T.J. SIMERS

If Chris Paul stays, Clippers may go far

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So does she love L.A.?

"She loves L.A.," says Paul. "And my son seems to like it."

The media here is terrific, I remind him, and he obviously agrees. So what more does he want?

    WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — It was about this time last season, after returning to Reno for the stretch run of the Pacific Coast League season, when Andy Tracy came to the conclusion that his playing days were coming to an end.

    Travel in the PCL, which spreads across three time zones and stretches from the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf of Mexico and all points in between, was tough on Tracy's 38-year-old body, and for the first time since 2003 he was playing semi-regularly at third base.

    "That probably didn't help much," the former IronPigs fan favorite said of the return to his original position. "It was just getting harder and harder. I still thought I could play, but I was done mentally — I just didn't want to play, and my body was starting to do some weird things."

    So when Tracy walked off the field last Sept. 11 following Reno's 13-2 loss to Sacramento in the fifth game of the PCL semifinals, it brought an end to a 16-year career that included 149 Major League games over five seasons and 309 home runs, 296 of them in the minors.

    However, his decision didn't end his days in a baseball uniform.

    Tracy is a month into his first season as manager of the short-season Williamsport Crosscutters, the Phillies affiliate in the New York-Penn League. It's a path many had predicted for the Bowling Green, Ohio, who was widely respected by his teammates, managers and coaches.

    "He studied the game, showed leadership in the clubhouse and on the field, has a strong work ethic and was a person of good character," said Benny Looper, the Phillies assistant general manager of player personnel. "He's someone we thought very highly of when he played for us and someone who can go a long way with this."

    "I'm just really enjoying this," Tracy, sitting behind a desk in an office deep under the aluminum grandstand at Williamsport's quaint Bowman Field, said of his new job. "It's a lot more paperwork, but it's fun, and I'm getting back to basics with a lot of young kids."

    Tracy, who hit .288 with 18 home runs in 81 games in his final season, had always planned on getting into coaching on some level, and he wanted to make a quick transition, saying he wanted to start passing his knowledge along while it was still fresh in his mind.

    "I wanted to get right into this; I wanted to be around the game," Tracy said. "I think you have an awful lot to offer right when you leave the game because you remember a lot of things when you were a player; if you leave for a while, you might forget things, the little things that might make a difference to a kid."

    And they are kids. The average age of Tracy's players is 21, including four 19-year-olds: catcher Chance Numata, shortstop Roman Quinn, third baseman Mitch Walding, and outfielder Larry Greene.

    Sixteen of Williamsport's current 29-man roster are in their first season of pro ball.

    "I'm still learning that they don't know stuff that I took for granted for so long," Tracy said with a grin. "It's just the process of learning and moving forward for all of us."

    "At that level you're teaching guys to be professionals as much as anything else," Looper said.

    Many of Tracy's young proteges also have not experienced failure on the field, have not experienced the ups-and-downs that a grueling professional season brings.

    Getting them to accept that, and figure out how to handle both the highs and the lows of the game, is a key component of the learning process at the entry level.

    "I love coming to the park every day, working with them to realize they're going to be bad some days and they're going to be good some days," Tracy said. "They don't really know the game yet, things like when to play no doubles, about being ready for a guy to bunt, about paying attention to scouting reports and remembering things from earlier in the season or even the game and making adjustments."

    Soon after the season Tracy began making calls in search of a position and quickly had an offer from Arizona, Reno's parent club, to be a minor league hitting coach. But when the Phillies offered a managerial spot, he jumped at it.

    "I don't know how important it was, but I felt I could do it," Tracy said, adding that he jumped at the offer partly because "I didn't know if anything else was going to open up.

    "I have a lot to offer all the players," he added of his desire to be a manager. "When you're a hitting coach, you only really work with half the players; you don't get involved with half the roster. I just thought my personality best suited being a manager."

    As a player, Tracy said he valued structure and organization from the coaching staff, and that's his main objective now that he's sitting in the manager's office. His main rule: don't be late.

    "My goal is to come in every day and have stuff on the [bulletin] board so they know what they're going to do today and the next day," Tracy said. "I think at this level it's huge for these kids to know what time they need to be here and what they're going to do when they're here."

    It's on the field, where he says he now spends more time than he did when he was a player, that Tracy still feels most comfortable.

    "I love being here, I love coming to the park every day," Tracy said. "You have to be available and be on the field and do tons of work with them. They need repetitions, lots of them, and they will take a thousand ground balls and a thousand swings if you let them. But you can't do too many and be ready to perform in the game."

    The toughest part of his first season is that his wife, Tiffany, and two children, Conner and Nola, are not with him this summer. "My wife had wanted to start working and she took a job, and the kids are getting into sports and stuff," Tracy said. "It's tough for me but better for them. I just put my nose to the grindstone and my work."

    "From everything I've heard so far, he's done an excellent job," Looper said. "We've got a very young club there, and they're in good hands."

    Jeff.schuler@mcall.com

    610-820-6781

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"Just to know," he says, while agreeing one of the questions he will be asking himself might decide it all: Will the Clippers ever have what it takes to win a NBA championship?

"No" is the easy answer so far, the Lakers casting an even more imposing championship shadow in town with the hyped arrival of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard.

Might that alone convince Paul to go elsewhere?

"Seriously, all that hype does nothing for me," Paul says. "When I played on the USA side in the Olympics I was on the side where all the hype was pointing. And at the end of the day you still had to play the game.

"I think everything that happened this summer [with the Lakers] is great for L.A., great for the game, media and fans. They are unbelievably talented; their top five could be an All Star team. But you've got to play the games."

And so here we are, Game 1, Lob City and Ralph Lawler writing on Clippers.com, "For the first time in my 34 seasons with the Clippers, I can honestly say that this year they can contend for the NBA Championship."

That would mean the Clippers would be better than the Lakers. We already know this: If the Lakers had the Clippers' bench they might be one of the great teams of all time.

But enough about the Lakers. How about the most exciting basketball team in Los Angeles?

Wowie, wow, where to start?

How about Kobe Crawford, shooting every time the ball touches his hands, the degree of difficulty increasing seemingly with every shot and leading the Clippers with 29 points.

Then there is Eric Bledsoe, who sparked the Clippers' playoff rally against Memphis a year ago, leading a fourth-quarter charge again to vault the Clippers ahead of the Grizzlies.

Hard to imagine a better backup point guard in the game now.

Lamar Odom comes on, grabs five rebounds in eight minutes, makes a devastating block of a Tony Allen jumper in the fourth quarter and eat your heart out, Mark Cuban.

I haven't even mentioned the starters.

DeAndre Jordan goes the length of the court for a slam, and a few minutes later Griffin is doing the same. And it's the first quarter. So many more dunks to come.

Throw in technicals on Griffin and former Clipper Zach Randolph, and then later Randolph pulling Griffin to the floor, and no one around here is taking their time to adjust to changes.

Now it would be sacrilegious to suggest there's a Showtime feel to the Clippers, but something has to be better than the Clippers' marketing campaign built around the word "Represent."

They certainly don't represent what we remember about the Clippers. This is a deep team now with a pair of Hollywood-style leading actors in Paul and Griffin.

Lots to like, especially now that the Lakers have started flat. And Paul says the Clippers are just getting started.

But will he be here to finish the deal?

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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