Expectations are painful reminders to Hammonds

April 18, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- His record is perfect so far. Two years with the Orioles, two injuries.

No one has said anything about it to his face. But he knows people are talking about him. Doubting him.

"You don't need to hear it; you can feel it," Jeffrey Hammonds said yesterday at City of Palms Park. "They're wondering if I'm going to be one of those players who gets hurt all the time. One of those players who doesn't live up to his great expectations."

Not that he minds those great expectations, understand. ("It's a tribute.") And not that he hasn't done much, in between his neck injury in 1993 and his knee injury last year, to prove that those expectations are warranted, batting .299 in 355 at-bats and showing ample amounts of power, speed and defense.

But the issue with Hammonds, 24, isn't whether he has more ability than the average major-leaguer. The issue is whether he is going to be able to use that ability day after day, year after year.

The Orioles desperately hope that he gets that chance this year, of course. Hammonds' talent is such that he could alter the face of the entire AL East if he has an injury-free season. But if he isn't healthy, there is only 35-year-old Kevin Bass and a slew of young, unproven quantities behind him.

Hammonds played for the first time in spring training yesterday, batting second and playing right field for three innings against the Red Sox. He walked twice, sprinted from first to third on a single and made a routine catch. He ran with a noticeable hitch in his right knee, which a surgeon reconstructed last October, but he covered ground in a hurry on the base paths.

"I'm not 100 percent yet," he said. "When will I be? I don't know. I'm getting there. I felt good today. I'm ecstatic, because I've come a long way. I said all along I'd be ready on Opening Day. We'll see. I don't want to put words in anyone's mouth. But I'm confident."

Manager Phil Regan isn't ready to put Hammonds in the Opening Day lineup just yet. Regan said yesterday he wanted to see how Hammonds' knee responded to three or four straight days of play. Hammonds is curious, too. "We'll see how it feels tomorrow," he said.

His knee began bothering him last May, ultimately sending him to the disabled list and limiting him to 45 games in the last four months of the season. It turned out to be an old high school football injury, back to cause more trouble. His decision to correct it surgically was, in a way, a relief.

"I don't worry about what people think of me, but if it got to the point where my heart or my desire was being questioned [because of recurring injuries], that would bother me," he said. "At least, when I had surgery, people knew something was really wrong."

He went home to New Jersey and began rehabbing at a clinic in New Jersey a week after the operation. Throughout the winter, he followed a routine that included lifting weights, jumping on a trampoline and walking a balance beam.

"Things that sound easy if you have a good knee," he said, smiling.

In March, he began concentrating on his baseball skills. His father and brother hit him flies in the mornings. He practiced with his old high school team in the afternoons.

When the strike ended, he reported to the Orioles' camp and took it easy for 10 more days. His daily routine consisted of agility drills, conditioning and batting practice.

"He was doing so well that we decided to move up his first game a couple of days," Regan said.

For Hammonds, seeing his name back on the lineup card yesterday was a big moment.

"It was a hard off-season, a lot of work for this moment," he said. "I had some butterflies."

His knee was tested immediately. After reaching first on a one-out walk in the top of the first, he had to sprint when Rafael Palmeiro smacked a double. He seemed as fast as ever, even though he had that hitch in his stride, due possibly to the knee brace he was wearing.

"To be honest, you haven't seen me running smooth in a year and a half," he said.

He didn't like it when one reporter suggested he was limping like Bo Jackson.

"Let's not get carried away," he said. "I was happy with the way I ran. I made good time to third. Once I got there, [the knee] let me know it. But then that feeling went away. So I'm satisfied. I'm going to get there."

He knows he needs to "get there" and have an injury-free year to quash the notion that he is prone to pain. But he is trying not to let it affect him.

"This game is hard enough," he said. "If I set an arbitrary goal about having no injuries this year and then sat around thinking about it, that would detract from what I had to do to be ready to play. Besides, you have no control over injuries.

"My only goal is to have a chance to be able to do the things I know I can do on the field. Live up to those expectations. I'm just going to try my best and hope for the best. That's all I can do."

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