Hammonds' meteoric rise sends expectations into orbit, but rookie remains down to earth

SHOOTING STAR

July 04, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

Everything has happened so fast, rookie Jeffrey Hammonds isn't quite sure what to make of it. Two months ago, he was touring the two-horse towns of the Double-A Eastern League and today he is enjoying the first stop on his first major-league road trip.

If Chicago is "the city of big shoulders," then Hammonds should fit right in. He already is carrying a lot on his, including the tremendous expectations that are sure to haunt him throughout the early years of his professional baseball career.

"My parents have always reminded me that nothing comes easy," he said the other day, perhaps to remind himself that his first week in the major leagues was a little too magical to take for granted.

He had two hits in his major-league debut to help the Orioles stage a six-run comeback against the New York Yankees. He had a home run and a double in his second game to prompt the first of what could be a career full of curtain calls at Camden Yards. He hit safely in his first six games to tie Chito Martinez's club record for hits in consecutive games at the start of a career. It may not be that easy, but Hammonds certainly is making it look that way.

How good is this guy? Good enough to put the front office on the spot later this week when starting left fielder Brady Anderson returns from the disabled list. Anderson is certain to return to the starting lineup, but Hammonds may not be returning to the minor leagues. If he stays, something will have to give.

Nobody wants to speculate about that yet, but there is a critical organizational decision to be made. The club seemed determined to keep Hammonds in the minor leagues for at least one full season, but that idea was abandoned 10 days ago when the decision was made to call him up. Though he would go back without complaint, the Orioles' lineup is not so deep that he is expendable.

How good is he? Good enough that when he was batting .421 with a home run and four RBI after five games, assistant general manager Frank Robinson insisted that "you haven't even seen the best part of his game yet."

The right choice

The Orioles have every right to be excited. They have done extremely well with their first picks in the amateur draft the past few years. Four of their five first-round choices from 1988 to 1992 -- Gregg Olson (1988), Ben McDonald (1989), Mike Mussina (1990) and Hammonds -- are on the 25-man major-league roster.

Hammonds is just the latest high-profile draftee to be tagged as a potential Hall of Famer in Baltimore, but manager Johnny Oates doesn't want the anticipation to get out of hand. He saw the way unrealistic expectations inhibited the development of McDonald. He would like to see Hammonds allowed to progress at a normal rate.

"You can say anything you want," Oates said, "but you don't have any collateral yet. So many people get carried away making predictions, but let's just sit back and enjoy him . . . let him play."

That's exactly what the Orioles are doing. They called up Hammonds from Rochester when Anderson was forced onto the disabled list with a severe case of chickenpox. The move altered the chemistry of the lineup -- Harold Reynolds has moved into the leadoff spot and Hammonds has been batting ninth -- but it did not undo the club's offensive recovery.

Hammonds had six hits in his first three games, is hitting .382 with two homers and eight RBI after nine, and has filled in nicely for Anderson in left field. He had a three-run homer in last night's 9-6 win over the Chicago White Sox. He has generated excitement in the stands and in the front office, but his conservative manager is trying to keep a lid on the Hammonds hysteria.

"He looks very talented," Oates said. "When we scouted him, we graded him across the board as a plus player, but do you remember Steve Chilcott?"

Oates was playing the devil's advocate. Chilcott was the No. 1 selection in the 1966 June draft, but he never made it to the major leagues. The No. 2 pick that year did pretty well. His name was Reggie Jackson.

And the first shall be fourth

Hammonds was the fourth player in last year's draft, but he might have gone higher if the Houston Astros, Cleveland Indians and Montreal Expos -- the three teams choosing ahead of the Orioles -- had not been under the impression he would be difficult to get under contract.

No. 1 pick Phil Nevin was the College Player of the Year, but Hammonds was considered the best athlete in the draft and the market bore that out. He got the highest signing bonus of any 1992 draftee, signing for $975,000 after contract negotiations that were surprisingly quick and painless.

"I wasn't a tough sign," Hammonds says now. "I think a lot of people thought I was going to demand Brien Taylor money [$1.8 million as the top pick in 1991, by the New York Yankees], but we were just trying to get what was applicable to my situation."

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