Wilfork says Mangold Toughest Center in NFL

Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who is a regular guest on Comcast Sportsnet New England, held an online chat on the station's Web site Tuesday and also was an in-studio guest.

Wilfork's chat can be recapped here -- he was asked early about his contract and chatted briefly about letting the contract "play its course"-- and his studio appearance with Gary Tanguay and Michael Felger can be seen here.

In his online chat, Wilfork called Nick Mangold (Jets) the toughest center he faces. At the Super Bowl, Mangold had similar comments about Wilfork.

Tuesday's appearance helped Wilfork promote his annual NFL Draft fundraiser, which raises money for a cause close to him -- diabetes research.


Ten reasons why Kellen Winslow will resurrect his career in Tampa

Kellen Winslow was one player I could never figure out. He was a guy that showed up to play every single day and who laid it out on the line. He plays with a fire that makes you feel like he really cares deeply about winning. Yet, on other days he would be frustrating to watch with his inconsistency and lack of emotional control.

Unfortunately, Kellen did not play enough, or on a good enough team, to have the sort of effect Clevelanders thought he could have on the Browns.

When he is healthy he may still be one of the most gifted tight ends in the NFL. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers must think so; they just signed him to a long-term contract extension.

A six-year, $36.1-million deal to be exact.

I hear a lot of Browns fans talking about how the Buccaneers made a huge mistake by signing him. I'm one that thinks the Bucs will get the better end of the deal. Why? Because history shows us that many players or sports personalities who struggled to perform or fit in the city of Cleveland go onto have very good careers after the fact.

Here are 10 more people you may have heard of:
Ron Harper
Andre Miller
Brandon Phillips
Anthony Henry
Steve Kerr
Brian Giles
Charlie Manuel (World Series)
Bill Belichick (I don't even have to say it)
Antonio Bryant
Jeff Garcia

My point is, before people start calling Kellen Winslow overrated, let's wait a few years to see what he does in Tampa.


Burrell receives World Series ring

BOSTON -- Pat Burrell's whirlwind trip to Philadelphia ended at approximately 5:20 p.m. ET on Wednesday when he walked onto the field at Fenway Park to join his Rays teammates for batting practice.

Burrell played for the Phillies in 2008 and played an integral role in the team becoming National League champions before defeating the Rays in five games in the World Series. Prior to Wednesday afternoon's Braves-Phillies contest in Philadelphia, the Phils handed out championship rings to the players who won the title.

Burrell, who signed a two-year, $16 million deal with Tampa Bay in January, was given the green light from Rays manager Joe Maddon to attend the ceremony -- calling it a once-in-a-lifetime event -- and Burrell took advantage of the opportunity.

Burrell flew from Boston to Philadelphia on Wednesday morning for the ceremony that took place at 3 p.m.

The ceremony saw everybody receive their rings before concluding with the Phillies' starting lineup from Game 5 of the World Series being awarded their rings, starting with pitcher Cole Hamels and following in reverse order through leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins. During this sequence, Burrell, wearing a natty-looking suit and tie, received his ring and a nice ovation from the fans.

"The fans have been so incredible to me up there," Burrell said. "It's just one of those things -- it's a little uncomfortable talking about it, because it's a new year and it's over.

"I think for me and everybody on that team, it was a pretty special day to be a part of, and I'm fortunate I had the opportunity to be there, because it very easily could not have worked out."

Once the players left the first-base line, Burrell headed for the nearby Philadelphia airport, where he boarded a chartered jet that took off for Boston. The flight went smoothly and the biggest obstacle he faced was traffic while riding in a cab from the airport to Fenway Park, but as Burrell noted, "It all worked out well."

Maddon recognized the special occasion.

"I know it was a big moment for him," Maddon said. "Getting to know him in this short period of time, he's just such a good guy, and I can see why they loved him so much over on that side."

Maddon opted to use Burrell as the designated hitter against left-hander Jon Lester on Wednesday night, and Burrell went 0-for-3, but the Rays took a 7-2 win.

"I thought it would be best to have him go through what he did today, be all pumped up, come here tonight and play, and then possibly give him off tomorrow," Maddon said.

Maddon plans to use Willy Aybar as the DH for the getaway game against the Red Sox on Thursday afternoon.


O-line veteran Haji-Rasouli extends Lions deal

The B.C. Lions announced Tuesday they have locked up a veteran member of their offensive line as right guard Sherko Haji-Rasouli agreed to a contract extension that will keep him in the Leos’ den through the 2011 CFL season.

“Sherko has been strong performer and I expect big things from him moving forward,” Lions GM and head coach Wally Buono said in a statement. “In addition to making an impact on the field with his play, I also anticipate his emergence as a leader in the room.”

A mainstay on the team’s offensive line for the past two seasons, Haji-Rasouli played in 15 games last season, making 12 starts. Overcoming injuries that cost him three games, he bounced back to finish strong and see action in both playoff contests.

Originally entering the CFL with the Montreal Alouettes via the 2002 CFL draft (second round, 12th overall), Haji-Rasouli was signed as a free agent by the Lions in 2005 and has found a regular spot at right guard.


Rashad Butler Signs

The Texans re-signed offensive tackle Rashad Butler to a one-year contract.


Portis Update

* Re: Portis, here's a passage from the Las Vegas Review Journal, via ESPN 980's Sports Reporters:

Spotted....at N9NE Steakhouse (Palms) on Saturday: [Hugh] Hefner, celebrating his 83rd birthday with girlfriends Karissa and Kristina Shannon and Crystal Harris and "Girls Next Door" Kendra (with her NFL boyfriend Hank Baskett) and Bridget, Eva Longoria, Jamie Foxx, Joe Don Rooney of Rascal Flatts, and Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder with star running back Clinton Portis.

Ok, there's an awful lot of commas there, and if I'm reading it correctly Snyder and Portis weren't technically hanging at the Palms with Hef and Kendra. But they were dang sure at the Palms in Vegas, hanging with each other. A total of, what, 64 hours after a gut-wrenching day in which Campbell seemed like he had his aces cracked?

So I'm gonna go ahead and say that maybe Portis is higher up Snyder's speed dial than Campbell. And man, what I wouldn't give for a transcript of a Snyder-Portis dinner date.


James Jones Plays Well in Loss

James Jones, who hit a late 3-pointer that gave the Heat its first lead since 4-3 and another one that put the Heat up four with 63 seconds to play, reached a season high in rebounds with 6. Jones scored 9 points in 36 minutes in the Heat's 93-87 loss to the Charlotte Hornets at the AAA.


John Salmons likes Bulls' chances in playoffs

John Salmons is resigned to playing with pain the remainder of this Bulls run, but his left groin felt improved enough Monday for him to practice and get in extra shots afterward.

He even saved one, albeit of a different kind, directed toward those in Cleveland, Boston and Orlando.

"I wouldn't want to play us in the playoffs," the typically reserved Salmons said. "We have a good enough team to beat anybody."

The Bulls' magic number to clinch their fourth playoff spot in five seasons is three and could drop to one Tuesday if they beat the Knicks and the Bobcats lose to a hot 76ers team.

"Everything has come together quickly since the trade," Salmons said.


Winslow, Bucs agree on six-year, $36 million extension

Recently acquired TE Kellen Winslow and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have agreed on a six-year contract extension, according to Buccaneers.com.

NFL.com’s Steve Wyche reports that the deal is worth $36.1 million, with $20.1 million guaranteed. The deal could be worth up to $42.1 million with incentives.

The Bucs acquired Winslow from the Browns on Feb. 27 for a second-round pick in 2009 and a fifth-rounder in 2010.
New Bucs offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski told the team’s website that he was impressed with what he saw after watching Winslow at voluntary workouts last week.

“Kellen does some things with matchups I think that we can get that are really going to benefit us this year,” Jagodzinski said.

“We can put him in different spots and move him around to get the matchup that we want. He can get in and out of a cut like a receiver, now. He’s good. He’s really good. I’m really looking forward to working with him and he’s been great. He’s been great out at practice, asking a lot of questions. (Tight ends coach) Alfredo (Roberts) had him in Cleveland already so he’s very familiar with him and how he works and how he needs to be coached. I’m excited about him. I came off the field and I said, ‘Man, we’ve got something good with him.’”


Greg Olsen on the Cutler Trade

Miami Hurricanes' alumni reason why football team keeps attracting attention

Having attended just about every University of Miami spring game for the past 20 plus years, I have had the opportunity to watch the way the Hurricanes have always commanded the respect of high school football players -- locally and throughout Florida.

While a 12-13 record is never something you want to showcase to your recruits, the reputation that follows this program is as easy as picking up a pro football magazine on the shelf of the local supermarket. Last Saturday, I found out that it makes little difference what the Hurricanes have done in the immediate past, it's what has gone on here since the late 1970s and early 80s that brings kids in from as far away as New Jersey and as close as Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

While I have always had the answer to why football recruits pay little or no attention to the record of the Hurricanes, it's those alumni that might hold the key. Watching an Alonzo Highsmith, Jon Vilma, Ed Reed or Leon Searcy on the sideline, mixing with 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds is something you rarely see any place else in the country.

As I sat in the stands last Saturday watching the the Hurricanes play in front of just about 10,000 fans at Lockhart Stadium, it all came into focus why they attract throngs of high profile players to come watch. It's something that doesn't exist when 90,000 fans pack into Tuscaloosa for an Alabama spring event. It's not present when the Florida Gators bring in 55,000 to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium or when Ohio State gets 60,000 to come into the Horseshoe in the middle of April.

As I watched Lamar Thomas trot back and forth with Danny Stubbs, Dave Heffernan and others along the sideline, it reinforced that the past of this program is so strong, and the mystique is still so vivid, having a Brandon Linder, Jeff Luc, Lamarcus Joyner, Ivan McCartney, Jakhari Gore and James White in attendance was a given.

Whether many recruits are looking at Miami as an option or not, it's that attraction -- like a strong magnet -- that pulls these budding stars in the direction of the University of Miami football program, and it's not likely to change as this program is certainly on the verge of producing more stars who will only add to that mystique and aura that four decades of winning and churning out professional talent brings.

To see a Vinnie Mauro, Mike Anderson, Mike Palardy, Turner Baty, David Perry, Tommy Heffernan, Brandon Doughty and Justin Birkenholz in the stands, watching the spring game only adds to the lists that have been in attendance throughout the years to be a part of that tradition and take part in something that Miami has been known for during the past 35 years.

Perhaps no program in the nation boasts more players returning to give back than the ''U'' does. That is something that was started back with Michael Irvin and the Blades brothers and has continued.

Much of the talk at a post game party last Saturday afternoon at Miami Prime Grill in North Miami Beach centered around the very fact that Miami players have always given back. That event, put on by 790 The Ticket, truly backed that up.

From Joe Mira to Don Soldinger, Art Kehoe, Gerard Daphnes, Twan Russell, Bobby Harden, Eddie Edwards, Wesley Carroll, Don Smith, Willie Smith, Kenny Calhoun, K.C. Jones, James Burgess, Melvin Bratton, Yatil Green, Ryan Collins, Chuck Hirschenson, Anthony Hamlett, Kelvin Harris, Duane Starkes, Carlos Huerta, Edgar Benes, Don Bailey Jr. and Donnell Bennett, these standouts came out to show how special the program has been through the years.

It's little surprise why Brian Robinson, Tony Grimes, Keion Payne, Max Belieau, Desmond Bozeman, Gideon Ajagbe, Reginald Moore, Alec Ogletree and Louis Nix were on hand as well!

Don't forget that we are always looking to help our area recruits for the current Class of 2010, 2011 and 2012. All you have to do is send a DVD and information about the athlete to: Larry Blustein, P.O. Box 3181, Hallandale Beach, Fl. 33009.


Lance Leggett Still With Browns

Hey, Tony: Is 2008 practice squad wide receiver Lance Leggett still on the Browns' roster? -- Tom Thomas, Florida

Hey, Tom: Yes, Leggett is still on the roster. So he's a candidate to win a regular job.


Do we overrate leadership in athletes like Ray Lewis because we can't define it?

Leadership is one of the media's favorite buzz words. You hear it tossed around a lot when people talk about older players, especially when they can't perform the way they once did. It's usually a justification for why they maintain Alpha Dog status on the team, or a salary no longer in proportion with their ability. "He's a great leader, so you have to have him on your team," we're often told. "He does things behind the scenes that people never hear about. He makes other people better."

I've been thinking a lot about this since the Ravens re-signed Ray Lewis, and as we get closer to the start of the 2009 baseball season, with the Yankees creeping increasingly closer to the inevitable day when they are forced to admit Derek Jeter can no longer be allowed to give away runs in the field because his defense is so subpar.

Even more than what Jeter means to the Yankees, Ray Lewis is the Baltimore Ravens. The franchise says it plans to build a statue of Lewis to stand next to John Unitas' statue when he's done playing, and considering the football demons that No. 52 helped this city exorcise by bringing it a Super Bowl, it will be well deserved. But don't focus on Lewis' legacy for a second. Focus on the current NFL linebacker, the one who will be 34 years old before next season. Is he worth $22 million over the next three years?

As a player, probably not. That's an uncomfortable truth that's hard for some people to admit because it sounds like heresy. But there is a reason he didn't get so much as a sniff in free agency before re-upping with the Ravens this year. He doesn't cover the same kind of ground anymore. Part of the reason is that he's heavier. He bulked up this past season, hoping it would help him stay healthy, and for the first time since 2005, he was able to play essentially a full season (in 2005, he played 15 games). But he's blockable. He still shoots gaps and makes big plays, but he also gets caught in traffic a fair amount, and he can't run down plays from behind they way he used to.

Despite being voted to the Pro Bowl yet again -- an honor that is about reputation more than performance -- he averaged fewer tackles per game (7.31) than any full season of his career. (In 2004, he averaged 9.8 tackles per game.) If you don't believe me, watch this video (after the jump) that highlights several plays Lewis just missed in the Ravens' December loss to Pittsburgh. (I apologize in advance for the Will Smith backing track.) Eventually, even the maximum amount of film study can't compensate for age.

In some ways, though, the debate isn't about whether Lewis in 2009 is comparable to Lewis of 2004. It's about whether the entire package that he offers is the best available option for the Ravens. And this is where it's worth discussing how we define leadership, and what monetary value we place on it.

To hear some people tell it, Ray Lewis is still the second coming of William Wallace in Braveheart, the intense and spirited general who is so charismatic, every last man is willing to follow him to the gates of hell and back. The reality, though, is more complicated, and this isn't necessarily specific to Lewis. (Although to suggest he is universally loved in the Ravens locker room would be false.) Professional locker rooms are complex environments, full of layers that aren't easily explainable, especially in sound bites. Certain players may be respected or even loved, but inspiration, for professional athletes, is far more individual that we care to believe. It's not a very compelling narrative to state that a professional football player might be playing harder because he wants to increase his value in a contract year. It makes for a better mythology if he's doing so because he's part of a Band of Brothers and he's inspired by the loquacious superstar and his approach to the game.

Does Ray Lewis inspire teammates to spend more time in the weight room, or study more game film? Absolutely. Especially some of the younger players. Le'Ron McClain even said this year that it was Lewis who pulled him aside when McClain showed up overweight at camp, and Lewis told him he needed to be more of a professional if he wanted to see the field. McClain internalized it and ended up in the Pro Bowl. That's one of the reasons the Ravens were willing to pay more than market value for Lewis.

"He has unbelievable leadership ability in the locker room, in the weight room and out on the practice field," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "He helps our young kids not just be football players, but to become professional football players. And that makes a big difference.”

But some of this is also about perception and PR, which is what brings us back to Jeter and the Yankees. There's no question that Jeter has been one of the main forces driving the Yankees' 13 playoff appearances in the last 14 years. And like Lewis, his leadership -- often described in undefinable terms like "intangibles" -- is a regular topic of discussion when assessing his value. The Yankees don't dare dream of asking Jeter to play center field or third base, even if it would make the team better defensively, because of what he theoretically "means" to the team. And maybe there is some truth to that.

But again, like Lewis, he's not quite the player he used to be. There is a book put out each year called The Fielding Bible, and to compile it, an organization called Baseball Info Solutions tracks every defensive play made by every MLB player. They've assembled a database showing how often each type of play is made. For each fielder, they keep track of how many unusually good and how many unusually bad plays he makes and express it as +/- number. The last three years, Jeter has been: -22, -34 and -12. He's ranked ranked 34th, 34th and 31st among shortstops. That's pretty bad. Alex Rodriguez may be a head case who makes out with himself in a mirror during magazine shoots, but there is no way he would be that bad.

If Jeter is such a remarkable leader, why didn't he offer to step aside and play third base instead of letting the Yankees ask Rodriguez to do it instead? And during the last few seasons, when A-Rod was struggling to fit in in the Yankee clubhouse and with Yankee fans, why didn't Jeter publicly stand up and make a statement of support? Why did he let his teammate twist in the wind when a few words from him could have easily called off the dogs? Isn't that what you ask from your captain?

Lewis has had a few moments in recent years that made me wonder if he and Jeter aren't alike in more ways than we'd care to admit. No one was more supportive of Lewis during Super Bowl week in 2000 than Brian Billick. Whatever his faults were, I always thought it was pretty clever the way Billick went after the media and declared "You're not qualified!" during his interview session. He came off as an arrogant jerk, but in retrospect, that seemed to be exactly the point. For one day, reporters were firing arrows at Billick, not Lewis. Billick's reward, when it was his turn on the hot seat, was to have his star linebacker go on his radio show and criticize the coach's play-calling after a loss to the Bills. Was that leadership? Lewis has certainly shown in recent years that he is great to have when things are going well, and somewhat difficult when things are not.

A few years ago, Tom Brady's contract with the Patriots was nearly up. Peyton Manning had just signed an extension with the Colts that included a $33 million signing bonus. Brady's response to the Patriots was that he was willing to sign a contract for far less, below market value, if the team was willing to use some of the money they could have spent on him and invest it back into the team. He also agreed to restructure his contract, lowering his base salary, so the Patriots could sign Randy Moss a few years later. Lewis had an opportunity to make a similar gesture and passed it up for a shot at the open market. In the end, he signed for the amount Baltimore was offering all along, one that didn't break the Ravens bank. Was that leadership? Or at the end of his career, did he have the right to chase one last potential payday?

The reality of professional sports is always more complicated than the mythology. Leadership certainly does exist in some ways. There is no doubt Ray Lewis helped create a culture of success for the Ravens' defense. But at some point, has the idea become more than the man? Even if it is true, when is it outweighed by his inability to move from sideline to sideline?

Instead of seeing it as some broad magical quality, maybe we should view it as simply another skill set. Too often, we throw around the term leadership to explain the undefinable, and thus, it's a scary thing to pay millions of dollars for.

The Ravens either paid millions of dollars because they believe that magical quality still exists in Lewis, or because he was the simply the best option available, and the PR hit of losing him and admitting he was past his prime, despite all he'd done for the franchise, was too much to bear.

The truth, as usual, would probably be found somewhere in the middle.


Kellen Winslow's missing father-in-law found safe

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — The father-in-law of Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Kellen Winslow was found safe at a U.S.-Mexico border crossing on Saturday, three days after he vanished, police said.

Anaheim police were notified at about 9 a.m. Saturday that Enrique Guzman, who has Alzheimer's disease, was found at the Calexico border crossing, Anaheim police Sgt. Rick Martinez said.

The 67-year-old Guzman, of Montebello, was last seen Wednesday at an Anaheim gas station in his blue Chevy Camaro.

"It is our understanding that Mr. Guzman was returning to the United States from Mexico early this morning. While at the border crossing, he was displaying symptoms of confusion," Martinez said in a statement. "A computer check by United States Customs officials revealed that Mr. Guzman (and his vehicle) were listed as missing."

It was not immediately clear why Guzman had gone to Mexico, Martinez said in an e-mail.

Guzman appeared to be healthy. His daughter went to the border crossing and met him at about noon, Martinez said.

Winslow, a Pro Bowler in 2007, was a first-round draft pick out of Miami in 2004 by the Cleveland Browns. He was traded to Tampa Bay after last season.


Braun ready for season after hectic spring

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun said he's past the nagging injuries that slowed him this spring and is in peak condition for the season that opens Tuesday.

"I feel like I'm definitely ready. I feel better than I ever have physically (going into a season)," Braun said. "I'm seeing the ball really well, and I think this really has a chance to be a special year for me, and for the team."

Expectations weren't quite so high a few weeks ago.

Braun strained a muscle on the right side of his rib cage while playing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic last month. He had injured the same side in August and missed six games.

Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash called the second injury "similar but much milder" than the first, and the Brewers agreed to let Braun continue in the Classic.

Braun played in discomfort in a subsequent game, then returned to the Brewers once Team USA was eliminated.

Back in Phoenix, the 25-year-old received treatment for his side. He tried to play in Cactus League games but lingering discomfort caused him to miss a few more days.

He finally got back into games at the end of camp, only to take a line drive off his thumb. He suffered a bruise and missed one game.

But the 2007 National League rookie of the year, who hit .285 with 37 homers and 106 RBIs last year, said there's no need to worry. His ribcage is feeling fine now.

"I think people made a bigger deal of my injury than (needed)," Braun said. "People in general were more concerned about it than I was. I knew I was fine."

Even so, the injury raised fresh concerns about whether professional athletes should play games for their country, risking injuries that could hurt the teams that pay their salaries.

Braun discounted those concerns as well, saying he was grateful for the opportunity to play for the U.S.

"For me, I was fortunate that I got to do that," said Braun, who hit .381 with one home run and two RBI in six Classic games.

"But overall it was a great experience. The World Baseball Classic was unbelievable, something I enjoyed."

Now Braun has a new challenge -- facing the Giants and Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum on Tuesday. But he's confident his work in spring training will have him ready.

"I know how to prepare myself for the season," he said.


O's Get To Yanks Behind Huff's Three RBI

Baltimore, MD (AHN) - Four-hundred million dollars can buy three very expensive free agents, but it can't buy the New York Yankees an opening-day win.

Aubrey Huff had three RBI and Jeremy Guthrie pitched six solid innings of three-run ball to lead the Orioles to a 10-5 win over the Yankees Monday in Baltimore's home opener.

The Orioles jumped all over high-priced pitcher C.C. Sabathia for six runs in just 4 1/3 innings to build a 6-1 lead. It was just Sabathia's fifth career game in which he failed to record a single strikeout.

The Yankees cut the lead to 6-5 behind home runs from Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui, but the O's tacked on four more runs in the bottom of the eighth to put the game away.

Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and Cesar Izturis each had two RBI for Baltimore, and Luke Scott also knocked in a run.

Matsui led the Yankees with two RBI, while Posada, Xavier Nady and Johnny Damon each knocked in a run.


Brewers' Braun says he's as good as ever

SAN FRANCISCO _ Ryan Braun didn't hesitate, flinch or stare into space contemplating an answer.

He had it ready to go.

"Eventful," the Milwaukee Brewers leftfielder said immediately after being asked to sum up his spring in one word.

That's a pretty good description.

Braun's last seven hectic weeks have gone something like this:

He left southern California after launching a clothing line and reported to camp in Phoenix but was there only 10 days before splitting for Florida to join Team USA for the World Baseball Classic.

After some exhibitions there, he hit Toronto and then Miami for games. But while in south Florida, Braun strained his intercostal ribcage muscles, the same injury that left him a shell of his all-star self at the end of last season. That led to plenty of talk about him leaving the tournament and returning to the team that pays his salary.

That would have required a task force to send him back because Braun did not want to leave. And general manager Doug Melvin and assistant GM Gord Ash, big supporters of the Classic, weren't about to force their star outfielder back against his will.

Team USA advanced and Braun played in discomfort in Los Angeles before returning to the Brewers once Team USA was eliminated.

Back in Phoenix, Braun received treatment for his side and tried to play in Cactus League games, but the stiffness returned and he shut down for a few days before playing games with minor-leaguers and finally getting back into "A" games at the end of camp, only to take a line drive off his thumb. That caused more health concerns for about 24 hours.

Spring training concluded Saturday back in Los Angeles before the team flew to the Bay Area to get ready for the opener Tuesday against the San Francisco Giants.

"Obviously a lot of traveling," Braun said, but his spring didn't seem as long as it did for other players because he was able to play meaningful games so early. The traveling was taxing but the Classic helped the seven-week camp go by faster than if he had remained with the team.

"For me, I was fortunate that I got to do that," said Braun, who hit .381 with a homer and two RBI in six Classic games. "It was very erratic because I traveled a lot during spring training, which is something you don't normally do. I was in six cities within a matter of three weeks.

"But overall it was a great experience. The World Baseball Classic was unbelievable, something I enjoyed."

Once he rejoined the Brewers, local and national reports of his health status peppered the Internet daily. Through that, Braun was never deterred or frustrated dealing with the injuries or the inquiries about them.

"I think people made a bigger deal of my injury than (needed)," Braun said. "People in general were more concerned about it than I was. I knew I was fine."

What was more difficult for the 25-year-old than dealing with the injuries was dealing with the letdown of playing in a playoff atmosphere during the Classic followed by Cactus League games that barely scratched four-figure attendance numbers.

Braun found it difficult to get up for those games and if it is true that he felt fine, as he said, then his at-bats reflected that intensity loss until the final two night games at Dodger Stadium, when it felt more like the regular season.

But Braun wasn't concerned with those at-bats much. His focus once he returned from the Classic was to get and remain healthy so he'd be as close to 100 percent as possible for opening day against the Giants and their Cy Young Award winner, Tim Lincecum.

Braun accomplished that goal and is feeling as good as he ever has in his career.

"I know how to prepare myself for the season," he said. "Ultimately, my main goal was to get healthy for the season. I didn't care about anything else.

"I feel like I'm definitely ready. I feel better than I ever have physically (going into a season). I'm seeing the ball really well and I think this really has a chance to be a special year for me, and for the team."


Phillies, fans glad to see familiar face

PHILADELPHIA - Pat Burrell sat in the visiting dugout at Citizens Bank Park for the first time in his career.

He played nine seasons with the Phillies and five at CBP, but it was the first time he looked across the diamond from the third-base side.

So much has changed for Burrell in a few short months. Instead of red, Burrell wears navy blue with white block letters on his cap.

There is no more script "'P."

There is no red in his wardrobe.

Burrell is the designated hitter on the Tampa Bay Rays, the team that lost to Philadelphia in the 2008 World Series.

"That's the weird part. Being at the park is great, but I've never come over here and seen the view from this side," Burrell said before the Rays' 3-2 loss in an exhibition game against his former team Friday night. "It's very different, in a good way. But it's definitely a change."

Raul Ibanez took his place in left field for the Phillies. Ibanez signed a three-year free-agent deal for $31.5 million before the season.

"He's Pat the Bat," said fan Karen Vargas, 28, who had a heart sign with Burrell's name on it. "I wish he never left and I wanted him to know I wished he was still here."

The organization didn't forget the player it drafted in the first round of the 1998 amateur draft. Before the game, a five-minute video tribute for Burrell, who hit 251 home runs for the Phillies in nine seasons, played on the big screen. Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" accompanied the video tribute.

But it won't be the last time fans see Burrell.

There is another exhibition game today against the Rays (1:05 p.m.) and he is coming back Wednesday to receive his ring. The ceremony begins before the 3:05 p.m. regular-season game against the Atlanta Braves. The Rays have a 7:10 game in Boston that night.

"I haven't gotten a chance to see (the ring)," Burrell said. "I just saw (team president) David (Montgomery) and said, 'Come on. I know you've got one in your pocket.' It's fortunate that we are in a city that's close to here and the games are different times. Luckily, it worked out this way."

Burrell could have reacted a number of ways to the Ibanez signing that ended his career with the Phillies but publicly he still praised the team. He never seemed bitter.

"I look at the situation and I've seen that happen before," Burrell said. "But I have nothing but good things to say about the organization and my time here. It's hard to feel that way for me."

The 39,388 fans weren't the only ones who missed Burrell. Many former teammates and coaches made the short walk across the field to talk with him Friday.

Phillies first-base coach Davey Lopes and bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer chatted and hugged him before the game. Utility player Greg Dobbs made it over as well.

There was a lot of love for Burrell at CBP.

"We're going to miss Pat. He was here for a long time," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "Everyone on our team liked Pat. Pat was a big contributor. He played a big role of leadership in the clubhouse. We are going to miss him. If he had to leave, I am glad he is in the American league."

Rays' manager Joe Maddon is glad he is in the American League, too. It didn't take Burrell too long to adjust to his new role as the designated hitter.

In addition, Maddon entrusted Burrell to talk to the younger players.

"He's not afraid to give his opinion. I have already seen him talk to a couple of guys," Maddon said. "He's very comfortable doing that. At the same time, he doesn't have to say a lot because his work is so good."

Burrell spent his first nine seasons with the Phillies before signing a $16 million, two-year deal with the Rays in January. He faced the Phillies in spring training and received a warm welcome by Philadelphia fans in Clearwater, Fla., on Feb. 28.

However, Burrell was nervous before Friday's exhibition. With his love-hate relationship with the Philadelphia fans, the reaction could have gone either way.

But the applause overwhelmed him before the game and during his at-bats. He got an RBI single in his first appearance.

The crowd erupted again.

A new group will get a chance to show its appreciation today. Maddon said Burrell, who finished 1-for-3 with a stolen base Friday, will play left field when the game is played under National League rules.

"There's been some years where I didn't play very well and it can take a toll on you," Burrell said. "But I think for the most part, it's been a pretty good relationship. Even the years where I didn't play good. I have a lot of respect for the fans here."

Over the years, Burrell was pelted with boos. Critics called for his trade.

But in the end, there were just cheers.


Chicago Bulls' John Salmons says he will play with pain rest of season

John Salmons played a team-high 39 minutes, chased Vince Carter for most of three quarters, absorbed a flagrant foul from Devin Harris after a huge fourth-quarter steal and scored 17 points Saturday.

And that's just the physical rundown from his gritty day at the office.

The mental workload included Salmons admitting the strained left groin he's battling will plague him the rest of the season.

"It's not 100 percent, and it's going to be like that the rest of the way," Salmons said. "I have to get it out of my mind. It's going to be there. It's going to hurt. I just have to deal with it."

One way to do so will be to limit practice time and then keep Salmons' minutes high. He averaged 40.4 minutes in March.

"I think it was better for me to stay on the court than sit down because it would have tightened up pretty good," Salmons said.