Orioles' Hammonds is eager to rehabilitate his reputation

January 09, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

They've got him all wrong -- the impatient fans, the skeptical club officials, anyone who questions Jeffrey Hammonds' desire.

If anything, Hammonds' problems last season resulted from trying to rush back from reconstructive knee surgery.

Listen to him now.

He wants to play. He's going to play.

He can barely contain his happiness, his confidence, his excitement.

"It's a good anxiousness," Hammonds said last week while lounging in his condominium overlooking the Inner Harbor.

"It's easy to generate negative energy, wanting to prove to everyone that I'm not overrated, not injury-prone, any of those adjectives that can be used to describe me.

"I just want to go play baseball. And this is the first time I can say I'm healthy enough to play the way I want to play."

How long has it been?

Hammonds smiled.

"Lord, a long time," he said. "I'll say, since I was eligible to be drafted, going back to high school."

Going back to when he suffered a football injury that caused the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee to wither and eventually disappear.

Hammonds, 24, also suffered a herniated disc in his neck in 1993, a concussion in '94 and a strained trapezius muscle last season. But the knee was his big problem.

And now, at last, it is strong.

Strong enough that Hammonds believes he is running as well as he did as a rookie.

Strong enough that he expects to show significant improvement in the outfield.

Strong enough that he sees himself stealing bases, too.

"Chances are, with the new manager, chances are, I . . . uh . . . yes," Hammonds said, mindful of not sounding cocky, but wanting to convey that yes, uh, he is ready to play.

Others notice the change.

"Just talking to him, the way he acts, the way he talks, there's no hesitation in his voice," said Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles, one of Hammonds' workout partners this winter.

Hammonds said he has lost 10 pounds, helping him regain his first-step quickness. By spring training, Orioles strength and conditioning coach Tim Bishop expects him to be in even better shape.

"In the past, he was one to do things, but not as ambitious," Bishop said. "He didn't take control as much as he is now.

"We talked at the end of last season and made some goals. I was wondering if he'd be as willing to pursue them when the season was over.

"But when I made that first contact, he was like, 'When can we start? Let's go.' I had not seen that before.

"It just seems like he's as anxious as he's ever been to play."

Another Fred Lynn?

It's funny, because to hear some people tell it, Hammonds is the second coming of Fred Lynn, an injury-prone sort who lacks fire.

The same criticism dogged pitcher Ben McDonald, another Orioles first-round pick who struggled with injuries early in his career.

McDonald proved durable.

Now, it's Hammonds' turn.

His skeptics, former assistant general manager Frank Robinson said, include members of the Orioles front office.

"They have questions whether he really wants it, whether he really wants to be on the field," Robinson said. "That's one of the things that still lingers there.

"I hope that doesn't hold him back. I hope they don't make quick judgments on him. And I hope the new people coming in don't start trying to change him. Let him go out and play, and see what happens."

That's what new GM Pat Gillick plans to do.

And he, too, has heard doubts about Hammonds. "Whenever a guy doesn't get out there, people start to rumble," Gillick said. "But since I've gotten over here, I've heard very positive things.

"I heard them from Frank when he was here. I've talked to the trainers. I've talked to the doctors.

"Certainly, they were all legitimate injuries. None was a figment of his imagination."

Said Hammonds: "If someone can look me in the eye and say, 'Jeffrey, you look like you don't care what happened the last few years,' I'd be thrown for a loss.

"Maybe that's what eats at me so much. I'm not content. I'm not happy with what has happened."

Wasted season

The facts are these:

Hammonds was told he needed reconstructive knee surgery in May 1994, but the Orioles were in a pennant race, and he chose to keep playing.

One season wasted.

He underwent the surgery in October 1994, returned the next Opening Day ahead of schedule, yet never fully recovered.

Another season shot down.

Why did he rush back?

L He's a competitive athlete. And he viewed it as a challenge.

"Once you embark on something with that kind of mind-set, you're not going to use rational sense," Hammonds said. "I didn't -- at all.

"I wasn't listening to people when they were telling me, 'Jeffrey, back off, let the knee come together, you'll be hurting yourself.' I didn't want to hear that."

Hammonds thought he could still play, even though he was "far (( from 100 percent, far from 75 percent." He made it through the previous season when the knee first began troubling him, and batted .296.

But this was different.

Hammonds' physical therapist told him it would take 12 to 18 months for a reconstructed ligament to begin functioning like a normal ACL.

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