At this stage, any field is right by Hammonds

March 23, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

PORT CHARLOTTE, FLA — PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Think of Jeffrey Hammonds' young major-league career as a military march: 'Left, right, left, right, left . . . "

For those scoring at home, Hammonds, a center fielder most of his life, is back in right. He returned there yesterday from left and did so without incident in the Orioles' 4-2 loss to the Texas Rangers.

No crashes. No stitches. No errors.

No complaints, either.

"Center field is where I still feel the most comfortable," Hammonds said. "Without a doubt, you can get a true reading on everything in center. You don't have to worry about it slicing to the left or the right."

Hammonds said he had no inkling a switch back to right loomed until Orioles manager Johnny Oates told him Sunday morning.

Oates and his coaches decided shortly after arriving in Florida to realign the outfield, putting Mike Devereaux in right, Brady Anderson in center and Hammonds in left, so as not to put too much pressure on the rookie. But after watching Devereaux look out of place in right, Oates changed his mind.

"I was just starting to get comfortable in left, but wherever they want to stick me I'll go out there and play to the best of my ability," Hammonds said. "I felt like I was doing that in left field, and there is no reason I won't do the same thing in right field."

Hammonds, 23, became the first player from the 1992 draft to make it to the major leagues last June 25. He made 13 starts in left field, nine in right, five at designated hitter and batted .305. Hisperformance suggested he was unfazed by the promotion. It lied.

"I wouldn't say I wasn't overwhelmed," Hammonds said. "I might have looked like I fit right in, but I was kind of wide-eyed when I first came up. The anxiety level was high.

"To be coming to the major leagues for the first time and have to make the switch to the corners, that was tough. That was a lot harder adjustment than going from left to right this spring is."

Devereaux, pleased to be moving back to center, predicts Hammonds will have an easier adjustment in right than he did.

"Jeffrey should be fine," Devereaux said. "Going from left field to right field isn't as big an adjustment as going from center to a corner. He played left and right last year. I hadn't played right since 1989, and I felt a lot more comfortable doing it then than I did this spring. It had been so long since I had been out there. You get used to not having a fence right behind you, not having a fence to your left, having all that room to run."

A preseason pick for American League Rookie of the Year, Hammonds said he will not let the attention distort his sense of self-importance.

He kept his head on straight with an off-season fear that he might have to undergo neck surgery for a herniated disk, which forced him onto the disabled list and limited him to two games in the final eight weeks of last season.

"I can't control how much exposure I get," he said. "The attention I've received for being a rookie who has a chance to make an impact doesn't make me take anything for granted. That injury humbled me to an extent. Every day I'm able to play is a great day as far as I'm concerned. I'm going to have a lot of bad days, but I'm going to have more great days than bad days."

Orioles assistant general manager Frank Robinson has a similar forecast for Hammonds.

"I like everything about him," Robinson said. "I'm serious. I don't see any reason he can't become an outstanding right fielder. He wants to play, and he'll do whatever it takes."

Hammonds, the fourth player chosen in the '92 draft, came out of Stanford with plus ratings in four of the five tools scouts evaluate. His arm was considered average at best, but he has surpassed expectations in that regard.

"His arm is average to above average," Robinson said.

Anderson is considered to be the strongest thrower of the three outfielders. "You'll have a debate on that," Robinson said. "If you asked 10 people, five will say Brady and five will say Hammonds. They are close to being equal, but I think Brady's arm is a little stronger."

Outfield and bench coach Don Buford, not noted for his arm strength during five seasons as the Orioles' left fielder, knows it's not how far you throw it, rather where and when that makes for sound baseball.

"Get to the ball as quick as you can, get rid of it as quick as you can and hit the cutoff man," Buford said. "How many outfielders throw runners out anyway? With a ball hit on the ground, if you make up 10 yards running after it, you shorten your throw 10 yards. People will be testing us early, but once they see us throwing them out they'll stop running."

Robinson broke into the majors as a left fielder and played most of his career in right. Unlike each of the Orioles' three outfielders, he never craved the center stage.

"Some guys prefer to play center because they say they can see the ball off the bat better," Robinson said. "They can have it. It's too much ground to cover for me."

Under ideal circumstances, the Orioles would have a young Frank Robinson in right. Failing that, a young Jeffrey Hammonds is an attractive option.

ORIOLES TONIGHT

Opponent: Chicago White Sox

Site: Sarasota, Fla.

Time: 7:05

TV: HTS

Radio: None

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