Quick hits from Vince Wilfork: Talks Damione Lewis

FOXBOROUGH – Five quick hits from Vince Wilfork’s chat with reporters this morning at Gillette Stadium:

Welcoming new teammate Damione Lewis. Wilfork smiled when noting that Lewis, like himself, is an alumnus of the University of Miami. He said players like Lewis helped create the Hurricanes' reputation for strong defensive linemen, which is one reason he wanted to attend Miami. As for the big change facing Lewis in New England, Wilfork said it will be adjusting to two-gapping because Lewis has been a one-gap player throughout most of his NFL career. “His style of play is a little different from ours, but he’ll get it together,” Wilfork said.

Lewis, a former Panther and Ram, is one of the players the Patriots imported this offseason who could also help with the leadership aspect. Wilfork, who was just starting out the U when Lewis was a senior, says that Lewis, "He meant a lot to that program," Wilfork said. "He had a great career there. He's been on some great teams [in the NFL] and he's been on some [bad] teams but through it all he's been very consistent each year. I'm happy he's here. He wants to win. Hopefully he can come in and help us which I think he will...A guy like Damione, he will do everything in his power to be here and be effective...He will be able to help us this year."

Asked what challenge Lewis faces in joining the Patriots, Wilfork didn't pause. "Two-gap (defense in the 3-4). That's all of our challenge. That's a big challenge but a guy like Damione, he'll do everything in his power to ... be effective. It's nothing to be concerned about, but it may take a little time for him because his style of play is a little different from ours but he'll get it together and hopefully help us this year."

Lewis is one-third of the Patriots' modest "outside" free agent haul this offseason. Meanwhile, the Patriots chief AFC East rival, the Jets, has stacked up a pile of talent with their offseason moves.

Boosting Ron Brace. Wilfork was asked if he takes a player like Brace under his wing after a challenging rookie season. He said he wants to be a player anyone can turn to. As for Brace, he said: “I think Ron is a doing good job with the offseason program, trying to watch film and everything. Last year, he got a taste of the NFL and as a rookie, it’s tough at times. … We’re expecting big things from him.”

Optimism is in the air. “Last year was a tough year for us. We went through it and I hope that was the worst part, going through last year,” he said. “Every year, at this time of year, I’m very excited to get back. We never say we’re excited to work out but we’re excited to work out. I think everybody just feels that everybody’s leadership has to step up and we have to be ready to play this year.”

Advice to front office in draft. Wilfork was quick with a reply when asked what he’d like to see the Patriots select in the draft. “D-linemen,” he said, laughing. “I’m biased. I want all our picks, first of all, to be defensive players. And second of all, I want them to be on the defensive line.” Wilfork also joked that he’s been wrong every year when predicting which player the team will select in the first round. As for his pick this year, he joked that it was too early to reveal his choice.

Draft party supports good cause. This is the seventh year that Wilfork is holding his annual draft fundraiser, which is scheduled for Thursday, April 22 at Pinz in Milford, Mass. Details can be found on Wilfork’s Web site, and Wilfork is matching up to $50,000 in donations. “It’s going to be a little different, with the draft on Thursday in prime-time,” he said. “I can’t believe it’s been seven years for me now. Over the years it’s grown and we’ve raised more and more money.”

Click here to order Vince Wilfork's and Damione Lewis' proCane Rookie Card.

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Newest Patriot Damione Lewis thinks he’ll fit right in

Damione Lewis has been playing in a 4-3 base defense all of his pro career, whether it was with the Carolina Panthers the past four seasons, or the St. Louis Rams the five seasons prior to that.

The question is, will the defensive lineman be a good fit playing defensive end in Bill Belichick’s 3-4 scheme? Can he effectively take over the Jarvis Green role?

“I think I can,” Lewis said last night. “At the end of the day, it’s still football.”

That being said, Lewis wanted to make sure he could confidently make that kind of leap before signing a free agent deal with the Pats, so he got in touch with some players who have also had to switch defenses.

“Yeah, I talked to some guys I played with over the years who have made the transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense,” Lewis said. “I asked about the differences. They told me what they felt was the difference. They actually said it would be an easier transition going from a 4-3, to a 3-4, than vice versa. The game is so much faster in a 4-3 as a lineman, than it is in a 3-4. They just said it’s a matter of being patient, and I’d be fine.”

The 32-year-old Lewis, who signed a one-year deal, figures to add depth to the defensive line, and also provide some much-needed leadership in the locker room.

Lewis worked out with his new teammates for the first time yesterday, and started the relationship-building process. He said whatever leadership skills he may have aren’t forced.

“That’s just my personality. I just follow whatever path my personality puts me into,” he said. ”I’m not a big rah-rah guy. I’m not a very forceful guy. I’m just me. I’m very comfortable. . . . I believe in having a good time. . . . I believe in reaching out and talking to guys and asking them what’s going on in their personal life, and what’s going on out on the field. I think that’s where camaraderie comes from.

“Whatever role that puts me into, then that’s what it is,” Lewis went on. “I’m not going to reach out and try to be something I’m not, or be more than what I am.”

Click here to order Damione Lewis' proCane Rookie Card.

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Phillips confident he'll be ready for offseason workouts

As he insists he's "ahead of schedule'' on his long rehabilitation from serious knee surgery, safety Kenny Phillips watched as the Giants on the first day of free agency signed Antrel Rolle and later added veteran Deon Grant.

Both are safeties, which certainly could be viewed as concern by the Giants that Phillips will be just fine for the 2010 season.

Phillips doesn’t see it that way.

"I understand it's a business and the way our secondary performed last year it’s only right you do something,'' Phillips today told The Post. "I don’t think they're panicking by bringing in all these guys, I don't think I should panic. I know when I get to 100 percent it's going to be competitive and I don't mind competing.''

Phillips spoke moments after completing a shoot for Reebok's 2010 Sideline Apparel Campaign and he sounded ready to roll.

"If I had a game tomorrow I'd be able to play,'' he exclaimed.

Of course, there is no game tomorrow and it's a good thing, as Phillips certainly wouldn’t be ready to play. But his enthusiasm means he's healing. Two weeks ago, he was cleared to begin running, so far only straight ahead, and said his left knee is holding up just fine. He played in two games last season before needing surgery to deal with a condition known as patellofemoral arthritis. There were doomsayer reports that his career could be threatened by this but Phillips says doctors and trainers have assured him that he'll be as good as new.

"I've been feeling great ever since the surgery so there's no worries on my end,'' he said.

The Giants want to insert Phillips and Rolle in as the starting safeties and sit back and see the University of Miami products dominate. Rolle after signing immediately proclaimed he and Phillips to be "the best in the league, hands down'' when it came to ranking the top safety tandems. Rolle called he and Phillips "a dynamic duo.''

Phillips isn’t using such colorful language but he is confident.

"The feeling is mutual,'' Phillips said. "He's a great player. Most teams only have one guy, one guy who can go get it like Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu, we put two guys back there who can do pretty much the same thing, they both cover, both go get the ball, both ball hawks, when you have that you're saying something about your secondary.''

As for the addition of Grant, Phillips believes it made sense.

"I don’t know much about him, I know he's an older guy, the probably brought him in for leadership, just show us the ropes,'' Phillips said. "You can learn from players like that, he's been in the league nine years. I look forward to playing with him.''

Phillips is participating in the off-season workout program and says he's certain he will take part in the mid-June veteran mini-camp in some way.

"I'm not sure to what percent I'll be doing things,'' he said. "The main goal is training camp. We're not rushing it, the season's still a long way away, we're taking real slow.''

Click here to order Kenny Phillips' proCane Rookie Card.

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Bryant McKinnie's Twitter Gesture

We've bashed Minnesota left tackle Bryant McKinnie a few times this offseason, in some cases a result of his prolific use of Twitter. So I think it's only fair to pass along a series of tweets McKinnie issued Friday about a community service project he has initiated, one that struck me as particularly warm and original.

I'll let the tweets speak for themselves and carry us into the weekend:

I'm on my way 2 the school 2 surprise the girl we choose 2 take care of her prom. I'm gonna fill u guys n on her story.

Found a girl who is a Senior n High School,has good grades and a good role model. Right now her mother is n the hospital battling cancer

And she is left 2 take care oif her 2 younger siblings. A lot of there money goes 2 household bills and mother's hospital bills so that

Makes it hard 4 extra money 4 her 2 enjoy her senior prom! That's where I come n! I had ppl research 4 the perfect candidate and she won!

I will be paying 4 her entire prom from clothes 2 make-up, 2 transportation. On her Prom nite I will go with her 2 the hospital so her [mom]

Can see her dressed up 4 the prom! We will be filming this whole process, so I will let yall know 4 sure when this will air.

Click here to order Bryant McKinnie's proCane Rookie Card.

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Video of Bryant McKinnie's House Party: Shockey, Edgerrin, Vernon Carey & Others!

Here is a video Bryant McKinnie broadcasted over UStream of a BBQ he threw at his house. The video features McKinnie, Edgerrin James, Jeremy Shockey, Vernon Carey, Katrina Campins and many more! We thank Katrina for sending us the link to the video.

Click here to order Bryant McKinnie's proCane Rookie Card.

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Jason Fox 10th Best Offensive Tackle

Jason Fox, Miami, 6-7, 303. Fox has excellent height and reach, and he is a technically sound blocker who can protect the passer. He has the versatility to be a right or left tackle. He is smart and tough but needs to develop his strength. Scouts have concerns about his durability, and a knee issue could hurt him on draft day.

Click here to see the rest of the rankings.

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Son of Walter Payton key weapon for Extreme opponent Slaughter

The running back in the No. 34 Chicago jersey takes a handoff and cradles the ball as he crosses the goal line for a game-changing touchdown.

Growing up, Jarrett Payton watched it happen frequently; his father did it 110 times in a remarkable NFL career that culminated with induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Now the son of Bears legend Walter Payton is making it happen in the Indoor Football League as a key offensive weapon for the Slaughter. Jarrett Payton will be on the field Saturday at U.S. Cellular Coliseum when the Bloomington Extreme hosts Chicago for the first time.

"I watched him all my life and I've tried to pattern my style after him," Jarrett Payton said Thursday in a telephone interview. "I try to be versatile, like my dad was. He was a great runner, but the other things are what made him great."

Walter Payton held the NFL's all-time rushing record for 18 years until Emmitt Smith surpassed his final total of 16,726 yards in 2002. As for the "other things," the 1977 NFL MVP was on the receiving end of 15 TD passes and on the throwing end of eight more. Known for leaping into end zones and finishing runs with hard hits on would-be tacklers, "Sweetness" missed just one game to injury in a 13-year pro career.
In his four games with the Slaughter, Jarrett Payton has amassed 221 all-purpose yards with four touchdowns -- including a last-minute, go-ahead score that gave Chicago (1-3) a one-point win over Alaska in its last game.

"It was pretty huge; I had about 200 family and friends in the crowd and they all were excited," he said of his game-winning score. "It's exciting because people here in Chicago have been wonderful. To be able to play in my back yard where I grew up is special."

Payton displayed his own versatility by completing his only pass, a touchdown strike of -- yes -- 34 yards. Payton treasures the number retired by the Bears to honor his father, who died from a rare liver disease in 1999.

The younger Payton wears the No. 34 whenever it's available. He wasn't able to wear it in his one NFL season with the Tennessee Titans -- the franchise retired it for Earl Campbell -- but he did wear it at the University of Miami, earning MVP honors in the 2004 Orange Bowl. He even chose March 4 (3-4) as his wedding day.

Payton is just one of the Slaughter's connections to the Bears, with Steve McMichael as coach and Jim McMahon as a co-owner.

"It's crazy. I sometimes feel like my father's guiding me," he said of working with Walter's teammates from the Super Bowl XX champions. "It makes it easier to come to work when you see someone who's won championships and is still willing to put in the necessary work."

Always close to his father, a 12-year-old Jarrett gave the introductory speech at Walter's Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1993. Today, he pays tribute to his father by assisting the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation, which aids underprivileged children. Along with Connie (his mother) and sister Brittney, Jarrett appears at each Super Bowl to present the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.

He hopes to reach the IFL title game with the Slaughter and seeks to put Chicago on a winning streak by beating the Extreme on Saturday.

"I expect a great game. The second time you play a team is always more fun," he said. "I'm just looking for us to sustain drives and put points on the board. It's always a challenge, but that's why you play."


Bucks looking to extend John Salmons?

During a recent Q&A with season-ticket holders, Bucks GM John Hammond indicated that the team wants to sign John Salmons to an extension.

Salmons could opt out this summer, but according to a post on RealGM.com, Hammond gave "the distinct impression an extension would be done by June 30th." Considering how well Salmons has fit into Scott Skiles' system, this is hardly a surprise.

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Closer Perez struggles to rise above troubles

CLEVELAND: Indians fans have been through this before.

They've suffered through a slew of closers who have caused countless ulcers and a litany of restless nights.

Think the Tribe's current young closer Chris Perez is struggling right now after poor outings in back-to-back games, the latest coming in the 4-2 loss Monday in the home opener to the Texas Rangers?

Maybe you've forgotten about the Bob Wickman high-wire act that was the ninth inning for six years as the Tribe's closer in 2000-06.
And who could forget Joe Borowski, the poor-man's Bob Wickman, who posted 45 saves in 2007, then suddenly lost his touch the next season and was forced into retirement?

Perez at 24 years old has a long way to go before then, but that didn't stop him from publicly bashing himself after loading the bases with no outs in a 2-2 tie game in the ninth inning Monday.

''I pitched like crap,'' he said, thanking teammates Tony Sipp and Jamey Wright for getting out of the jam unscathed. ''And that's unacceptable for any role, let alone the closer's role. Based on my last couple of outings, it's probably not going to be mine too much longer. . . . Based on how I've thrown here and in spring training, I really don't deserve [the closer's] role right now.''

Indians manager Manny Acta stood by Perez after the game, sharing what he told him after he gave him a tap on the chest in a keep-your-head-up gesture before Perez walked off the mound to the dugout amid boos from the soldout Progressive Field crowd.

''I told him he's going to be OK, and that we're counting on him,'' Acta said. ''Two days from now, he's going to have an opportunity to save a game.''

Entering spring training, the Indians hoped Kerry Wood would have a solid first half while teaching the finer points of the art of closing to Perez, who was set to become the set-up man, a role that would put him in games in the eighth inning.

With a good start to the season, the Tribe could then trade Wood (the highest-paid member of the team at $10.5 million) to a team in contention and Perez would be primed to take over.

But Perez had little time to learn much from Wood, who hasn't pitched since March 10, when he injured his right latissimus dorsi muscle in his back and was placed on the disabled list for the 13th time in his career.

Although Wood threw a 20-pitch bullpen session before the game Monday and is scheduled to throw another session Thursday, there's still the issue of whether he'll need to shed a month and a half of rust via a minor-league rehab assignment.

Even if all goes well, Wood probably wouldn't return to the Indians until the end of the month.

The opportunity to close games for the Tribe is the chance Perez has been dreaming of during his young career. He got a short chance last season for the St. Louis Cardinals before they traded him to the Indians in July for veteran infielder Mark DeRosa.

The maddening part for Perez is that he has no idea what's gone wrong.

''I really don't know,'' he said with a shrug. ''I haven't seen video or anything. My arm feels fine and I've got my stuff. It might just be one of those things, one of those ruts. . . . It's a tough game and part of it is making adjustments and battling when you don't have your best stuff and your stuff's not going well. Half of that is battling yourself, your mind, your body and all that.

''I'm just not throwing enough strikes, not getting ahead of the hitters and maybe I'm giving [the hitters] a little too much credit when I am behind instead of just challenging them like I've always done. Right now, it's just mental. I have to start believing in my stuff again.''

Perez was a closer throughout his minor-league career, racking up 60 saves while coming up through the Cardinals' farm system. Before the season began last week, Perez had eight big-league saves, seven coming with the Cardinals last season.

''I've been here before. I've been in worst situations before, and I've been able to dig down and figure it out and get out of it,'' Perez said. ''I'll take the off day and rest up, watch video, talk to [bullpen coach Scott] Radinsky and [pitching coach Tim] Belcher to see if I'm doing anything mechanically or if it's just bad pitching.''

Perez didn't have any problems in Chicago last week with a pair of saves against the White Sox, despite playing the series in frigid, wet weather.

''This game is definitely all mental,'' Perez said. ''I've got the tools. I've done it before. It's just doing it. . . . It feels like every pitch I throw, they're right on it.''

Although Acta promises to support Perez for the time being, he is concerned about a bullpen that has given up nine hits, five earned runs and four walks the past two games.

''It's nothing to be happy about, but we're not the only team that has had some struggles in the back end,'' Acta said. ''It's something that's going to get better as the season goes on.''

Indians fans can only hope Perez will, too.

''[Perez] saved two very good games in Chicago and we were celebrating and being very happy,'' Acta said. ''Now that he's had two bad outings in a row, we're not going to run him out of town because of that.''


Bluefish Add Barton

The Bridgeport Bluefish announced Monday the signings of infielder Hiram Bocachica and outfielders Brian Barton and Tike Redman. Bocachica and Barton will make their Atlantic League debuts, while Redman returns for his third season in the league.

Barton joins the Bluefish for his sixth of professional baseball. Last year, the outfielder made one appearance with the Atlanta Braves following a stint with Gwinnett (AAA, Braves) of the International League. In 114 games with Gwinnett, he hit .266 with 28 extra-base hits, 46 RBI, 47 runs scored and 17 stolen bases. The 28-year-old began his professional career in 2005 in the single A South Atlantic League, where he hit .414 in 133 at-bats. Following two more seasons in the minors, the California native was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2007 Rule V Draft and made his Major League debut with the Cardinals in 2008, hitting .268 with nine doubles, two home runs, 13 RBI and 12 runs scored, in 82 appearances.

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Perez's struggles continue in closing role

CLEVELAND -- Chris Perez is the Indians' temporary closer, while Kerry Wood is on the shelf. And Perez knows that if he keeps having days like the ones he turned in Sunday and Monday, his title will be even more temporary than anybody planned.

Perez followed up a blown save in Detroit on Sunday with another rough outing against the Rangers in the Indians' home opener, a 4-2 loss at Progressive Field. Brought into a game that was tied at 2 in the ninth, Perez let Texas load the bases without recording an out.

"Unacceptable," Perez said. "[The closer role] is probably not going to be mind much longer if I keep pitching like this."

Perez was bailed out Monday when Tony Sipp and Jamey Wright kept the Rangers from capitalizing on the loaded bases and preserved the 2-2 tie.

To his credit, Perez saved consecutive games in Chicago last Wednesday and Thursday. But in this two-day stretch, he's had some of the same problems he demonstrated in Spring Training camp -- namely, falling behind in the count.

"I'm not fooling anybody," he said. "It's hard to, when you're behind in the count. My arm's fine. I've got my stuff. It might be just one of those ruts. It's just a matter of battling through it."

How long manager Manny Acta will stick with Perez in the ninth inning remains to be seen. But Acta expressed confidence in Perez following Monday's 4-2 loss.

"This kid saved two games in Chicago, and everybody celebrated and was happy," Acta said. "Just because he struggled two games in a row doesn't mean we're going to run him out of town."

Perez could be run out of the closer's role in the not-too-distant future, regardless, because Wood is on the comeback trail. Wood, rehabbing from a strained muscle in his back, threw a 20-pitch bullpen session before Monday's game and will throw another bullpen on Thursday. Pitching coach Tim Belcher said the Indians were still discussing whether or not Wood will even need to go out on a rehab assignment in the Minors before rejoining the Tribe.

But Perez remains the closer for now.

"I've got the tools to do it," he said. "It's just a matter of doing it."

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Braun more selective at the plate

Chicago — Ryan Braun's transition has been as smooth as an untouched eggshell.

From spring training through the first week of the season, the Milwaukee Brewers leftfielder has looked crisp and fluid. He is swinging the bat with his normal grace and the mechanics are as flawless as they can be seven games into the season.

Despite the Brewers dropping a forgettable first meeting with the Chicago Cubs, 9-5, Monday at Wrigley Field, Braun was solid.

He went 2 for 4 with a run-scoring single and a three-run, no-doubt-about-it home run. This came a game after he concluded a six-game home stand by smoking a two-run laser against St. Louis Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter.

"He's taking a lot of pitches, seeing a lot of pitches and getting good swings," Brewers hitting coach Dale Sveum said. "His hands are working. I don't think he's doing too much.

"That's a big reason why he hit .320 last year."

There had been times in the past when Braun would do one of two things: either try to see too many pitches and get behind in the count, or, trying to avoid that hole, he would chase balls out of the zone early. No matter what poison he chose, he was getting himself out, although those dips in production were sporadic and sometimes lasted only two or three games.

To this point, Braun is seeing more pitches because he is picking out ones he actually wants to hit instead of ones the pitcher hopes he swings at.

In Sunday's game against the Cardinals, Braun saw 14 pitches in his five at-bats and of the balls he put into play, not one was out of the strike zone despite his 1-for-5 night.

Against Cubs right-hander Ryan Dempster, Braun saw 16 pitches in four at-bats and of those he put into play, only one was out of the zone - a changeup off the plate inside - that resulted in a hard grounder to third baseman Aramis Ramirez.

"He'll swing out of the zone," Sveum said. "But he's starting to (get it) that if you put the ability with the understanding of hitting good pitches and not going into panic mode, you have a guy that's the full package, that can win a batting title, that can hit 30 to 40 (homers), that can drive in 130 (runs).

"He's a pretty smart guy and he's just getting smarter."

Braun bumped his average up to .333 (9 for 27) with a .367 on-base percentage, and for his career he hits .293 with a .361 OBP in March and April.

Right behind him in the lineup is Prince Fielder, who isn't going badly but also isn't punishing mistakes quite yet.

Fielder was 1 for 3 with a double and run scored against the Cubs, pushing his average to .280 (7 for 25). Fielder has a .400 OBP, but he has struck out a team-high nine times.

"I still think he's putting a little too much effort into his swing," manager Ken Macha said.

This is possibly a product of something Fielder has battled his entire career: trying to do too much too early. But considering his career numbers - he batted .234 in March and April last year and .250 during those months in 2008 - Sveum said he's encouraged, not discouraged, by Fielder's first seven games.

"To me he's swung the bat better than he has the first seven days of any season," Sveum said with a chuckle. "He's such a perfectionist. I think in April he wants to do things and get off to such a great start that it backfires a little bit."

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Why Had Sapp Distanced Himself from the U?

Warren Sapp, at a UM alumni party last weekend, told us the reason he distanced himself from UM, attending only two games in 10 years, was because Butch Davis insulted him a dozen years ago. ``I'm their most decorated lineman in history, and the guy wouldn't let me on the field to help, said he wanted no distractions.'' But Sapp is getting involved with UM again because ``Donna Shalala rolled out the red carpet for me.'' Sapp refused to be part of ESPN's UM documentary because he wanted to be paid and thought others were; producer Billy Corben said no former player was.

Click here to order Warren Sapp's proCane Rookie Card.

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Kiper Says Graham Will Go in the 3rd

Mel Kiper said on Wednesday that UM TE Jimmy Graham is a "roll of the dice" in the 3rd RD. "With his size and the way he runs" he's too good to pass in 3rd round. Others say Graham could go as high as the 2nd Round in this year's draft because of the huge "upside" he posseses.

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Kiper on Fox

ESPN Draft guru Mel Kiper on Wednesday said that UM OT Jason Fox was "at best a 3rd or 4th round pick, and right now due to injuries he's about a 4th or 5th round pick." Fox pulled his hamstring at UM Pro Day two weeks ago when he was running the 40-yard dash.

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McKinnie 'looking forward' to facing Peppers twice a season

Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie had a nightmarish performance against Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers in a 26-7 loss last season.

McKinnie was benched after giving up two sacks and being called for two penalties as Peppers kept him on his heels all game. McKinnie later said his technique got "out of whack" and said he was playing on an injured foot.

McKinnie now must face Peppers twice a season after he signed with the Chicago Bears as a free agent. McKinnie was asked whether he's excited or worried about having Peppers in the same division during a live chat on NFL.com on Thursday.

"First off, I was hurt when I played against him," McKinnie wrote. "I'm really excited to play against him again and get another shot at that. I'm looking forward to playing him twice per season."

McKinnie also weighed in on the Vikings needs in the draft when asked what is the team's biggest need for improvement this season.

"Probably the safety position," McKinnie wrote. "We could use some help there. As a team, I would like to see us improve on penalties. Our special teams was strong last year too."

Like most everyone else, McKinnie also said he believe Brett Favre will return next season. You can read the transcript from the live chat right here.

-- Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is scheduled to attend the Pro Day workout of Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen today. Clausen is widely regarded as the No. 2 quarterback in the draft but there has been speculation that he could fall in the first round after Washington traded for Donovan McNabb. 

UPDATE: McKinnie received national criticism for blowing off the Pro Bowl and has been the target of criticism this offseason, including on this blog. But we feel it's only fair to also make note of a heartfelt gesture McKinnie made to help a young girl in a tough situation.

McKinnie tweeted about it this morning and he wrote in a text to us that he's fine if we share it here with his quotes.

Here was his tweet in full:
"Found a girl who is a Senior n High School, has good grades and a good role model. Right now her mother is n the hospital battling cancer. ... And she is left 2 take care of her 2 younger siblings. A lot of there money goes 2 household bills and mother's hospital bills so that ... Makes it hard 4 extra money 4 her 2 enjoy her senior prom! That's where I come n! I had ppl research 4 the perfect candidate and she won! ... I will be paying 4 her entire prom from clothes 2 make-up, 2 transportation. On her Prom nite I will go with her 2 the hospital so her [mom] ... Can see her dressed up 4 the prom! We will be filming this whole process, so I will let yall know 4 sure when this will air."

Click here to order Bryant McKinnie's proCane Rookie Card.

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Phillip Buchanon might provide Redskins with happy returns

Looking to address one of their biggest annual problem areas, the Redskins coaches have spoken with newly-signed cornerback Phillip Buchanon about returning punts this season. 

"I'm definitely looking forward to that, so I can get back ot my returning punt days, so I can get some touchdowns," Buchanon said. "So I'm definitely looking forward to that. I need some."

Buchanon was an all-American as a returner at Miami. As a pro, he regularly returned punts his first three years in the league but only sporadically since. For Detroit last season, he was credited with four returns (34 return yards) and one fumble.

He returned three punts for touchdowns in those first two seasons in Oakland, including an 80-yard return and an 83-yarder. He returned a total of 72 punts in those first three seasons but only 46 in the five seasons since leaving the Raiders.

Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen was with the Raiders when they drafted Buchanon in 2002, so he's very familiar with Buchanon's capability.

"I'm going to come in and do my best. There's no guarantees to anything," Buchanon said. "I'm just going to come in and do my best. Like I said, I'm going to work hard."

The Redskins released Rock Cartwright and Antwaan Randle El, which opened up the team's full-time returning jobs. Receiver Devin Thomas showed a flash of promise returning kickoffs last season, and if Buchanon can lock up the punt return spot -- perhaps with spot duty provided by Santana Moss and DeAngelo Hall -- the team might have found some answers to this specialist holes.

Click here to order Phillip Buchanon's proCane Rookie Card.

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Greg Olsen: 'No desire' for trade*

Via Twitter, Chicago tight end Greg Olsen has provided his first public comments since new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's arrival sparked dramatic rumors about his future with the Bears. Here is the full tweet:

So far I have a great feeling about my role this year. I have no desire to play anywhere but in Chicago. That was purely media speculation.

While it's true that Martz hasn't used the tight end extensively in previous incarnations of his offense, I've always thought he was creative enough to find a way to involve a player with Olsen's skills. Coach Lovie Smith spoke optimistically about Olsen's aptitude for Martz's scheme last month, and there has never been any indication the Bears have seriously considered trading him.

The reference to "media speculation" are reports that suggested he might not be enthused about playing the role of the traditional blocking tight end that Martz likes. Frankly, they were driven in part by Olsen's public silence on the matter. Via Twitter, Olsen said:

I think those reports have been blown outa proportion. I pit my blocking up against any other pass catching te.

It will take some adjustment on both sides for this to work. As Smith said last month, Olsen will have to line up more often on the line of scrimmage this season -- both for blocking purposes and to generate favorable matchups in the passing game. And as noted all along, Martz has never had a tight end with Olsen's skills. It's hard to believe he would overlook them.

*Update: Olsen (@gregolsen82) has continued to tweet. Via his account, he said that Martz's offense does have plays for the tight end and called that angle "another story blown out of proportion." Finally (for now), Olsen tweeted:

I have been an every down TE last two seasons and that's not gunna change regardless of what people say

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Shockey of Love: The Saints’ Tight End Launches Dating Contest

If you’ve ever wanted to compete for a shot to date a REAL man, I’m talking tattoos and back sweat, the whole works, then now is your chance, gals. Jeremy Shockey is giving one lucky lady a chance to spend a night rubbing her fingers through his greasy, golden locks.

I can’t make this stuff up, people!

Shockey made the announcement on his Facebook and Twitter pages. Here’s the direct quote from #88 himself.

“Ok LADIES heres the contest.. Post a video on the “just fans” section of my fbk fan page explaining why u deserve to have me take u on a date 1 nite this offseason… Contest ends sun night 4/18 at 8pm est… Lets have fun w this so be creative but just be careful its not too inappropriate where fbk deletes it!! good luck!!!”

Oh, one can only imagine the sort of skantastic responses he’ll get to this one. I’m guessing there will be plenty of lingerie clad groupies, babbling bimbos, and a potpourri of bad football puns of the “I can’t wait to sack you” and the “Will you be my tight end” variety. Anybody wanna place bets on the percentage of video vixens who will show up wearing just Shockey’s jersey and no pants? I’m thinking somewhere in the 90+ range.

The announcement of the contest alone generated more than 300 responses within one day, some of which included debate over whether it’s appropriate for married women to enter the contest.


… Some ladies have already lowered the bar sweetened the pot by declaring themselves a ‘cheap date.’ I mean, you’ve got to imagine this is gonna be much less The Bachelor and much more For the Love of Ray J.

If you want to keep up with the contest, you can check out the “Just Fans” section of Shockey’s wall.

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Ray Lewis in running for top 10 all-time picks

Ravens' iconic linebacker Ray Lewis is among the top 20 all-time draft picks in an NFL.com poll that celebrates 75 years of the NFL draft.
Lewis, the 26th overall pick in the 1996 draft, made the top 20 with players like Jerry Rice, Walter Payton, Dick Butkus, Jim Brown, Terry Bradshaw and Lawrence Taylor. As of Wednesday, there were nearly 40 million votes in the poll. Fans can vote at NFL.com through April 18.

From April 19 to 21, NFL.com and NFL Network will announce the top 75 through 11 draft picks. The top 10 most valuable draft picks will be announced during the first round on Thursday night, April 22. But the order of the top 10 won't be revealed until the conclusion of the second round on Friday night.

While quarterbacks Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Tom Brady, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Bradshaw all made the top 20 list, conspicuous by his absence was two-time Super Bowl winner John Elway. Elway was selected by the Baltimore Colts with the first pick in the 1983 draft and traded soon after to the Broncos.

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Payton scores 3 TDs in Slaughter's win

The Chicago Slaughter (2-3) defeated the Bloomington Extreme (2-3) 50-43 in a high octane, high scoring rematch. Slaughter running back Jarrett Payton rushed for two touchdowns and caught a bullet in the end zone from QB Randy Hutchinson.

Hutchinson threw for 194 yards and 5 TD's, completing two pass receptions to wide-receiver De'Cody Fagg.

The next Slaughter home game will be Saturday, April 24th, at the Sears Centre Arena against the Kent Predators. Kickoff will be at 7:05 p.m.

Click here to order Jarret Payton's proCane Rookie Card.

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Jimmy Graham adept at overcoming obstacles

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – The muscles in Jimmy Graham’s sculpted neck and shoulders clench as his face gets darkly serious. As Graham sits in a restaurant roughly a mile from the University of Miami, where he played tight end last year after a four-year career there in basketball, he is getting ready to block.

The memories of his mother’s mistreatment of him, that is.

“I laugh when people say, ‘Oh, he’s a basketball player, let’s see if he’s tough enough [for the NFL],’ ” Graham said following a workout last Thursday. Earlier in the day, Graham met with Cleveland Browns tight ends coach Steve Hagen, one of many NFL types to take interest in him of late. “They don’t understand what I’ve been through.”

For most of an hour-and-half long conversation, Graham’s otherwise positive nature comes sparkling through. He is a story in achievement, a poor kid who bounced from one residence to another and was even placed in a group home by his mother. He was once a failing student as a freshman in high school in Goldsboro, N.C., yet went on to graduate college in four years with a double major in business and marketing.

At his graduation in May 2009, Graham received special recognition from UM for overcoming obstacles. He stood next to school president Donna Shalala, who had taken such an interest in Graham that she even advised him to give football a chance.

“You could see that he was passionate about what he was doing when he played basketball,” Shalala said. “He played with everything he had … he has a kind of inner spirit that, deep down, you get the feeling he thinks he’s the luckiest guy on earth.

“He loved school, loved going to class, loved playing, the whole thing. He didn’t just come here to play sports. He came here for the whole experience – sometimes you take chances on young people from troubled backgrounds and it doesn’t work out. Sometimes you take a chance and you get Jimmy Graham.”

Now, Graham stands roughly two weeks from turning his one season of college football into perhaps being a second- or third-round pick in the NFL draft. The 6-foot-7, 260-pound Graham, who ran a stunning 4.50 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine, has a couple of lingering questions to answer for people around the league.

Can he parlay his superior athleticism into being another Marcus Pollard(notes) or Antonio Gates(notes), college basketball players who thrived as NFL tight ends? Can he make it through the rigors of the professional game, which is as much mentally draining as it is physically? Can he simply take a hit?

Graham doesn’t dismiss those questions. They are fair and his football résumé is too short for concrete answers. That said, there’s no pain he hasn’t felt already.

True adversity
Try as he may, there is no blocking out the memory of him falling asleep in the backseat of his mother’s car when he was 11 years old, then waking up at a group home to find his mother signing the papers to give him away, his older sister crying and yelling for his mother not to do it. There’s no forgetting his mother leaving after dropping off his clothes and belongings in a pair of garbage bags. Or the picture etched in his mind of him trying not to cry that night as he stayed in a room with two boys who were both at least two years older. Or how he was beaten again and again by the other boys, all of them older and some well on their way to delinquency.

One time, as 15 of the boys sat in a van during a field trip, the adults from the group home stopped, got out and left the children alone. One by one, the older boys took turns punching Graham until the biggest of them, a kid Graham remembers as Danny, readied to take his shot. As Danny loaded his fist, Graham decided to go pre-emptive, hitting the bigger kid first.

The first-strike set off a reaction. The rest of the kids wailed on Graham, pinning him beneath one of the bench seats. The last thing he remembered was Danny’s knee pinned against his temple. He heard a crack before the adults returned to break it up.

“I was in bed for like four days after that,” said Graham, who has never met his real father even though he’s named after him. “I called my mom to tell her. ‘Mom, I’m really hurting.’

“ ‘Sorry, I can’t do anything for you,’…” Graham said, mimicking his mother’s response and then hanging up an imaginary phone.

Graham’s dysfunctional family story is a common theme in the NFL. From Jason Taylor(notes) to Jeremy Shockey(notes) to Chad Ochocinco(notes), there are plenty of prominent players who have come from broken families.

For most of the others, there seems to be someone in their family who stood up for them. For Taylor and Shockey, it was their mothers. For Ochocinco, his grandmother.

Graham never found that kind of support until he left his family. His “grandmother” (Graham refers to the mother of his former stepfather that way) once told him in all seriousness, “Boy, you better learn to beg for quarters,” implying that he had no hope for a successful future.

Graham wasn’t just literally the redheaded stepchild. He was the redheaded stepchild who was also the product of a black father and white mother in a family where tolerance wasn’t a high priority.

“My grandmother was pretty racist,” Graham said.

After his mother divorced his stepfather when he was 9, she left him with the stepfather for a year. After she took Graham back, she gave him up again when her boyfriend, who Graham said beat him on occasion, told her to dump him.

“Here I am, 11 years old, and I had more common sense about who this guy was than my mother,” said Graham, who spent a year in the group home before his mother came back to get him. “It ends up that he was married, too, cheating on his wife with my mom the whole time.”

Graham isn’t looking for sympathy, just stating the facts at this point. These days, his connection to his mother is tenuous. They talk once every couple of weeks and Graham has a wall of mental blockers up against her.

“I tell her, ‘I forgive you, but I’ll never forget,’ ” Graham said.

Finding salvation via hunger
Graham’s thirst for emotional support as a child was quenched through his literal hunger. When he was a freshman at Eastern Wayne High School, he started attending a small church run by the family of a school friend.

“They were giving out food and I was hungry,” Graham said with a smile and a chuckle. “Hey, free food, I’m there.”

At the church, Graham met Rebecca Vinson, a youth counselor. As time passed, they talked and Graham shared tidbits about his life. Other clues were obvious.

“He’s showing up in the middle of winter in a tank top, shorts and shoes that had a bunch of holes in them,” Vinson said. “No one would choose to dress that way.”

The tipping point in their relationship was a prayer meeting the kids had one day. There were the typical requests by one kid after another: Say a prayer for my sick grandmother. Keep my aunt in your thoughts. Hope God looks over my cousin.

Then came Graham: Keep me from having to go back to a group home. My mom is thinking about sending me back there.

“He was petrified,” said Vinson, who quickly offered to take him in. “It was one of those moments that just snaps you up. How do you hear that, close your eyes, pray and then go home and think you never heard this and don’t do something?

“You could see potential in Jimmy. It was there. He just needed somebody to tell he could do it, that he was capable.”

Really, that’s all Vinson had to give at the time. This is not like Michael Oher(notes) running into some benevolent, rich family. Vinson, now 37, was struggling herself. A veteran of the first Gulf War after enlisting in the Navy as a teenager, Vinson had a young daughter she was raising on her own while going to nursing school and doing an internship. She lived in a single-wide trailer in a terrible area. By her estimate, she made roughly $3,000 on odd jobs the first year after Graham moved in.

“I was beyond poverty,” Vinson said.

“There were times she’d come back and say, ‘OK, what do we want, water or electricity, because I don’t have money to pay for both?’   ” Graham said.

While things got better after Vinson got a nursing job making roughly $50,000 her first year, life still wasn’t easy for Graham.

“My first year in high school, the first semester was really easy. They had me in all these easy classes so I’d stay eligible for football,” Graham said. “Then, I’m taking real classes. I get my first report card and it’s all F’s. I showed it to Rebecca and she got on me. It was school work first and I just worked every day.”

Graham’s focus on education became simple. He saw what a nursing degree did for Vinson. The same could happen for him. Even as he grew to be a top 100 high school recruit in basketball by his senior year – the school he transferred to didn’t have a football team – he kept his focus on getting a degree.

But even after graduating and getting a scholarship to Miami, Graham was barely getting by.

During his first semester at Miami, all he had for bedding was a sheet. He slept on the plastic cover of the bed, using the sheet as a blanket. Finally, a girl from the women’s basketball team made him a blanket.

Through all the shortcomings, Graham stayed focused with Vinson’s help.

“This kid has been through hell on earth,” Vinson said. “Most kids who grow up in an environment like that, they don’t make it or they go the other way. You have to be beyond tough, stuff that most adults don’t understand.

“It cracks me up when I hear people wonder about his toughness. He’s tough enough for football and anything that he wants to achieve in his life.”

The longer Vinson talked, the closer she got to breaking down in tears, her voice quavering.

“I love him as if he’s my own child,” said Vinson, who attended Graham’s graduation. Graham’s mother and other family members did not.

“I can’t imagine my life without Jimmy. My life is better because he’s in it … sitting at his graduation, I was a complete wreck. I was crying and words can’t describe how proud I was of him.

“I hope for the rest of my life, I never forget that feeling. It makes me tear up just thinking about it.”

Hardwood to gridiron
There are strong indications Graham has the right temperament for football. As he likes to point out, he had more personal fouls than made baskets during his college hoops career.

In fact, it’s not real close. As a power forward who specialized in rebounding and defense, Graham channeled the spirit of Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer, piling up 277 career fouls and 201 career baskets. At one point in a three-game span of his freshman year, Graham had 11 fouls in 30 minutes of game action.

“When you watched him play [basketball], he played more like a football player playing basketball,” UM head strength and conditioning coach Andrew Swasey said.

“He took more charges than anybody else on our team,” said UM basketball coach Frank Haith, whose team made the NCAA tournament when Graham was a junior and the NIT his senior year. While the Hurricanes went 20-13 last season, Graham’s absence was obvious to Haith.

“We missed his leadership, toughness and aggressiveness. All the little things that don’t show up in the stats that go into a team winning, he did that. … Jimmy could have been a better scorer, but he loved defending and rebounding,” Haith said. “No question, he’s my favorite player I ever coached because he was selfless … as a coach, those are the guys you love.”

Graham’s lunch-pail/enforcer mentality also played well when he showed up for football. This wasn’t some trash-talking hoops guy who thought he could walk onto the gridiron and dominate.

“That’s what the football guys appreciated most about him,” Swasey said. “He didn’t come in looking for a bunch of attention or talking about himself.”

Early on, the football coaches had to repeatedly tell him not to tackle people in practice. First of all, this was just practice. Second, he was playing offense, so it wasn’t really the point of what he was supposed to do.

Graham, who turned down several six-figure-a-year offers to play basketball in Europe, was also smart enough to know what he didn’t know about football. He hadn’t played since freshman year in high school and even back then didn’t do much more than get by on athleticism.

“I didn’t try to take it all on in one day because that was never going to work,” said Graham, referring to the small details such as hand placement, reading coverages and running routes. “I broke it down into little parts then did each part one day and then worked on the next part.”

It took awhile for all the parts to come together. The season opener at Florida State was a prime example. On the first throw to him, Graham looked back at the ball and went into basketball mode.

“He blocked out the guy defending him,” Swasey said, laughing. “He looks back for the ball and goes for the block out instead of jumping for the ball. The pass sails right past his head. It was hysterical. We were all laughing.”

By the end of the season, Graham made enough progress that he finished with 17 catches for 213 yards and, most importantly, five touchdowns. With his size and speed, NFL scouts, coaches and executives see X’s and O’s dancing in their head.

The Detroit Lions have shown serious interest in him, resulting in head coach Jim Schwartz spending a lot of time with Graham personally.

“He was talking about using me in a four-receiver set with me and [tight end Brandon] Pettigrew in the slot to help out [quarterback Matt] Stafford,” Graham said. “[Schwartz] said they want to do everything they can to help out Stafford.”

Plenty of other teams have similar thoughts.

“Trust me, this kid is climbing the charts in the draft,” an NFC general manager said. “You watch him from the beginning to the end of the season and the progress is unreal. He completely looks like a football player by the end.”

As Graham drove around Miami after his meeting with Cleveland, former UM and NFL quarterback Bernie Kosar calls for a full rundown of the day. Kosar, who still has strong ties to the Browns from his days with the team, wants to know every question the Browns asked and wants a review of the answers. Kosar, in fact, is one of the first to prep Graham.

Last spring, after Graham decided to play football, Kosar began driving three days a week from his home in Fort Lauderdale to the UM campus to throw passes to Graham and then talk about reading coverages.

“Bernie was telling me before I even got on the field that he thought I could be a big-play threat in the NFL,” Graham said. “Hearing that from a guy like him, man, you don’t know what that does to your confidence.”

Truth is, a little support is all Graham has ever really needed. He craved it desperately as a child and drinks it up now.

“He just needed somebody to tell him he’s OK and you see what’s happened,” Vinson said.

There’s plenty of residual damage when it comes to trust. Graham admits that his circle of friends is very tight, including roughly a half-dozen people he has met since high school. None of them are from before he went to live with Vinson. Forming relationships, particularly with women he wants to date, is a careful process.

“I tell every woman I meet, ‘If you’re interested in getting married, you better move on, I’m waiting a long time,’ ” Graham said. “I’m thinking probably 32. It started off at 30, but now it’s going up … and if a woman comes up to me wanting to go out, no that’s not happening. I have to pursue her.”

Graham puts his hand up slightly as he says that, putting up another block. His shoulders and neck don’t clench this time, but the line is still drawn. Graham is ready to protect himself from the pain.

And he’s willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal.

“The level of appreciation this kid had for what he’s got was amazing,” Haith said. “This is a kid who easily could have been angry and taken it out on everybody around him. He never did. Instead, he just worked and worked and worked.”

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Sinorice Moss to Support President's Call to Service at NAB Show

LAS VEGAS, April 9 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- New York Giants wide receiver Sinorice Moss, in conjunction with the Corporation for National and Community Service, will support President Obama's United We Serve initiative at the annual National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in Las Vegas on April 12.

Moss will be available for interviews at the NAB's Public Service Pavilion on the show floor on April 12 from 9-11:30 a.m. Moss will discuss the importance and impact of volunteering, and echo the President's call for more Americans to make a difference in their communities through service. The star football player will also encourage broadcasters to support the initiative by airing the United We Serve -- "Are You With Me?" PSAs featuring Jon Bon Jovi. Click here to view and download the television PSAs.  

Sinorice Moss, New York Giants wide receiver

Press Avail

Monday April 12, 9 a.m.–11:30 a.m.

NAB Exhibit Hall Floor, Booth #6138
NAB Public Service Pavilion, N. Hall
Las Vegas Convention Center

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Struggling Burrell shows some spark

ST. PETERSBURG - There were some positives in the Rays' 7-3 loss to the Yankees on Sunday, not the least of which was struggling DH Pat Burrell going 2-for-4.

Burrell, coming off a dismal season, entered the game 1-for-12 and grounded out in his first at-bat. But he singled off A.J. Burnett in the fifth and singled again off closer Mariano Rivera in the ninth.

"It's one game, but that's how it starts," Burrell said after raising his average to .188. "It's unfortunate we lost the game and the series, but for me personally, I think I'm moving in the right direction, and hopefully it will continue."

Burrell got doubled-up after his single in the fifth. The Rays had a hit-and-run called, and Dioner Navarro hit a line drive to center. CF Curtis Granderson made a nice catch and threw out Burrell at first.

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Chris Perez: Dramatic Blown Save

Update: Perez blew a save opportunity on Sunday, giving up three runs to the Tigers in the ninth to get the loss. He allowed three hits and three walks, and finished the game with a wild pitch.

Recommendation: Perez was called upon to get a four-out save after Rafael Perez scuffled in the eighth inning. The game-ending wild pitch put the caps on a blown 7-1 lead. He'll likely get the next save chance for the Indians, if for no other reason than the Tribe has no readily identifiable alternative.

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Giants' Huff is relieved to be out of AL East

The Yankees and Red Sox will meet tonight to open the 2010 season. Of course they will. Do you really think Bud Selig pulled the two teams out of a hat? He and his TV pals wanted these Eastern Seaboard powers to initiate the 2,430-game regular season and help divert attention from the Final Four, the NFL draft countdown and all things Tiger Woods.

And why not? The Yankees and Red Sox – who pay all that money, win all those games and brag about all those pennant races – are Selig’s biggest and baddest commodities. That’s just the way it is.

Not that everyone’s cool with that. Imagine what it feels like to be the Orioles, the Blue Jays or, until 2008, the Rays, the division’s also-rans whose destiny is to play in the shadow of Boston and the Bronx.

New Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff was there the past decade and is elated to escape.

“When you think American League East, you think Yankees-Red Sox and going against those enormous payrolls,” Huff said. “I’ve done that my whole career, playing on lower-payroll teams in that division. Having seen it from that side, it gets pretty annoying, pretty monotonous, having to compete with that much money.”

Huff broke into the majors in 2000 with Tampa Bay, where he played into the 2006 season. He was in Baltimore from 2007 to 2009. Aside from a couple of quick stops in Houston and Detroit, he has been an AL East lifer.

He loved playing the Yankees and Red Sox, especially when thousands of their followers visited Tropicana Field and Camden Yards – “the biggest games I’ve ever played,” he said – and no Orioles fan will forget his home run off boisterous Joba Chamberlain in May. Tired of the New York pitcher’s gestures (maybe tired of the Yankees altogether), Huff mocked Chamberlain by pumping his fist and shouting around first base and again at the plate.

“That was fun,” said Huff, smiling. “I like to have fun, man.”

Now he’s thankful to be in the up-for-grabs National League West, where a payroll three times the size of the Padres’ isn’t required to succeed.

“You’ve got to give it to them. They go out and spend the money and win,” Huff said of the Yankees and Red Sox. “That’s what their fans ask them to do, and that’s what they do. If you’re going to get to the playoffs in that division, you have to do what Tampa Bay did (in 2008). You have to have homegrown talent that all comes together at the same time, and you need a little magic on your side.”

It’s more of the same this year. The Yankees (additions: Javier Vazquez, Curtis Granderson, Nick Johnson, Randy Winn) and Red Sox (John Lackey, Mike Cameron, Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro) are popular picks to finish 1-2 or 2-1, though the Rays believe they’ll contend again by avoiding another 9-14 April and getting big years from a young rotation and new closer (Rafael Soriano).

The Orioles, hoping to become the next Rays, have promising youth and some new old-timers (Kevin Millwood, Garrett Atkins and Miguel Tejada, again), and the Blue Jays are trying to survive without their only sure thing, Roy Halladay.

Sometimes it’s good to be in the NL West.

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Jon Jay: Fast Start for Memphis

Memphis Redbirds outfielder Jon Jay has three multi-hit games in three tries this season. The former Miami Hurricane leads the Triple-A club with seven hits and two stolen bases through the first three games. The 25-year-old is batting .389 (7-for-18) with a home run and four RBI so far.

The left-handed hitter finished second on the 2009 Redbirds with 142 hits (Allen Craig was tops with, 152 hits). Jay also finished behind Craig last summer with 47 multi-hit games but did lead the Redbirds with 39 two-hit performances.

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Reds' Yonder Alonso to play left field in Double-A

Reds prospect Yonder Alonso will primarily play left field for Double-A Carolina this season.

Interesting. With Joey Votto blocking his path to the majors at first base, Alonso will begin the transition to the outfield. The former 2008 first-round pick, who turns 23 this month, batted .292/.374/.464 with nine home runs and 52 RBI in his first full year of pro ball last season and was ranked as the organization's No. 2 prospect by Baseball America over the winter.

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Oakland A's Prospect Q&A: Jemile Weeks, 2B

Even before the first pitch was thrown, the 2010 season was already off to a better start for Oakland A’s second base prospect Jemile Weeks because he was healthy and in an Opening Day line-up. The A’s 2008 first-round pick is off to a strong early start for Double-A Midland. We spoke with Weeks from Midland on Friday.

At this time last year, Jemile Weeks’ name was nowhere to be found in the minor league boxscores. The former Miami star was back in Phoenix, working his way through a myriad of leg ailments that stemmed from a torn hip flexor he had suffered during a game with the Low-A Kane County Cougars in July 2008.

Weeks didn’t complete his rehab until May, when he joined the High-A Stockton Ports. Even when he did report, his activities were still somewhat limited. Weeks wound-up appearing in only 80 regular season games with Stockton and Double-A Midland last season, batting .278 with a 782 OPS. After helping the Midland Rockhounds win a Texas League title, Weeks, now healthy, participated in the Arizona Fall League and was named to the league’s All-Prospect team.

Weeks was a non-roster invite to the A’s big league spring training camp for a second consecutive season. During camp, he got to work with A’s Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, who was a special instructor. Weeks hit well in big league camp, collecting two extra-base hits and scoring four runs in seven official at-bats.

At the close of spring training, Weeks was assigned to the Rockhounds, and he has helped Midland get off to a 2-0 start by collecting five hits in his first nine at-bats, including two doubles and a triple. We caught-up with Weeks on Friday to get his thoughts on the new season, his health, being teammates with Stephen Strasburg and more…

OaklandClubhouse: How was it to be out there for Opening Day after missing it last year?
Jemile Weeks: It was great. Obviously it was my first one. Just for it to be my first one, it was something that I was looking forward to since coming into spring training. It was refreshing to get out there and know that I am starting out the season on the right note.

OC: Obviously, it is early, but how would you compare this year’s Rockhounds team to the one you won the championship with last season?
JW: It’s pretty similar. We don’t have a big bat like we had with Chris Carter last year, who is going to give us 25, 30 homeruns in a season. But we have a lot of guys who are skilled players, who can put it out of the ballpark up and down the line-up. I think we are more balanced, maybe.

OC: How was spring training this year? I assume you were able to get in all of your workouts since you were healthy.
JW: It was really good for me. I was able to play at 100 percent. It was good to be out there on the field and know that you were going to be playing.

OC: Did you have to do anything special this off-season to keep your legs and hip healthy?
JW: You just tailor your workouts to the deficiency that you have. For me, it was my legs, so I focused on my core and my legs mostly this off-season.

OC: How was it working with Rickey Henderson in Instructs and again this spring? Did you learn anything?
JW: From what I learned [from Rickey Henderson], it was a few little things that I think are going to help a lot. Mostly it was just getting that aggressiveness back from not being healthy enough to run every day. He really banged that into my head, just the fact that you really have to have that eagerness and that readiness that nobody can get you out. That’s what gives you that aggressiveness to go. That’s probably the biggest thing that I took from him, but he had some little tidbits that he used to do that I am working on.

OC: Were there any tricks that he taught you that you were surprised to learn or did it all make sense when he was explaining it?
JW: Some of the stuff was surprising, but for the most part, it made sense. There are some things that he did that are obviously not going to be able to translate to other people, but, for the most part, what he said made sense.

OC: Did he help you with just base-running or did he work with you on being a leadoff hitter, as well?
JW: Everything, yeah. It was specifically for base-running, for the most part, but he actually stuck around the hitting a lot when he was working with me.

OC: How was big league camp this year, having been a part of it last year? Were you a little more comfortable?
JW: Yes, that is exactly what it was, more comfortable. I already knew the guys and the coaches, so it wasn’t much of a reason to be nervous or anything like that.

OC: It seemed like you were swinging the bat well in big league camp. Did that carry over into minor league camp?
JW: Yeah, it actually did. I was seeing the ball pretty well and I was able to work on a few things that I am using right now. Hopefully it will translate well throughout the whole season.

OC: Your regular season stint last year with Midland was a bit of a struggle (Weeks hit only .238 with Midland). Were there things from last year that you are trying to improve on for this year?
JW: Just the mental part of the game. At that point in the season, it is easy to pretty much go through the motions at times. But this year I think mentally I am stronger. I think I am better prepared to go out there and carry out what I need to do throughout the whole season.

OC: You were teammates with Stephen Strasburg during the Arizona Fall League last year. Was the media attention surrounding him kind of weird?
JW: It wasn’t really weird. I kind of expected it once he got there. We knew all of the hype and that the media was going to be crazy over him. It wasn’t really weird, it was actually more interesting than anything.

OC: Did he live up to the hype when you saw him pitch?
JW: Yeah, I thought he was a great pitcher. He’s a big league pitcher if you ask me. Maybe he needs some polishing up, like a lot of people believe, but in the end, I believe with his arm and his control, he’s a big league pitcher.

OC: Did you learn anything from the coaches at the Arizona Fall League, even ones not in the A’s organization?
JW: Yeah, I actually liked working with the coach who was with our organization a lot, Coach Mac [Sacramento hitting coach Brian McArn]. He helped me to keep my body centered at the plate and being well-balanced. Those were the main things that I was working on.

OC: How are you feeling defensively right now?
JW: I feel pretty good. I know that is one of the parts of my game that I am working on and I am going to continue to work on it. As of right now, I feel like I have improved and I am definitely looking to improve more throughout this season and definitely into the next off-season.

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