It wasn’t that long ago, really, that I had dreams of playing in the major leagues. I would rush home from practice on my yellow Free Spirit, drenched in sweat and hurrying to catch the last few innings of a Cubs game on WGN. That green grass, that ivy, the rooftops…it all spoke to me, but what hooked me was the graceful play of the quiet man at second base.

Ryne Sandberg played the position like no one I had ever seen. Spare me your Joe Morgans and Rogers Hornsbys. Maybe if I’d been 14 when they played, I would have a near irrational attachment to them. Maybe if they were on a Nike poster that showed them jumping so high it looked like they might go over the rooftops. Sandberg would show up every day, on my screen or on the box score in USA Today. I followed every game in 1990 from thousands of miles away and somehow I felt like I was there when Sandberg barely beat out Darryl Strawberry for the home-run title. I died a little bit when he walked away unexpectedly, and while he wasn’t the same player when he came back, he was enough. We got to see Ryno one more time and revel in his professionalism and talent. Sunday, we’ll get the chance to say thank you for all those sun-drenched afternoons of joy and class.

Once I let go of the dreams of playing at Wrigley Field, there was something that drew me back anyway. I never made any plans to end up doing this, writing about baseball for a living, but I was doing my homework all the same. Every week, I would read “Diamond Notes” and Peter Gammons would take me on a tour of baseball. He was everywhere and knew everything. When he first came to “Baseball Tonight,” it was like Gammons was in our living rooms, whispering secrets in our ear. The difference between Peter and many of the other writers in the business is passion. After a career that has brought him to Cooperstown, he makes it seem as if he’s never once thought of going to the ballpark as a job, as if he’s as excited to be at Fenway as I was the first time I stepped on to the field at Wrigley with a press pass around my neck, and his columns are still the industry standard. I probably would not be here had Peter not graciously mentioned my column in his, a moment that remains one of the highlights of my life.

On Sunday, two of my heroes will stand on the same stage and step across the line into immortality. It’s just a small “thank you” from one baseball fan, but I hope that each of them reads this and knows just how much of a part they played in my becoming who I am today.

Powered by dreams, on to the injuries …

  • You know what’s really strange? Seeing that Roger Clemens isn’t the only Clemens in my database anymore. No, there’s Koby, his son and Astros minor-league third baseman, right there, every time I type in Clemens. There’s been a lot of concern that a man old enough to have a kid in the minors would be forced to miss a start with back spasms. It’s not the case. “He’s dealt with it for the entire time he’s been in Houston,” my source told me. “It’s worse if he’s talking about it, but you know Roger–he’ll be out there even if he just pulled a bullet out of his side.”
  • Things continue to spiral for the Yankees rotation. Kevin Brown is not only heading to the DL again, for what must be a record 14th time, but there’s a feeling coming from many that Brown is heading for season- and career-ending surgery. Brown heads back to California to meet with Robert Watkins, the surgeon that performed his 2002 back surgery. A final decision on surgery should be made by early next week. Brown was put on the DL retroactively and replaced on the roster by new acquisition Shawn Chacon.
  • Ryan Howard isn’t going to move because Jim Thome may not be able to move. Thome was in Birmingham earlier this week having his problematic elbow checked by Jim Andrews. The problem occurs during throwing and recurred very early in Thome’s Clearwater rehab program. He’s able to swing without significant problem, meaning his timeframe of a late August return is probably still on track. The injury appears to be another iteration of the chronic tendonitis that has developed in his right elbow.
  • On Thursday, Matt Clement had another round of tests on his dome. While results are not yet available, the medical staff has told the Red Sox that Clement will likely miss only one start. If the tests come back clear, as expected, Clement will throw on the side this weekend and a simulated game on the day of his next scheduled start Tuesday to keep him on schedule.

    Yesterday’s quote from Buster Olney brought in a lot of e-mail. First, I was able to confirm that the ball that hit Bryce Florie did not drop, but instead was fielded by the third baseman. Second, a lot of you really know your physics. Dr. Eric Martell, the Chair of the Physics and Astronomy departments at Millikin College, dropped this note to me: “I’m sure that I’m not the only one writing you about this, but when two objects collide, the force of impact is actually greater when the one object recoils significantly, rather than just lying there. Newton’s Second Law of Motion (Force=mass x acceleration) can be re-written as Force= (change in momentum)/(time of collision). The momentum of an object is its mass times its velocity, and since the mass of the ball doesn’t change, what we can say is that the force that Matt Clement’s head applies to the ball (which is equal and opposite to the force the ball applies to his head) is proportional to the change in velocity. Now, velocity is a vector, which means that the direction of motion matters: the change between 10 mph and -10 mph is 20 mph, while the change between 10 mph and 0 mph is 10 mph.”

  • Mets fans have been focused on the ongoing Alfonso Soriano drama while Kazuo Matsui has suddenly healed up. A player who Mets officials were expecting to miss the season earlier this week is now prepping for a weekend rehab start in Florida. According to St. Lucie sources, the only limitation that Matsui has right now is in inability to bat left-handed without pain in his knee. If Matsui’s progress continues, it’s unclear what kind of situation he’ll have back in Queens.
  • There’s no feud between Rod Barajas and Sammy Sosa. That doesn’t make Barajas’ left arm heal up any better. Sosa did his best Ty Cobb imitation at the plate Wednesday night, coming in spikes high and leaving a sizeable gash on Barajas’ arm. Sandy Alomar filled Barajas’ slot and drilled Sidney Ponson with a liner. While Ponson is likely to miss at least one start, the thumb isn’t broken. Let’s call this whole episode even.
  • The Dodgers have had more than their share of injuries despite one of the most respected medical staffs in baseball, proving that luck still plays a big part in baseball. The latest casualty is Jayson Werth, who had fluid drained from his knee by team doctor Frank Jobe. Werth is expected to miss a few games while the knee gets back to normal. The situation is likely to require off-season scoping.
  • Two months after the Pirates said that Mike Gonzalez wouldn’t miss much time with a knee sprain, Gonzalez is back on the mound. The timing is exquisite, since Gonzalez is the most likely to take over Jose Mesa‘s role when healthy. Gonzalez won’t be ready if Mesa is traded before the deadline; he’ll still need a rehab assignment, likely to start next week and stop in Indianapolis.

  • Quick Cuts: Aramis Ramirez isn’t expected to miss more time with a mild quad strain … Whither Rick Ankiel? The former pitcher is toiling away with the horribly named “Swing of the Quad Cities” in Single-A. He’d be considered for the fourth/fifth outfielder slot with the big club if his knee was healthy. He’s limited to DH and is likely to retire after the season, becoming one of the great might-have-beens … Dontrelle Willis has made a habit of fading in the second half. We chalked it up to workload in his magical rookie season, but he doesn’t have that excuse any more. His leg was higher than it has been in his last start and his results were better. If he can hold his mechanics together, I think he’ll finish stronger … If Gil Meche had any trade value, it dropped dramatically when he left Thursday’s start with a sore pitching shoulder … The Yankees are patching their rotation, but don’t forget Chien-Ming Wang. Wang will start a throwing program next week that could have him back in the Bronx for a playoff run.

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