Hammonds: runs, hits, one era

April 09, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Every game it's something different. Opening Day, an RBI double to the opposite field. Wednesday night, an explosive -- from first to third. Last night, a double in his first at-bat and a home run in his second.

It's the dawning of the Jeffrey Hammonds Era, and it's something to behold. He might be the fastest player ever to wear an Orioles uniform. Thirty-six games into his major-league career, he already is one of the most exciting.

"I don't know what he's going to be," Orioles first base coach Davey Lopes was saying before last night's 7-5 loss to the Texas Rangers. "But I'm pretty sure it's going to be good."

Hammonds, 23, no longer is the overwhelming favorite for American League Rookie of the Year -- Carlos Delgado hit his third home run last night for Toronto -- but for a No. 9 hitter, he's off to a pretty fair start.

Three games, three extra-base hits, three runs. Fans at Camden Yards look at each other and ask, What will he do next? Through five innings last night, the Orioles had only two hits off Jack Armstrong -- the double and the homer by Hammonds.

"He's going to be the type of player that fans get excited about," assistant general manager Frank Robinson said. "Whenever he walks up to home plate, runs the bases, goes after fly balls, they may see something fantastic happen."

The Orioles saw a glimpse of this last season, when Hammonds had 32 hits in 33 games. But after suffering a herniated disk in his neck, he played only twice after Aug. 8. Club officials were too worried to get truly excited.

They need not restrain themselves any longer. Manager Johnny Oates says Hammonds is the fastest player in the league going home-to-first from the right side. Oates and Hall of Famer Jim Palmer say they've never seen a faster Oriole.

One might think Brady Anderson would be insulted by such talk, but he's a Hammonds believer, too. "He keeps beating out grounders to short, so what do you expect?" Anderson said. "He gets out of the box as good as anyone I've ever seen."

Hammonds' speed is no secret to the Orioles -- "If you grade out every one of his tools, that's the biggest plus," assistant GM Doug Melvin said. But for whatever reason, he rarely got the opportunity to display his explosiveness last season.

He still isn't going to steal many bases -- Oates wants to bring him along slowly, and with such a potent lineup, avoid running into outs. Hammonds was thrown out in his only two stolen-base attempts of spring training. Yet, that doesn't mean his speed won't help the club.

On Wednesday night, with the Orioles leading 3-2, he went first to third on a single to center with one out. It proved a critical moment -- when Mike Devereaux hit into a fielder's choice, Hammonds raced home with the insurance run.

Oates recalls the first time Hammonds stunned him with his speed, July in Minnesota. Hammonds hit a routine two-hopper to second base. Chuck Knoblauch laid back on the artificial turf. Hammonds surprised everyone by beating his throw.

"He opens your eyes up," said Lopes, the Orioles' base-running coach. "You can see the shifting of gears, like a sports car. Some guys have one car, then another, souped-up car. That's Jeffrey. The Ferrari. The Porsche."

There might be faster players in the league -- Devon White and Kenny Lofton come to mind -- but Hammonds offers the additional threat of power. When he was in college, scouts compared him to Rickey Henderson. But that's probably a stretch.

Hammonds won't steal 70 bases in a season, as Henderson did nine times. He might not even hit 28 homers in a season, as Henderson did in 1986 and 1990. But the kid was in high school during the Orioles' "Why Not?" season in 1989. Who knows what he'll accomplish?

He resembles Henderson physically -- Hammonds is 6 feet, 195 pounds; Henderson is 5-10, 190. But he could develop into a devastating No. 3 hitter like Kirby Puckett. Or he could become a less-explosive, right-handed version of Barry Bonds.

Bonds sometimes is labeled as this generation's Willie Mays, and Ken Griffey hears the same type of comparisons. Hammonds displays more "Say Hey" exuberance than either of those players. He's a joy to watch, a fun player to be around.

Yesterday, he walked into the clubhouse wearing a winter cap turned backward, so that it looked like a beret. "What the heckis that?" Robinson shouted. Rafael Palmeiro pointed to Hammonds and laughed. "You look like one of the Cosby kids," he said.

Hammonds just smiled. It's the dawning of the Jeffrey Hammonds Era. He can wear whatever he wants, wherever he wants, however he wants. Pretty soon, he'll be a star, and they'll be calling it style.

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