Hammonds' best answers come on field

March 08, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Questions, Jeffrey Hammonds was confronting more questions before yesterday's game.

Health questions.

Trade questions.

Premature questions, to his way of thinking.

"What if I go 4-for-4 with three bags [stolen bases] today?" Hammonds asked.

Go ahead, he was told.

And Hammonds came close, going 2-for-4 with his first stolen base and first home run of the spring in the Orioles' 14-1 victory over Toronto.

"I'm not questioning my effort or my talent," he said. "I know I can play this game."

It's a good thing Hammonds is so confident. Before yesterday, general manager Pat Gillick and manager Davey Johnson couldn't have been happy with his play.

Hammonds, 25, is healthy, but he remains one of the few questions in the Orioles' lineup. Eighteen months after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery, he still doesn't look like the player who so excited the Orioles in 1993.

Maybe Hammonds is simply rusty after three seasons of limited activity. Or maybe he is simply not capable of performing the way he once did.

Whatever, yesterday was a start.

Hammonds, batting leadoff, hit a long homer to left, added an infield single and scored three runs. He also beat out a double-play ball in the middle of a five-run second inning.

"Best thing I did all day," he said.

He needs to keep doing it, because the Orioles are watching him closely. Frankly, they've got nothing else to do, with the rest of the club apparently set.

The goal of this team is to reach the postseason. Gillick spent the entire winter filling holes. He won't stand by idly if Hammonds becomes a problem.

The Orioles could make him a bench player. They could demote him. They could even trade him, though Gillick yesterday denied that was a possibility. "He's got too much talent to think about that," the GM said.

Still, when a scout from another club was asked his opinion of how Hammonds is running from home to first, his response was troubling.

"Average," the scout said.

Average for a fast runner?

"Average for everybody."

Well, he certainly didn't look average yesterday, and Johnson ordered him to run wind sprints in the outfield after he left the game, the better to strengthen his legs.

"He runs so smooth, there's no effort," Johnson said. "It looks like maybe he's got it on cruise control. But he's just gettin' it. Most fast guys, they're pumping. His feet are just eating up ground."

Given all that, the Orioles need not overreact to Hammonds' slow start -- he was 3-for-15 before his fourth-inning home run. They've played only six exhibitions. Opening Day is more than three weeks away.

"I can't worry about what they're thinking," Hammonds said. "I just have to go out and play my game. I really plan on being all right. No questions have been raised to me, so I'm not raising any questions."

He knows the score. The Orioles are trying to acquire TC left-handed-hitting outfielder. They already have Brady Anderson, Bobby Bonilla and Mike Devereaux. It's not like they're obligated to start him.

Early in the spring, Johnson said he was behind the other hitters. The manager offered a rosier assessment before yesterday's game, and Hammonds turned him into a prophet.

"He's catching up," Johnson said. "There's a time when you need to be at a certain point, but it's not there yet. I just want him to gradually get better with his timing. He's coming along better."

Hammonds, too, believes he is improving. He's expected to play left field this season, and it's only natural that he has been shaky in center, a position he last played in the minor leagues.

Those two balls he misplayed Wednesday?

"I don't think there's even a question, that wasn't an indication of how I can play," said Hammonds, who did not get a single fly ball in center yesterday.

He spent January working out nearly every day with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson in Los Angeles. Now, he just needs to get in game condition.

"He showed no signs of physical problems," said Robinson, the Orioles' former assistant GM. "What he had to learn to do was get back to using the lower part of his body. He stopped using it last year because of the knee. Once we got him back to doing that, it was like old times with the ball coming off his bat."

Thus, Hammonds was surprised to learn that there were still doubts surrounding him before yesterday's game. He handled an interview in typically mature fashion. Then he went out and played his best game of the spring.

"I know what I can do," Hammonds said. "It's not going to happen overnight. But you do your best to get it going as fast as possible. With the competition we have, there's always going to be somebody there."

He's right about that. Devereaux is a proven major-leaguer. Mark Smith is having a good spring. And the Orioles eventually will acquire another outfielder.

Still, the left-field job is Hammonds' to lose.

He doesn't plan on it happening.

"I'm just getting started," he said. "The job's not complete, by any stretch of the imagination."

Pub Date: 3/08/96

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