Not Blinded By The Light

February 23, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

SARASOTA, FLA — SARASOTA, Fla. -- Jeffrey Hammonds feigned horror. He was headed out the door for his first workout of spring yesterday and suddenly realized he was not exactly dressed for success.

He was wearing one of those stud earrings that would be fairly certain to make a bad first impression on straight-laced manager Johnny Oates, and Hammonds -- one of baseball's flashiest young prospects -- is not about to make bad first impressions.

The earring might have gotten through the day unnoticed. It wasn't one of those Barry Bonds look-at-how-cool-I-am earlobe extravaganzas, but Hammonds knew it wouldn't fly. He took it out and trotted off for his first full season in the major leagues, knowing full well which diamond would end up being his best friend.

This is not a story about the fashion habits of young players, but that small incident said a lot about Hammonds. He arrived in the Orioles organization as the most touted college prospect in the nation, but he has spent the past year working hard just to fit in.

No false humility. No attempt to diminish expectations. Nothing phony. Just a careful and concerted effort to show everyone that he wants to be liked and accepted.

"I've liked him ever since I first met him," assistant general manager Frank Robinson said. "He has confidence in himself and his ability, but he's willing to listen. He's willing to learn. Usually, when you have a kid in his position, you can't tell him anything.

"He came in to me last year and asked, 'How should I act?' That impressed me. I told him to just be himself and let his actions speak more than words."

Hammonds did that last year . . . to a point. He was the first player from the 1992 amateur draft to make the majors when he was called up on June 25, and he turned the opportunity into a personal showcase with a .337 average and 19 RBIs in his first month of play.

Who knows what would have happened if he had been able to stay in the lineup, but a neck injury forced him onto the disabled list twice and limited him to a handful of appearances the rest of the season.

The injury was not considered serious at first, but it turned into a career crisis before Hammonds even had a foothold on his career. He eventually was diagnosed with a herniated cervical disk, which presented the scary possibility of neck surgery.

Now, he has returned with a clean bill of health and a chance to start the season as the everyday right fielder. But Hammonds, 22, claims he would have been able to walk away happy if the injury had seriously threatened his career.

"I didn't really think that was a possibility," he said, "but up to that point, I've been blessed by the Lord. He has given me everything a kid could dream of. If it was time for that part of my life to end, I could have handled it."

Past is filled with success

Who can argue? There doesn't appear to be much of anything that Hammonds can't do.

He was the first freshman in the history of Stanford University to be named a first-team All-American. He established a Pac-10 Conference record by hitting in 37 straight games. He batted .300 in the minor leagues and then took full advantage of a freak opportunity when Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson came down with the chickenpox.

No one expected him to make it look easy against major-league pitching, but he had two hits in his debut and a two-run home run the next day. Within a couple of weeks, it appeared he was fast becoming a permanent part of the starting lineup.

The neck injury surfaced later, though it stemmed from a diving play in Rochester in May. He aggravated it in a nationally televised game against the Boston Red Sox -- first during batting practice and then on a headfirst slide into home plate.

In retrospect, his youthful enthusiasm may have gotten the best of him. "When you're going good, you just don't want to come out," Hammonds said. "It was an ESPN game and I wanted to be out there. But that [the slide] wasn't really the problem. Tony Pena could have killed me if he had wanted to. He didn't clamp down on me."

If Oates has his way, Hammonds will never be in that situation again. He took time to talk to him yesterday and make sure he is not trying to play through any early soreness.

"Every move he makes will be monitored this year," Oates said. "I talked to him about how he felt going through today. I'd much rather take it slow than have any backslides."

Hammonds seems confident that his neck troubles are behind him, but he isn't taking his physical health for granted any more. He arrived at spring training with medical clearance to return to a normal routine, but it won't be routine until he has done everything that he has to do to get ready for the season.

"Right now, I do have question marks, not only physically but mentally," he said. "But I don't feel that I have anything to prove. I just want to make sure everything's OK, so I'm going to take it very slow this first week . . . but that's what I have always done."

Heading off the hype

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