Ten proCanes in the NFL Network's Top 100 Poll


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Brandon Harris Highlights

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Latest wave of praise for Ray Lewis is well-deserved

Here's how big Ray Lewis is: Even as he waits out the NFL lockout, doing his usual aggressive offseason workouts and chilling in front of his 400-inch flat-screen TV, football people keep heaping praise on the Ravens' All-Galaxy middle linebacker.

First the NFL Network, after a survey of players, ranked him the fourth-best player in the league and the best defensive player going into this season.

And Wednesday, The Baltimore Sun's crack Ravens Insider staff voted Lewis as the all-time best inside linebacker in Ravens' history.

That second accolade, of course, was not exactly a shocker. Lewis is a 12-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year who's been the heart and soul of the Ravens' defense since he arrived in Baltimore.

But it's still a nice honor for a player who continues to perform at such a high level as he heads into his 16th season.

(And yes, there will be a season. Calm down. You think the owners and players are just going to throw up their hands and say, "Well, that's it, we can't figure out how to divvy up this $9 billion in annual revenue, so we're canceling the season and walking away from all that loot?"

(Are you kidding? These guys would rather hack off one of their arms with a chainsaw than lose a dime of that money.)

But seeing Lewis in the spotlight this week got me wondering whether, even in this town, we truly appreciate the greatness of No. 52.

Look, I'm not going to tell you Lewis is the fourth-best player in the league right now, because I don't believe that

The Ray Lewis of five or seven years ago, sure, he gets that nod from me. In fact, I probably put him higher than fourth.

But even if Ray has lost a step or two, I still find it astonishing that a 36-year-old who's played 15 years at the most punishing position in pro football can still perform at such a high level.

Go to the NFL Network's video clip on Lewis if you want to see what he's done for the Ravens lately. Look at the big hits, the big picks, the game-winning plays he's made just in the past year or two.

No wonder the clip's narrator calls Lewis "the hard-hitting yardstick by which all defensive players are measured."

No wonder Ravens coach John Harbaugh says of his superstar: "At this stage of his career, he's playing as well as any linebacker in the game."

I don't know if I've ever seen a professional athlete play with the passion of Ray Lewis. Heck, I'm not sure I've seen anyone do anything with the passion that Lewis brings to his job.

The NFL Network clip of him circling his teammates on the sidelines, the veins in his neck standing out like whipcords and his eyes narrowed like dark pinpoints as he exhorts them with shrill cries of "We got work to do!" will give you chills.

And he brings that same sort of passion to everything else he does, from the over-the-top pre-game dance to all the mentoring and charity work he does.

Ask him about, I don't know, the cornhole tournament in the Ravens' locker room and his voice rises like a Southern preacher's as he gives you 20 minutes on the beauty of the camaraderie it fosters.

But it's not just Ray Lewis' passion for the game that's helped him survive 15 seasons in the NFL. There's also his wondrous durability.

Click here to order Ray Lewis’ proCane Rookie Card.

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Leonard Hankerson Wants To Work With His Coaches

The Washington Redskins’ 2011 draft was generally called a big success largely because of the depth the team was able to acquire with its 12 picks.

In Purdue linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, the Redskins believe they have found a dominant pass-rusher to complement Brian Orakpo. Clemson’s Jarvis Jenkins is expected to help shore up the defensive line, and Leonard Hankerson offers much needed size to the receiving unit. Naturally, Shanahan also raved about running backs Roy Helu and Evan Royster as well as safety DeJon Gomes, wideouts Aldrick Robinson and Niles Paul, cornerback Brandyn Thompson, guard Maurice Hurt, linebacker Markus White and nose tackle Christopher Neild.

But how much can really be expected from rookies chosen in this locked out offseason? All but Jenkins got an introduction to the Redskins’ systems during player-led group workouts. But Hankerson left the June session saying, “I need a coach, bad.” He understood the benefit of getting together with his new teammates, but knew the only way to really learn the offense was to hear it straight from a coach’s mouth.

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Devin Hester pleased by peers' poll recognition


Although his peers somewhat surprisingly voted him No. 32 in an NFL Network poll ranking the league's top 100 players, Devin Hester understands he still has much to prove, particularly as a receiver.

And Hester firmly believes he has made strides this offseason.

The Chicago Bears’ electric kick returner was at Lincoln-Way Central High on Thursday alongside Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade as the two held football and basketball camps.

Hester’s high ranking in the top-100 poll was questioned by media members, and he attributes the recognition to being arguably the best return man of all time, not for his work at receiver. He set the NFL record of 14 kick-return touchdowns in just 74 games.

"It was a blessing to be among the top players who made the top 100,’’ Hester said. "Not even just the top 100, but even some of the guys who didn’t make it. I felt there was like 300 more guys who should have been on the list, so that means a lot for me to be at No. 32.

"It’s a great feeling to know my peers feel like that about me. Just a great honor.’’

Julius Peppers was No. 10 on the list while Brian Urlacher (No. 49) and Lance Briggs (No. 92) were the only other Bears mentioned.

After Thursday's three-hour session with hundreds of campers, Hester -- who caught just 40 passes last season (11.9 yards per catch) after finishing with 50-plus catches the previous two -- talked about the organized workouts with Jay Cutler and the rest of the offensive skill players that have now concluded.

"Just running routes on air and consistently getting a feel for what your weakness are and what you need to improve on as far as routes,’’ Hester said of what he accomplished. "The more you run those routes, the smoother you are. That’s what helped me the most.’’

Spending three days a week at those workouts only made Hester more eager to get back on an NFL field. The Bears are scheduled to report to training camp July 22 in preparation for the Aug. 7 Hall of Fame game matchup with the Rams.

But the preseason all depends on the lockout being resolved in the next week or so, and signs point to a possible agreement being in place by the weekend.

"It’s getting (frustrating),’’ Hester said. "What is it, a month before we play a game? The sad thing about it is that regardless of when the lockout ends, everybody wants us to be on schedule to play the games.

"The players are just saying, 'Don’t expect us to come one week and try to play the next.' If y’all want us to play, let’s go ahead and get this worked out.’’

Click here to order Devin Hester’s proCane Rookie Card.

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Ed Reed to hold charity golf tournament

OWINGS MILLS -- Baltimore Ravens All-Pro free safety Ed Reed is holding a charity golf event on July 22 in Davidsonville.

There's one week remaining to sign up for foursomes and sponsorships.

The tournament will include Reed, wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason and quarterback Joe Flacco.

There will be a cocktail party on July 21 at Havana Club in Baltimore.

All proceeds go toward the Ed Reed Foundation, a charity that benefits disadvantaged children. 

For more information, go to www.edreedfoundation.org.

Click here to order Ed Reed’s proCane Rookie Card.

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Sherko Haji-Rasouli, a six-foot-six, 326-pound offensive lineman who played collegiately at Miami and spent eight seasons in the CFL with Montreal and B.C. before being released by the Lions on Jan. 31 will be a member of the Canadian team participating in the world senior men's championship in Austria.

"I think Sherko and I will be able to spend time with the youngsters and teach them how to be good teammates and the importance of hustling on every play," Belli said. "I think I was always a good hustle guy on the football field.

"But, you know, I think he (Haji-Rasouli) is the hairiest man I've ever seen."

Head coach Larry Haylor expects Belli and Haj-Rasouli to lead the Canadian team on the field and serve as mentors to the young players.

"We're looking for presence and leadership," Haylor said via telephone from Graz, Austria, where Canada will play its preliminary-round games. "They're people who are recognizable by virtue of what they've done in the pro game and in terms of high achievement they represent the highest.

"Both Sherko and Adriano clearly understand they're not wearing Hamilton Tiger-Cats or Toronto Argonauts jerseys, they're wearing Team Canada. This is a world stage, they understand Canada is being represented and I know they will do that very well."

Canada will be in Group B with Japan, France and Austria. The United States, Mexico, Germany and Australia comprise Group A.

Tournament action kicks off Friday with Canada playing its first game Saturday against France. That will begin a stretch of three contests in five days for the Canadians, who'll take on host Austria on Monday before squaring off against Japan on July 13.

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Bernie Kosar appearing at Premium Outlets

HAGERSTOWN— Former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar will be at Hagerstown Premium Outlets south of Hagerstown Friday to sign autographs during the grand opening of a Longaberger Factory Store.

In addition to Kosar, Longaberger CEO Tami Longaberger will be at the event, which is scheduled from 10 a.m. to noon.

Kosar was quarterback for the Browns from 1985 to 1993 and played in three AFC Championship games. He also led the University of Miami to a national championship during the 1983-84 season.

Click here to order Bernie Kosar’s proCane Rookie Card.

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Devin Hester won’t be changing routine after ‘10 success

Devin Hester changed his workout routine before last season and was pleased with the results.

After not scoring on a kick return or punt return during the 2008 and ’09 seasons, he returned three punts for touchdowns last season, breaking the NFL record for career return touchdowns with a 64-yarder against the Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 20.

This offseason has been strange for everyone because of the league-imposed lockout, but Hester is following the same regimen that he credits for much of his success in 2010. That means he’s spending less time lifting weights and more time training on a track to make sure his legs are in condition to excel as a returner and receiver.

That’s especially important in an offense designed by coordinator Mike Martz that requires receivers to have explosive speed as well as endurance.

‘‘It’s been more running still, more focus on the lower body, just keeping my legs strong and staying in shape,” Hester said Thursday after the first day of his two-day kids camp at Lincoln-Way Central. ‘‘That’s the nature of our offense. The biggest thing is to come back in shape. That’s what me and the guys have been trying to do.’’

Hester has been working out with quarterback Jay Cutler and other offensive skill-position players several times a week for much of the offseason, but he said the mental and physical reps aren’t the same as they would be under the supervision of coaches. Organized team activities and minicamps were cancelled as a result of the lockout.

He also said Cutler is showing no ill effects after tearing his medial collateral ligament in the Bears’ loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game in January.

‘‘He looks good,’’ Hester said. ‘‘It’s the same Jay.’’

The Bears’ offense must continue to evolve if the team is going to contend for a second straight NFC North title, let alone compete with the defending Super Bowl champion Packers.

Martz’s unit finished 30th in yards and 21st in points last season and was anemic against the Packers in the regular-season finale and the NFC title game, failing to score a touchdown in the six quarters that Cutler played in.

‘‘Their offense struggled with us, too,’’ Hester said. ‘‘They only put up [24 offensive] points against us. It’s a two-way situation. When you have a great defense like they do and like we do, it comes down to two or three big plays in a game that determine the outcome.’’

Hester is confident that when the lockout ends and training camp begins, the offense will benefit from the experience gained under Martz last season.

‘‘The biggest thing is we’re now a year into the system,’’ he said. ‘‘We did actually start clicking toward midseason and throughout, so that was good.

‘‘Now the goal is to finish where we started and really pick it up and be more advanced with it.’’

Click here to order Devin Hester’s proCane Rookie Card.

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Gino Torretta says treatment of Herbstreit by fans ‘sad’

It always has seemed odd that some fans not only take it as a personal insult when announcers criticize their team, but also feel compelled to respond when given the chance. We saw it during the playoffs, when Heat fans pelted Charles Barkley with taunts and a T-shirt as he broadcast live outside AmericanAirlines Arena.

But the most disturbing example this year — and it largely has gone under the radar — is how ABC’s Kirk Herbstreit was driven to move his family out of their Columbus, Ohio, home. “Sad,” Gino Torretta called it.

Herbstreit grew weary of the constant criticism from a vocal minority of Buckeyes fans who did not understand his job as an ABC analyst is to be objective, not an unabashed homer. So he and his family relocated to Nashville two months ago.

“Nobody loves Ohio State more than me,” Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback, told The Columbus Dispatch. “But I’ve got a job to do, and I’m going to be fair and objective. To continue to have to defend myself and my family in regards to my love and devotion to Ohio State is unfair. … They probably represent only 5 to 10 percent of the fan base, but they are relentless.”

Former UM players employed on local radio know all about the impact their words can have when they criticize the Hurricanes. WQAM’s Dan Morgan heard UM was angry with him last season about his stinging criticism of Randy Shannon and the team. “But I was telling the truth,” he said off-air.

Torretta, less harsh than Morgan, said some fans have questioned him for saying anything negative about the program. He believes in some cases, they confused him with his WQAM co-host, Steve White.

“There were people who called and say, ‘I can’t believe you’re allowing him to say that,’’’ Torretta said this offseason. “But Steve can say what he wants.”

Torretta said he heard “at times UM thought I was being critical. There’s not a bigger fan of the university than me. But I’m not going to watch something and tell you something else happened. I don’t want to be Joe Homer.”

Torretta, the 1992 Heisman Trophy winner, was more annoyed that a UM fan “questioned my love for the university because I wouldn’t agree to be interviewed for The U documentary. I was angry about that. I didn’t want to do it because the university hadn’t sanctioned it.”

WQAM’s Jon Linder has anchored UM shows with several former players, including Randal Hill, who advocated Shannon’s ouster.

“Remember, the guys who made these comments didn’t lose much,” Linder said. “People told me how refreshing it was than Hill and Morgan were telling it like it is.”

Hill, a federal agent for the Department of Homeland Security, asked, off-air, “Should I cheer when it’s not [warranted]? That’s crazy. You call it the way you see it. I don’t work for the university.”

Because so many UM fans were angry last season, the candor from Hill, Morgan, Torretta, Lamar Thomas and Michael Irvin was largely welcomed. Al Golden has been widely praised (except by Warren Sapp), and the program appears back on the right track. But it will be interesting to hear how the former Canes with radio jobs react if there are hiccups along the way.

Most UM fans accept the criticism from Canes players-turned-broadcasters more than Buckeyes fans do with Herbstreit. But what most seems to irk fans, here and elsewhere, is repeated criticism of their team from announcers with a national forum, such as Barkley.

In Herbstreit’s case, Ohio State fans stewed over several issues. He was highly critical of quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who left the program last month. And though the Buckeyes were fifth in the final Associated Press poll, Herbstreit’s ballot reportedly had them ninth.

“You’re harder on your own team,” Torretta said, “because you want them to be the best.”

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Aubrey Huff dancing

Aubrey Huff has continued his antics in San Francisco, where he has been a hit in the Giants clubhouse. His magical thong helped them make the playoffs last year and he had some big hits on their run to the title. He also enjoys crying after wins and showing off his moves from the dance club, which he did for Showtime's “THE FRANCHISE: A Season with the San Francisco Giants,” which will be like “Hard Knocks” for baseball.

I know Huff, who played for the Orioles from 2007 to 2009, thinks the Baltimore nightlife scene is horse manure -- well, he put it a slightly different way -- but it looks he got his moves at Power Plant Live or in Federal Hill.

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Ryan Braun could return Saturday or Sunday

Although he sat out his fifth consecutive game Thursday with an upper-left calf strain, Milwaukee Brewers leftfielder Ryan Braun continues to make progress.

With an MRI confirming Wednesday that the injury is inflammation and nothing more serious, it's looking more likely he'll be able to play at some point this weekend in the team's four-game series with the Cincinnati Reds at Miller Park.

"I don't know if it'll be tomorrow, but I'm hoping Saturday or Sunday," manager Ron Roenicke said. "So yeah, I'd probably be surprised if he didn't come back."

Braun, who suffered a minor setback Wednesday after taking batting practice Tuesday, is focused on getting better rather than trying to speed his comeback and winding up making matters worse.

"Obviously I don't want to be stupid about it," he said. "The last thing I want to do is rush back and then have either a setback where it's something that keeps me out for a long period of time, or have it get to the point where it something that's going to nag and be there for the second half.

"The goal obviously is trying to get as close to 100% before coming back."

One interesting twist is that Roenicke said he wouldn't have an issue with Braun playing in the All-Star Game on Tuesday at Chase Field in Phoenix - as long as he's completely healed before doing so.

Braun, hitting .320 with 16 home runs, 61 runs batted in and 19 stolen bases, was the leading vote-getter in the National League and is poised to make his fourth consecutive start in the midsummer classic.

"The thing with me is, yeah, if he can't go here and he's trying to force it to the All-Star Game, I would not want him to do it," Roenicke said. "But if he's playing the All-Star Game and he's 100% healthy, then maybe that's a good game to play because if he doesn't play in it and he comes back on Thursday, we're talking 11 days without him playing a game.

"Actually (bench coach) Jerry Narron mentioned that to me yesterday - if he's 100% healthy, maybe it's a good idea to have him play that game. At least he gets a couple at-bats and he's out there in the field, and now the length of time (between games) isn't so great."

If Braun were to aggravate his injury in the All-Star Game, the Brewers wouldn't be able to back-date him to July 3 - the day after he originally hurt himself in Minnesota - if they had to put him on the disabled list.

Instead, they'd have to put him on the DL retroactive to July 13, the day after the All-Star Game.

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Gaby Sanchez’s alert eye key in Florida Marlins’ walk-off win

Mike Stanton was the big hero in the Marlins’ extra-inning victory over the Phillies on Wednesday with his game-ending home run, but it was Gaby Sanchez who made it possible with a heads-up play that few noticed.

Sanchez spotted Domonic Brown failing to touch second base on his gap hit, which got past Bryan Petersen and rolled to the warning track.

Brown ended up at third with a leadoff “triple” in the sixth with the Phillies holding a 5-3 lead. But after Sanchez alerted the rest of the Marlins to Brown’s miss, the play was appealed and umpire Kerwin Danley called Brown out. One batter later, John Mayberry cracked a home run.

“Defensive RBI,” said Marlins infield coach Perry Hill of Sanchez’s alert thinking. “Huge out. That saved a run.”

In describing the play, Hill said Sanchez did exactly as trained.

“The ball’s in the gap, so the shortstop goes out, the second baseman goes behind the shortstop, and the first baseman trails the runner to second in case he makes a wide run and we can throw behind him,” Hill said. “So if he continues to third, Gaby’s job is to watch him touch every base.”

After Sanchez saw Brown miss the bag, the Marlins had to hope that Danley did, too.

“Most of [the umpires] are watching the ball like the rest of us,” Hill said. “I was watching the ball. But that’s Gaby’s job, and he did it. And he got lucky that the umpire was watching it, too.

“It’s one of those things you never think about. He’s probably done that 300 times the last couple of years, and it never came into play. And instead of taking it for granted, he continued to do his job every time and eventually it paid off. Thumbs-up to Gaby.”

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NL vote-leader Ryan Braun gains National attention

MILWAUKEE -- If every cheesehead in Wisconsin -- all 5.6 million residents -- had cast an All-Star Game vote for Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, they still could not have accounted for his record-setting total.

Braun's final tally was 5,928,004 votes, tops among all National League players this season and in any season before, and nearly 10 times the population of the city of Milwaukee. Braun broke the NL balloting record set by Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols in 2009.

"It's surprising, it's exciting, it's humbling, it's a lot of things," Braun said.

It's either a sign that Wisconsinites took the "vote 25 times per day" mantra seriously, or that Braun was drawing on the sort of national appeal usually reserved for pro athletes up north in Green Bay.

It's probably both.

"He's a superstar," said teammate Prince Fielder.

So is Fielder, which is why he ranked second of all NL players with more than 4.8 million votes, surging past fellow first basemen Pujols and Joey Votto -- the last two NL Most Valuable Player Award winners -- for starting honors. Rickie Weeks won the balloting at second base, giving the Brewers three All-Star Game starters for the first time.

For the 27-year-old Braun, it's business as usual, even though he has been sidelined with a strained left calf. This will be his fourth consecutive fan-elected start in the Midsummer Classic, the first NL outfielder so honored since Barry Bonds was elected to make five straight starts from 2000-04. Braun has said that if he doesn't play leading up to the All-Star Game, he will not play on Tuesday at Chase Field in Phoenix.

If you think a player from little Milwaukee, Major League Baseball's smallest media market, cannot have a big-time national profile, think again.

"There's no question that the city of Milwaukee has embraced him -- you could argue that they are the best fans in the league, judging by the way they supported Ryan and Rickie and Prince," said Nez Balelo of CAA Sports, Braun's longtime agent. "But for Ryan to lead the National League in votes, it's more than just the support of local fans. I think it shows people around the country recognize what he brings to the table."

CAA Sports represents the likes of Derek Jeter, LeBron James, Peyton Manning, David Beckham, Sidney Crosby, Jimmie Johnson and Shaun White. The agency has helped Braun build an off-the-field portfolio that includes a clothing line (Remetee), a fusion energy drink (Limelite), two Wisconsin restaurants and a line of wood bats bearing Braun's initials and uniform No. 8.

Those business endeavors are in addition to Braun's endorsements, including national deals with AirTran Airways and Muscle Milk.

But the primary focus has not changed, Balelo said. Braun is a baseball player first, and everything else comes second.

"Ryan has figured out how to balance his social life, his business life and his day job," Balelo said. "It takes a special person to be able to do those things, and he seems to be able to accomplish that.

"There's no question that the game takes precedence over everything, because if you're not performing on the field, the votes go away, the popularity goes away, the business opportunities go away."

Since the day he debuted for the Brewers with a two-run double in San Diego, Braun has been sensational. He won the 2007 NL Rookie of the Year Award as a third baseman, shifted to left field the next season and is a .309 hitter with 144 home runs and 482 RBIs in his first 662 games. He has finished in the top 15 in NL MVP Award balloting after each of his three full seasons. He has won three Silver Slugger Awards. He is one of five players in history to hit at least 125 homers with a .300 average over his first four seasons, joining Joe DiMaggio, Chuck Klein, Pujols and Ted Williams. He hit one of the biggest home runs in Milwaukee baseball history, a go-ahead blast in the final regular-season game in '08 for a win that pushed the Brewers to the postseason for the first time in 26 years.

Along the way, Braun has maintained his style. If you're a Cardinals fan, you probably see it as arrogance. If you're a Brewers fan, Braun has swagger.

"I think it's awesome that he's confident," said Fielder, who plays with some swagger of his own. "He's not a jerk, by any means. I think it's awesome when you know how to be confident without coming off as arrogant. He's confident in what he does, and he should be.

"Brauny has done nothing but play hard since he came into the league, and he's made himself a superstar. I'm very proud of him and how well he's done for himself."

The statistical achievements have added up. In 2008, Braun signed a seven-year, $45 million contract extension that set a record for a player with less than one year of Major League service. Then, this April, he inked another extension on top of the one already in place, a megadeal that runs through at least 2020, pays another $105 million and positions Braun to be this generation of Milwaukee fans' Robin Yount.
Yount played all 20 of his Hall of Fame seasons in a Brewers uniform.

"I think people look at what he did with his contract situation and I think it's so rare in today's game, that I think it meant a lot to the fans," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "To see a guy that maybe could go somewhere else, maybe get more money; I don't know, but I think they see the loyalty from a guy who wants to be in a place and I think fans all want that from baseball players. I think they really want that."

"It happened with Robin, when the fans see a guy committed [to one team] like that, they're going to put a lot of votes in," said former Brewers infielder Jim Gantner. "And Braun deserves it."

It probably goes both ways. An argument can be made that Braun, the Southern California kid who played at the University of Miami before finding a home in Milwaukee, has influenced the Brewers' building project as much off the field as on it.

The team's relative success over the past five seasons has helped general manager Doug Melvin score more wins in his longtime battle convincing free agents and trade targets that Milwaukee is an attractive place to play. It helped convince Zack Greinke to waive his no-trade clause in December after declining a deal to Washington.

With more wins come larger crowds and more television time, and with those factors come more All-Star votes. With more votes come three All-Star starters.

"It kind of means the Milwaukee Brewers have arrived on the national scene," Braun said. "It's special for all of us to go there together and represent the Brewers and the city of Milwaukee. Ultimately, it's a reward for having a good half as a team."

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Ryan Braun's Graffito on a winning streak

Ryan Braun is having a mighty good year.

There's that baseball thing - starting lineup for Tuesday's All-Star Game, on pace to surpass his 2010 totals for home runs and RBI - but I'm talking about his restaurant in the Third Ward.

OK, so it's not his restaurant per se; the Brewers leftfielder's name is used as part of a licensing agreement with the SURG group, the new owners as of this year.

Whatever. It seems the good mojo Braun possesses in the ballpark has carried over to Ryan Braun's Graffito.

The food is more focused than it was last year, when the restaurant was Ryan Braun's Waterfront and the menu expansive to a fault.

Also better: Service was consistently good, and the dining room and bar area's décor have been warmed up a bit. Still, a Brewers fan expecting to find a sports bar will find nothing of the sort, even if the TVs in the lounge area are tuned to games and there's a framed action-shot of Braun hanging in the bar.

This time, the menu seems more personal, thanks to chef Dominic Zumpano, who helped open SURG's Umami Moto downtown several years ago. It's Italian-influenced cooking that's from scratch; that includes pasta and pizza doughs, bread and soft cheeses.

The menu travels around Italy and delivers fresh takes as well as familiar favorites. The food's flourishes and sensibilities make clear Zumpano's fine-dining background.

Graffito couldn't resist some ballpark/sports-bar nods on the menu, though: a paper cone of hot-from-the-oven pretzel bites ($7) with aged-cheddar and mustard sauces for dipping; mozzarella en carozza ($7), mozzarella sticks' classier cousin, wrapped in rich egg bread; the Mangia burger ($12), juicy and chef-ed up with charcuterie (lardo and speck) and tomato jam on a thick bun made in-house; and a wink toward Buffalo wings with ravioli (two sizes, $14 and $18) that are filled with house-made ricotta and topped with shredded chicken in hot sauce and Gorgonzola.

Graffito, from the Italian for "scratch," ties in to the kitchen's scratch cookery, as the servers will tell you. (It's also a great excuse to install a graffiti-style mural - spot Miller Park in there, and other baseball tie-ins - by artist Fred Kaems, also a server at Carnevor, on a couple of walls.)

That scratch cooking is key here. What a treat to have fresh, crusty ciabatta bread and dip it in olive oil, roasted garlic, olives and Parmigiano that have been combined tableside by the server. Or firm, fresh pappardelle ($15), the ribbons tossed with a light duck ragu and accented with shards of prosciutto made from duck as well.

Graffito starts off with nearly a dozen small plates - probably a couple more than it needs, but it's a good assortment for tables to share as appetizers or for a diner to design a meal of varying tastes and textures.

Bruschetta ($8), for example, in one jar presents herbed ricotta that's been made in-house, and in another, tomato jam with roasted tomatoes, with a stack of toasted ciabatta on the side. It's a presentation that evades soggy toasts and makes the best use of tomatoes before they're at their peak in Wisconsin.

The scallop small plate ($14) is a must-have: a single, large, perfect seared scallop on a bed of al dente risotto with white truffle oil and topped with more of that tomato jam, with prosciutto and basil oil for flavor accents.

And gnocchi ($8) served in a spicy Bolognese sauce were made with a light hand, letting the little dumplings' potato flavor shine through.
Most of the other pastas that are served as entrées now come in two sizes, after grumblings from diners that portion sizes were too small.
When it comes to entrées, the broad spectrum delivered full flavors as well.

On the one hand, there were dishes like a fairly classic, robust osso buco ($33): savory veal shank paired with perfect saffron risotto. No marrow spoon, but don't miss the treat inside the shank's bone.

On the other, there was soft-shell crab ($19), a seasonal dish that departs the menu next week, pleasingly crisp and light with its accompaniment of farro tossed with fennel, asparagus and roasted red pepper. The dish's master stroke was a grilled tangerine half, a most vivid flavor with the crab and the grain.

There are more entrées like that crab, essentially contemporary American but given a slight Italian accent - such as hearty, tender Kobe-style skirt steak ($27) sliced and fanned over potato purée that's made creamy with Fontina cheese. It's served with broccoli rabe and plentiful garlic slivers.

Graffito also has about a half-dozen thin-crust pizzas that serve one or two; it's more than the restaurant needs to offer. They're good - like one covered in crumbles of house-made spicy Italian sausage and broccoli rabe ($11) - but these aren't what make the restaurant a destination.
Desserts could, though. Some are simple but satisfying - a scoop of pink grapefruit sorbetto ($4), perhaps, tasting like the very essence of grapefruit, or a take on bombolini ($6), small doughnuts that here are served with chocolate and raspberry dipping sauces.

Some desserts are SURG head pastry chef Kurt Fogle's usual dazzling sweet endings, executed here by pastry chef Allie Howard. There's chocolate-hazelnut mousse cake ($6), a velvety dome heightened with a sprinkle of sea salt. Or a recent special, the chocolate cremeux ($6), an intensely chocolate cream so smooth it would make silk envious, served with blackberry sauce and salted caramel gelato. Amazing. No, this is definitely not a sports bar.

Menu misfires were few. Dunk the calamari ($11) into the roasted red pepper coulis and skip the sweet limoncello crème fraîche. Delicate, thin veal cutlets ($22) simply got lost in their Parmigiano-crumb breading.

And saltimbocca ($17) was a fine dish, presented in a fresh way: two chicken quarters with crisp skin and creamy polenta, with dried prosciutto and fried sage. But fans of saltimbocca undoubtedly will compare it with the classic version, which fuses the bold flavors of prosciutto and sage with the meat. As good as Graffito's version is, the whole still is greater than the sum of its deconstructed parts.

There's not much that was missing from Graffito, but . . . an Italian restaurant without an espresso machine? That's like pasta without sauce. Chalk it up to various delays; the restaurant just got its machine this week.

It does have smart cocktails and a reasonably priced list of mostly Italian wines. Most important, Graffito offers a successful menu and pays attention to good service. Looks like a winning season, all right.

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Photo of the Week - Devin Hester with His Son at the Barber Shop


Click here to order Devin Hester’s proCane Rookie Card.

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Ed Reed Responds To His Top 100 Ranking

It seems that a new list comes out every day in the sports blogosphere, but the NFL Network’s recent ranking of the top 100 players in the league – as voted on by players – might carry more weight than others. 

And while Ed Reed is flattered by his fifth-overall finish, the Ravens safety doesn’t want lists to drive him on the gridiron.

What really pushes the seven-time Pro Bowler is a deep desire to earn the respect of his teammates.

“As long as my teammates know that I’m busting my tail on Sunday and throughout the offseason to get ready, be prepared and be the best I can be … that’s the only thing that matters,” Reed said this week in an interview with 105.7 The Fan.  “I can’t concern myself with any player before me or after me.”

Reed’s placement put him right behind Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, giving Baltimore the two highest-rated defenders on the list.

And with an NFL-leading eight interceptions in only 10 games last season, the praise is certainly well-deserved.   Reed also paced the Ravens with 16 passes defensed and had three multi-pick contests.

When asked for his thoughts on the praise, the humble Reed simply shrugged his shoulders.

“I know for a fact, that me contributing to my team, they appreciate the things that I’ve done,” Reed explained.  “That’s what it comes down to at the end of the day. I can’t get caught up too much with lists or a yellow [Hall of Fame] jacket or anything like that.”

A notable part of the Top 100 list was the fact that Reed finished one spot ahead of Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu.

Generally, Reed and Polamalu are regarded as the NFL’s two best at their position, and fans and pundits alike constantly spar about  which one they would rather have on their team.

“I don’t take anything away from Troy. Troy is a great football player.  I mean, he’s awesome and a great person,” Reed said with a laugh.  “I don’t think we’re in the business of trying to compare us and see who’s better.

“If it’s about the game and it’s about your resume, I would say go and check them.  Go and check the resume and you’ll see.”

For the resume record, Polamalu has played in 107 games through his distinguished 9-year career, logging 515 tackles, 71 passes defensed and 27 interceptions.

In 10 years and 128 career games, Reed amassed 495 stops, 86 passes defensed and 54 interceptions.  He also boasts the distinction of being the only player in NFL history to score touchdowns via interception, punt return, blocked punt and fumble recovery.

Click here to order Ed Reed’s proCane Rookie Card.

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Frank Gore and Calais Campbell Ranked in the Top 15 of the NFC West

13. Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers running back: Gore missed five games in 2010, and injuries remain a constant concern with him. Gore is the focus of every defense he faces and takes a beating every week. I worry that the arrow is beginning to go down on Gore’s excellent career. The drafting of Kendall Hunter could pay huge dividends for Gore and the San Francisco offense if it helps to keep the star back fresh for an entire season. Gore played the fewest games and had his worst yards-per-carry average of his career in 2010. His sub-par supporting cast obviously contributed to Gore’s decrease in rushing production, but he needs to take some of the blame as well. The play-calling and San Francisco’s young offensive line should be improved in 2011, which will help. He was better than ever in the passing game and remains a very impressive do-it-all running back.

14. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals defensive end: It could be argued that Campbell is more effective than his Arizona defensive end counterpart, Dockett. To me, it is a coin flip to decide. Although he also took a slight step backward last season, Campbell is an ascending player with a boatload of talent. Only 25 years old, Campbell is still learning how to best use his outstanding length and agility while playing with proper leverage. The best should be yet to come. Mix in Dan Williams, who almost made this list, and Arizona has a chance to have a fantastic defensive line.

See the rest of the rankings here.

Click here to order Frank Gore’s or Calais Campbell’s proCane Rookie Card.

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Ray Lewis has a cameo in Funny or Die's 'Field of Dreams 2' spoof

Ravens linebacker and future action hero Ray Lewis has done it again, making another hilarious cameo in a fake movie trailer for Funny or Die. Lewis appeared with Drew Brees in a Pepsi Maxx commercial, fending off a serial-killing Pepsi bottle, on the sometimes unsafe-for-work website FunnyorDie.com back in February.

This time, Lewis was one of a handful of NFL players -- including Tony Gonzalez, Shawne Merriman, DeSean Jackson and Dwight Freeney -- with lines in the lockout-spoofing trailer for “Field of Dreams 2.” With the NFL lockout shutting down the NFL season, “Twilight” actor Taylor Lautner heard voices in his head that asked him to build a football field in the middle of his Iowa farm. Then the NFL players started showing up.
And trust me, when Lewis arrives, he makes an impact. But I won’t spoil the surprise for you.

Added to the website early Wednesday morning, the video has already racked up more than 100,000 page views and reached “Chosen One” status in the site’s viewer rating system.

I’ve embedded it below for your enjoyment.

Click here to order Ray Lewis’ proCane Rookie Card.

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Ken Dorsey at work on his coaching future

The transition of Ken Dorsey from player to coach was both gradual and inevitable, the prototypical tale of the brainiac quarterback running the game from the sideline instead of the huddle.

Dorsey, a former seventh-round pick of the 49ers and one of college football's most decorated winners at Miami of Florida, retired after spending the 2010 season with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.

Now Dorsey is the offensive coordinator of Riverview High in Sarasota, Fla., and is installing an offensive system for first-year head coach Todd Johnson, a former NFL safety. He also is quarterbacks coach at IMG Madden Football Academy in nearby Bradenton, working with athletes as young as 9 years old all the way up to Cam Newton, the No. 1 pick in this year's NFL draft.

"We get kids you are teaching the basics to, all the way up to those who are refining their game," said Dorsey, a Miramonte High graduate.

When pressed, Dorsey acknowledges that he would some day like to be the offensive coordinator at a major college or in the NFL, with his "dream job" returning to the Bay Area to run the offense at Cal.

After that?

"We'll see what happens," Dorsey said.

Dorsey, 30, is still at an age where could be in the prime of a successful NFL career, something he envisioned while leading the Hurricanes to a 38-2 record and victories in the Rose and Sugar bowls as a sophomore and junior.

Drafted in the seventh round by the 49ers in 2003, Dorsey spent three years with a once-proud franchise that was in a down cycle. Then he was traded to the Cleveland Browns for Trent Dilfer, joining a team looking for an identity and some gifted athletes.

The NFL is full of stories of quarterbacks short on arm strength and athleticism who find themselves in the right situation and flourish, most notably New England quarterback Tom Brady. As a sixth-round pick, Brady's reputation wasn't much different from Dorsey's.

Floyd Burnsed, Dorsey's coach at Miramonte, admittedly is biased but wonders how things could have been different with a coach and system like Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.

"I think he could have been like a Tom Brady in the NFL had he been with the right team," said Burnsed, now the coach at Solano College. "When he was with the Niners, he told me once he got hit 21 straight times -- even when he was handing the ball off. You saw what he could do at Miami when he was surrounded by good players."

In five NFL seasons, Dorsey was 2-11 as a starter and completed 52.5 percent of his passes for 2,082 yards, eight touchdowns and 18 interceptions. His passer rating was 55.2.

So, yes, Dorsey has cast an admiring glance at Brady and the environment that helped make him a three-time Super Bowl champion bound for the Hall of Fame.

"There's a little bit of that ... a small amount," Dorsey said. "But at the same time, I'm proud of what I did. You play the cards you're dealt. No matter what system you're in, no matter the talent around you, you come in, work your butt off every day and you're the one that has to look in the mirror. I feel like I can do that."

Two things happened during Dorsey's professional career that he believes will pay dividends in the long run.

First, he got one season under 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy in 2005, the year before McCarthy landed the head coaching job in Green Bay and eventually ascended to coach of a Super Bowl champion.

"He's been a huge influence on me, and I know a lot of stuff I learned from him is exactly what I'm going to be teaching to the guys I'm coaching," Dorsey said.

After a difficult time in Cleveland, where Dorsey had little faith in the direction of the organization, he spent a final season in Toronto. He never played a regular-season game for the Argonauts, backing up Cleo Lemon, but he rediscovered his love for football.

"I was in offensive staff meetings, almost a player-coach without the title," Dorsey said. "It really started my transition into being a coach."
Jamie Elizondo, the Toronto quarterbacks coach, said Dorsey helped with running backs as well as the passing game.

"He's got the whole pedigree from who he's been around," Elizondo said. "He's been there and seen it. I joked that he'd be passing me by very quickly. I would expect he's going to have a very fast ascent up the coaching ranks."

Burnsed remembers Dorsey approaching situations like a coach in high school. Confronted with some confusing defensive packages one day by coordinator Paul Yriberri at Miramonte, Dorsey threw three interceptions in practice. He immediately marched Yriberri to the chalkboard after practice for a breakdown.

"I don't think he ever had another problem with the coverage," Burnsed said. "He was a kid that would make mistakes, ask questions to get the right answers and never make the same mistake again."

Burnsed thinks Dorsey's background makes him ideally suited to instruct ultra-talented youngsters on the nuances of the sport. Dorsey, after all, had to rely on fundamentals and study to succeed.

Elizondo thinks that is selling Dorsey short.

"To say he would be good with players with great physical gifts is to undervalue him," Elizondo said. "He's going to be great with whoever he works with."

Dorsey said he has to guard against being impatient with players "who don't put as much time in as I did.

"I had to outthink a defense because if things broke down and it wasn't perfect, I couldn't break off a 15- or 20-yard run," Dorsey said. "It's just not the way I was built. I think that's what coaching is about -- putting guys in the right position to come up with the right play.

"Sometimes the other team is going to have a better call, but I tried to be right more often than I was wrong."

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Ray Lewis on Tom Brady: He is 'the greatest of greats'

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis made two appearances on the finale of NFL Network's list of the top 100 players for 2011. The first, of course, was when he was revealed as the fourth-best player in the league -- and the highest defender on the list -- according to his peers. The second was when he introduced Tom Brady, who was named the best player in football, beating out Peyton Manning, Adrian Peterson, Lewis and Ed Reed.

Lewis, along with Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, gave commentary during Brady’s highlight package, and Lewis heaped tons of praise on the Patriots quarterback, an MVP and three-time Super Bowl champion.

“He’s not the biggest. He was never the strongest. He was never the fastest,” Lewis said intensely. “He was overlooked. He went in the sixth round. So with that being said, all of the intangibles that a quarterback is supposed to have, they overlooked with him because it was burning from the inside of him.”

Brady has 34,744 passing yards and 261 touchdowns in his NFL career. In 2010, he threw for 3,900 yards and 36 TDs while tossing just four interceptions -- and it wasn’t even his best season.

“It’s a chess match because he understands every coverage, he understands every defense,” Lewis said. “And If you give it away too early, then the game is like checkers then for him. He plays it how he wants to play it. … And that’s what makes it frustrating playing against him, he always finds those mismatches.”

Lewis, whose segment as the NFL’s No. 4 player included a lot of screaming, hard hits and woooos, called Brady “the greatest of greats,” saying “he was willing to go beyond limits that people won’t go to.”

“You don’t find too many people playing that’s willing to sacrifice that much time to doing that,” Lewis said of the 33-year-old. “That’s why Tom Brady will always be considered one of the greatest of all time.”

Click here to order Ray Lewis’ proCane Rookie Card.

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Ryan Braun’s MRI comes back clean

The Milwaukee Brewers received some good news, and Ryan Braun got some peace of mind when an MRI was performed on his ailing left calf Wednesday.

The exam revealed no structural damage in Braun's leg, only inflammation. He missed his fourth consecutive game, but at least he knows he does not have a long-term injury.

"More than anything, it's nice to know what we're dealing with," Braun said. "We wanted to make sure there was nothing torn, nothing serious, that we're not doing any long-term damage. Now we know how to attack it, I guess."

Braun was sent for the test after he reported to Miller Park with increased soreness in the leg. That soreness was the result of a pregame workout Tuesday during which Braun hoped to be cleared to play, which didn't happen.

"I think it was the best-case result," Braun said. "They said the only thing that could have been better was if it was more in the muscle. It's kind of more hamstring than calf. It's in a tendon behind my knee that's in between the calf and the hamstring. It doesn't get as much blood flow as a muscle does.

"I'm not in pain or anything like that. It's just that, unfortunately, I'm not able to do baseball activities. The goal is to minimize the time missed. It's more beneficial to miss a little time now than a long time down the road."

Braun said he wasn't sure whether he'd be able to play in the upcoming four-game series against Cincinnati.

"I hope so," he said. "I honestly don't know."

Braun did say if he can't play against the Reds, he would pull out of the All-Star Game. He was voted by the fans for the fourth consecutive year to start in the National League outfield.

"That's not fair (to the Brewers)," Braun said. "My priority is to this team and being healthy and staying healthy for the whole second half.

"Everything right now is risk vs. reward. To rush back for the All-Star Game wouldn't be fair for what we're trying to accomplish here. The most important thing is getting back on the field. Rushing back for an All-Star Game doesn't make sense."

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3 proCanes Ranked in the Top 10 of NFL Network's Top 100 NFL Players

Here was the NFL Network’s top 10 (with fan ranking in parentheses):
1. Tom Brady, QB, New England (No. 3) 2. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis (No. 1) 3. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota (No. 7) 4. Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens (No. 4) 5. Ed Reed, S, Ravens (No. 8) 6. Troy Polamalu, S, Pittsburgh (No. 6) 7. Andre Johnson, WR, Houston (No. 10) 8. Darrelle Revis, CB, N.Y. Jets (No. 14) 9. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans (No. 9) 10. Julius Peppers, DE, Chicago (No. 18)

Do you see any Seminoles or Gators? We don’t....

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Not One proCane named to ESPN's List of College Greats that Didn't Make it in the NFL

ESPN ranked their top 50 college football greats that never made an impact in the NFL. You’ll find plenty of Seminoles, Gators, Trojans, Sooner and Irish on this list, but you will not, I repeat, you will not find not even one proCane. Enough said.

Here is ESPN’s introduction to the piece and click below to see the full rankings:

Heisman Trophy winners. All-Americans. Hall of Famers. Collectively, they were some of the greatest players in college football history. During their careers, they led their teams to titles, and had nicknames like "Mr. Inside," "Rocket" and the "Boz." They were the real big men on campus.
But once the marching bands and pep rallies stopped, they barely made a ripple in pro football. Because of injuries, military commitments and other career decisions, many of the sport's legends never made an impact in the NFL.

Once the head of the class in college football, they can simply be known for what they did on Saturdays. -- Mark Schlabach

Click here to see the rankings.

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Santana Moss hoping for quick resolution

Speaking on the radio Sunday evening, free agent Santana Moss expressed a desire to have his status sorted out quickly following the end of the lockout.
"If you're going to sign me, sign me and let's go," he said. "If the Redskins are going to sign me, let us do it real quick." Moss should get his wish, as free agency will be fast and furious following the lockout's resolution. His chances of remaining in Washington are about 50-50.

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Kelly Jennings of interest to the Lions?

The Detroit News floats the idea of the Lions making a play for free agent CB Kelly Jennings this summer.

A far cry from Nnamdi Asogmuha or Johnathan Joseph, Jennings would hopefully be nothing more than a fallback option. Beat writer Chris McCosky notes GM Martin Mayhew's predilection toward former Seahawks, such as Nate Burleson, Maurice Morris, Julian Peterson, and Lawrence Jackson. Pro Football Focus graded Jennings as slightly below average in coverage, which would constitute an upgrade in Detroit.

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Darryl Sharpton expects to be ready for camp

Texans LB Darryl Sharpton (torn rotator cuff) expects to be ready to go when training camp opens.
The injury was first reported as a dislocated shoulder. Sharpton is expected to be eased in slowly along with ILB DeMeco Ryans next month. Last year's fourth-round pick is headed for a reserve linebacker and special teams role in Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense.

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Rashad Butler Could Be Difficult To Replace If He Leaves

Texans OT Rashad Butler, an unrestricted free agent who played well when starter Duane Brown served his four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs last season, could prove difficult to replace if he receives a more attractive offer elsewhere. Pro Football Weekly hears the club would have to bring in a veteran to fill the void left by the departure of the dependable Butler.

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Three proCanes Selected to MLB All-Star Game

Coral Gables, Fla. - Former University of Miami baseball player and current Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun leads three former Hurricanes on the list of Major League Baseball All-Star Game participants released Sunday, July 3. Joining Braun are Florida Marlins first baseman Gaby Sanchez and Cleveland Indians pitcher Chris Perez.

Ryan Braun and Gaby Sanchez will suit up for the National League All-Stars, while Chris Perez will play for the American League in the 82nd Annual Major League Baseball All-Star Game on Tuesday, July 12, at Phoenix's Chase Field.

Braun, a starting outfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers, will start for the NL All-Stars as he totes a .320 batting average on the year - the highest for the fifth-year MLB player at this point of the season in his career. He ended the 2007 season with a .324 average on his way to being named NL Rookie of the Year. Braun also carries an on-base percentage of .402, as well as a slugging percentage of .559 on the campaign for the Brewers.

On the year, Braun leads the Brewers in batting average, hits (98) and stolen bases (19).

Gaby Sanchez, now in his fourth year as a member of the Florida Marlins, will serve as a reserve infielder for the NL All-Stars, carrying a .292 average at the dish on the year for the fish. Sanchez owns a .473 slugging percentage with a .365 on-base average. Since making his major league debut on September 17, 2008, Sanchez has batted .279 with 34 home runs and 135 RBI. The Miami native has 13 of his 34 homers this year, in addition to 40 of his 114 career runs scored.

Not only does Sanchez lead the Marlins in batting average, but he also tops the team in RBI (46) - one ahead of Mike Stanton. He also leads in hits (92), while sitting second in home runs behind Stanton (16).

Cleveland Indians pitcher Chris Perez is making his first appearance on the AL All-Star roster in what is now his fourth season in the MLB. Perez owns a 2-3 record on the hill in 2011, with an ERA of 2.37. He has appeared in 33 games for the Indians and registered a team-leading 19 saves on the campaign. His career-best is 23 saves recorded last year with the Indians.

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Ryan Braun misses third straight game

MILWAUKEE -- Ryan Braun is getting close to taking the field but his strained left calf still isn't at 100 percent.

Braun was out on the field during Tuesday's pregame activities, but manager Ron Roenicke said he's still concerned about the slugger re-injuring himself when he runs out of the box, and did not put Braun in the starting lineup. Not wanting Braun to try and leg out a hit in a pinch-hitting situation is something Roenicke has thought long and hard about.

"Whether it's tomorrow or it's the next day, I don't know," the manager said of Braun's availability.

Whenever the All-Star left fielder takes the field, he will have a chance to extend his career-high 22-game hit streak. Braun said on Monday he didn't want to speculate when he'd be available, and said the staff is monitoring his progression on a day-by-day basis.

Utility man Josh Wilson took Braun's spot in left field on Tuesday, while Corey Hart continued batting in the third spot.

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Jemile Weeks is Co-Rookie of the Month

Less than a month into his big-league career, A's second baseman Jemile Weeks owns a monthly honor: On Tuesday, he and Minnesota outfielder Ben Revere (.294, seven stolen bases) were named the American League's Co-Rookies of the Month for June.

Oakland brought up Weeks from Triple-A Sacramento on June 7. In 21 games in the month, he hit .309 (25-for-81) and stole six bases.

Weeks was enthused about the award.

"It's always a positive to come up and get an accolade in the major leagues when you're not used to even being here," he said.

Manager Bob Melvin, who joined the A's two days after Weeks did, said he was impressed early by Weeks' ability to process information.

"You could talk to him during a game about adjustments and he actually listened," Melvin said. "I remember when I was a young player, when someone asked me to do something intricately in the course of a game, it went right in one ear and out the other. ...

"But, he's able to sustain it and actually go up there and do exactly what you ask of him."

After an 0-for-4 afternoon Monday, Weeks took early batting practice Tuesday. He was working on "trying to let the ball get deeper, be more consistent with my strike zone. I've been a little erratic lately."

For his consistent June, Weeks will receive a trophy. He'll gladly accept it, but he joked, "A watch would have been nice, too."

A watch is what Gio Gonzalez will receive for being the AL's Co-Player of the Week with Toronto's Jose Bautista (four homers). The A's lefty went 2-0, allowing one run in 15 innings while racking up 16 strikeouts.

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Burrell pinch-hits in return to live action

Pat Burrell drew a one-out walk in ninth inning pinch-hitting duty on Monday.

Manager Bruce Bochy pinch-ran for Burrell, indicating that the veteran's foot likely remains too sore to run on. Burrell has been held out of the starting lineup for four straight days. He is still carrying a .235 batting average.

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Jemile Weeks the second baseman of the present

OAKLAND -- When the A's traded Mark Ellis -- the longest-tenured player on the team -- to the Rockies on Thursday, they made it clear that rookie Jemile Weeks is not only the future at second base, but the present, too.

With Weeks' development coming along quicker than many expected, his performance on the field has come as a pleasant surprise to manager Bob Melvin.

"He's been very consistent, which to an extent has surprised me," Melvin said. "Younger players have a tough time staying consistent. They'll go through hot streaks, cold streaks and then they'll have to deal with the fact that the first time in their career they're struggling some."

But that hasn't been the case with Weeks through his first 21 Major League games. The rookie, who has worked his way into the A's leadoff role as of late, was hitting .309 and reaching base at a .349 clip entering Friday's series opener against the D-backs. He has also swiped as many bags (six) as he has RBIs, and has seven multiple-hit games through his first three and a half weeks in the big leagues.

He has also flashed his glove countless time on defense, sporting a .973 fielding percentage while helping turn 15 double plays.

And Melvin believes Weeks is just scratching the surface of his capabilities, saying the switch-hitting rookie will only continue to grow as he learns pitchers and gets more reps.

"Certainly the numbers he's putting up right now and what he's doing for us energy-wise and so forth, he's certainly forecast that throughout his whole career," Melvin said. "He's only going to get better."

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Why was Aubrey Huff crying after the Giants’ victory?

It was the highlight that sparked a big question on Friday night. Why was San Francisco Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff(notes) crying in the team's postgame handshake line? Especially since they had just defeated the Detroit Tigers, 4-3?

Since most of us saw the clip without any context (or without any sound in restaurants and bars), there were a lot of questions to be asked. Was he upset over the death of the clubhouse water cooler after Brian Wilson(notes) took a bat to it after a blown save? Was he remembering the .567 OPS he posted for the Tigers during an ill-fated playoff push in 2009? Or just simply missing his retired red rally thong?

Given Huff's reputation as a prankster, I thought he was probably just hamming it up and joking for the entertainment of his teammates. It's a theory supported by someone close to the team, San Jose Mercury News reporter Andrew Baggarly.

From the Mercury News:

"Several folks have asked me why Aubrey Huff appeared to be wiping away tears in the handshake line. Not sure, but Huff has this mock crying performance thing that he does often, usually when he's talking about his batting average. He'll start laughing and end up crying. He's a showman."

That's not to say Huff doesn't have a sentimental side. The Stew was there last November when he cried and cried after winning the World Series. But given that Friday's game was just another during the grind of a season it's probably safe to say he was just messing around.

UPDATE: Huff confirms to Baggarly that he was indeed just joking around.

Huff said he was just clowning around, as he usually does. "I can't take this stress! That kind of thing," he said.

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Chris Perez Leaves Indians Due to Death of His Grandmother

CINCINNATI, Ohio -- The Indians bullpen, which has been the strength of the team this season, will be without closer Chris Perez for the next couple days.

Perez left the team following the death of his grandmother in Gainesville, Fla. He was placed on the bereavement list and is expected to miss games tonight and Saturday in Cincinnati against the Reds. The Indians hope to have him back for Sunday's series finale.

Manager Manny Acta said Vinnie Pestano and Tony Sipp will split the closer's duties until Perez returns. Perez is the only Indians pitcher with a save this year.

MLB's bereavement rules say a player must stay on the list for at least three days. Perez left the team on Thursday so he should be eligible to pitch Sunday.

Right-hander Josh Judy was recalled from Class AAA Columbus to fill the roster.

Judy is 2-2 with 12 saves and a 3.30 ERA in 27 relief appearances at Columbus and has a 1.08 ERA since May 13. He has not allowed an earned run in his last eight appearances.

This is Judy's second time with the Indians this season. He was called up May 21 and made his Major League debut against the Reds on May 22 in Progressive Field, allowing two hits in one scoreless inning. It was his only appearance before returning to Columbus.

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Our thoughts and prayers go out to Chris and his family.

Ryan Braun is on pace to join 30/30 club

If Milwaukee Brewers LF Ryan Braun finishes the 2011 season the way he’s started it, he’ll be joining one of baseball’s most exclusive clubs: those with 30+ HRs and stolen bases in a single year.

Only 34 MLB players have joined the 30/30 club since 1901 (see table). Two are Jewish: Shawn Green (1998), and Ian Kinsler (2009). The only Brewer on the list is 3B Tommy Harper, who had 31 HRs and 38 SBs in 1970.

Braun, a 27-year-old now in his 5th MLB season, hasn’t come close before. Power has never been the problem; Braun has hit 30+ HRs in 3 of his 4 full seasons. What’s kept him from joining the club is stolen bases. Since his rookie year in 2007, he has averaged 16 thefts and never stolen more than 20.

Improbably, Braun’s base-stealing prowess is improving. Through 78 games this year he has stolen 17, 6th best in the A.L. and more than full-season totals in 2007, 2008, or 2010. Braun’s prior high at the 78-game point was 11 stolen bases, in 2010 (see table below). Having said that, his  base-stealing efforts typically decline in the latter half of a season.

Ryan Braun, through 78 games/full season






* Played only 113 games

Why Braun is stealing more bases now is up for debate. (Jewish Baseball News readers are encouraged to offer their opinions in the ‘comments’ section below, or on our Facebook page.) But it’s worth noting that he’s on pace to reach career highs in walks and on-base percentage.

The only other MLB player on pace to join the 30/30 club in 2011 is Los Angeles Dodgers CF Matt Kemp, who has 22 HRS and 21 stolen bases through 80 games.

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Kevin Howard at ease in third stint with Las Vegas 51s

After bouncing around eight big league organizations in eight seasons, 51s infielder Kevin Howard wasn't invited to spring training this year.
Undeterred, the former Miami Hurricanes star signed with the Lancaster (Pa.) Barnstormers of the independent Atlantic League.

"There are a lot of good players in that league who just can't get jobs. Once you get older, that's kind of what happens in this game if you haven't found a home yet," said Howard, who turned 30 on Saturday. "I wasn't happy about it, but I was determined to keep playing.

"If you play well enough, people are going to notice. That was the attitude I took."

Howard, who was reunited on the Barnstormers with Terry Tiffee -- his former 51s teammate and the 2008 Pacific Coast League batting champion -- hit .381 for Lancaster before the Blue Jays signed him to help replace injured Las Vegas third baseman Brett Lawrie.

In 15 games since joining the 51s on June 13 for his third stint with the team, Howard has thrived, batting .339 (19-for-56) with three home runs and eight RBIs while playing solid defense. He went 1-for-4 and extended his hitting streak to seven games in Thursday's 2-1 win over Colorado Springs in 10 innings at Cashman Field.

Howard's second-inning single was the only hit allowed by Sky Sox starter Billy Buckner during a seven-inning stint.

"He's a very good ballplayer at this level," 51s manager Marty Brown said. "He's not great at any one area, but he gets the most out of his ability and he plays the game the right way. He plays hard."

Howard had a stellar career at Miami, where he was named the national Freshman of the Year in 2000 and helped lead the Hurricanes to the 2001 College World Series title.

Drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the fifth round in 2002, Howard's future looked promising. He still hasn't reached the major leagues, but doesn't seem the least bit bitter about it.

"When you get drafted when you're young, everybody thinks they're going to be in the big leagues in a couple years," he said. "There was a point around when I was 24, 25, 26, I stopped looking at success as getting to the big leagues. I just looked at it more as playing baseball and doing what you want to do.

"If you look at it like that, you're having fun and you're happy about yourself and where your life's at, it's a lot easier to relax and go out there and play."

Howard, who hit a career-high .326 for the 51s in 2009, said poor timing is part of the reason he has yet to make it to the majors.

"Jumping organizations every year doesn't really help," he said. "You don't really get a team to know you and stick with you through the bad times, so you have to play well all the time and I've had times in my career where I haven't played very well."

A career .283 hitter, Howard broke his wrist playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic before last season, when he batted .242 for Triple-A Memphis.

"That kind of killed my whole last year. My wrist was bothering me," he said. "You need to be ready and playing well at the right times. I've had opportunities some times when I haven't been playing well and other times I have been playing well and the opportunity wasn't there.

"In baseball, you need both of them to meet."

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