding father. Bo Diddley, known as "the originator", died of heart failure on Monday. He was 79. Diddley, who continued to play despite his ailing health, died at his home in Archer, Florida. "One of the founding fathers of rock'n'roll has left the building he helped construct," his management agency, Talent Consultants International, said in a statement. Diddley's syncopated, percussive, propulsive rhythm guitar playing, backed by shuffling maracas, was inspired by an African drum beat. That rhythm helped lay rock'n'roll's foundation. "Boom da boom da boom, boom boom. That was basically an Indian chant," is how Diddley described it in a March 2007 interview with National Public Radio. Resplendent in black Stetson hat and thick-rimmed glasses, employing distortion and reverb on his array of self-designed guitars--rectangular or with Cadillac-like fins--Diddley boasted on self-mythologising songs such as Bo Diddley and Bo Diddley's a Gunslinger, presaging many cocksure rockers and rappers. The driving beat of songs such as Who Do You Love, Roadrunner and Pretty Thing inspired artists from Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley to the Rolling Stones and the Pretty Things, the Clash, Iggy Pop, ZZ Top, U2 and the White Stripes. Along with Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Diddley constructed a sound that crossed America's racial divide, appealing to both black and white audiences and musicians. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognized his influence in 1987, and he received a Grammy lifetime achievement award the following year. Exploitation by record companies meant he never received financial rewards commensurate with his influence. "He was a wonderful, original musician who was an enormous force in music and was a big influence on the Rolling Stones," Mick Jagger said in a statement. Melbourne DJ Mohair Slim, who will be presenting a tribute to Diddley on his show Blue Juice on 3PBS FM this Sunday morning, said Diddley was a true original. "Bo Diddley didn't really have a predecessor, he was not part of any continuum or musical tradition," Slim said. "Every '60s R&B band had a Bo Diddley song in their repertoire but nobody adopted his whole approach or sound. This guy was such a maverick that he was destined never to get his due." Born Ellas Bates in 1928 in McComb, Mississippi, he was given the nickname Bo Diddley as a teenager after moving to Chicago in the 1940s. Inspired by John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, he started performing on street corners. While he had just one top 40 hit with Say Man and collected no gold records, his influence is profound. In 1956 a Harlem newspaper, the Amsterdam News, on first seeing Elvis perform, claimed he had "copied Bo Diddley's style to the letter". Rolling Stone magazine described his beat as "the most plagiarized rhythm of the 20th century." Diddley toured Australia many times, including on the Legends of Rock'n'Roll Tour in the late 1980s, when he terrified promoter Kevin Jacobsen by staging a mock argument with Jerry Lee Lewis. On his 1978 tour, he was so impressed by Brisbane guitar maker Chris Kinman that he asked him to build him a new square guitar, which he dubbed "the Mean Machine". Playing at St Kilda's Prince of Wales Hotel in 2005, he surprised the crowd by straying from his signature sound in a genre-defying set of funk, soul, doo-wop, psychedelic rock, country and even rap, a genre he often derided. Diddley also competed as a boxer and served as a sheriff in Las Lunas, New Mexico. In recent years, he worked with his local police department to warn teenagers about the dangers of drugs and gang violence. --by Patrick Donovan