Hammonds finally sound, so let him make some noise

March 29, 1997|By KEN ROSENTHAL

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Three days ago, Jeffrey Hammonds appeared headed for Rochester. Orioles general manager Pat Gillick conceded that the outfielder probably would be crushed by another demotion. Hammonds shrugged and asked, "What can I do?"

There was only one answer, the same answer Hammonds has heard his entire professional career: Wait. And that wasn't going satisfy the former No. 1 draft pick, not when he's leading the Orioles in hits, home runs, doubles and stolen bases this spring.

Well, the problem appears solved, at least temporarily. Brady Anderson and Pete Incaviglia are expected to go on the disabled list. Hammonds is likely to be in the Opening Day lineup. It's practically man bites dog. For once, somebody besides Hammonds got hurt.

Hammonds, 26, still could wind up at Triple-A if he isn't traded, but maybe this all will work out for the best. It's too soon for the Orioles to give up on him. No, they should play him as much as possible, and find out, once and for all, if he can produce.

That's manager Davey Johnson's plan, at least until Anderson and Incaviglia return. Nearly everyone in the organization is skeptical of Hammonds, but Johnson is a notable and outspoken exception, and he isn't simply trying to pump up Hammonds' trade value.

"He's going to play. I'm going to let him play," Johnson said yesterday. "He's earned the opportunity. The situation also dictates the opportunity. I would like to see him do what he's doing right now in Baltimore. I don't want him to go be a star somewhere else."

Not now, with Hammonds finally regaining his old form. He went 4-for-6 yesterday and crushed a two-run double and two-run homer in the Orioles' 12-3 victory over Montreal. For the past week, he has hit the ball hard in virtually every at-bat. His spring average is .324.

Still, when everyone is healthy, Anderson, Eric Davis and B. J. Surhoff will be the most frequently used outfielders, Incaviglia the most frequently used DH. Tony Tarasco is the only left-handed hitter off the bench. And club officials might have released Jerome Walton if they had more confidence in Hammonds.

They don't, but maybe they should. Hammonds is running better and driving the ball harder than he did last spring, when he was still only 18 months removed from reconstructive knee surgery. And Johnson liked him enough then to name him his Opening Day left fielder.

What happened? Hammonds struggled, spent six weeks at Rochester, then strained his left knee Aug. 15 and missed the rest of the season. But now, after playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, he says, "For once, I feel as though I belong."

Why?

Because he's finally sound.

Doctors told Hammonds it would take two years to fully recover from his surgery in October 1994, but he rushed back so quickly, he was in the Opening Day lineup the following April. Not surprisingly, he was injured much of the season. And even last year, he played tentatively, especially in the outfield.

"I was unsure about my knee," Hammonds said. "I'm running a lot more now, taking a lot more chances without thinking about the repercussions. I'm not waiting for tomorrow to do something I can do today. I'm trying to seize the moment."

He opened the spring 9-for-19, sunk into a 6-for-30 slump, then started hitting again. The other day, Rafael Palmeiro took the locker next to Hammonds in Port St. Lucie and announced, "I'm sitting next to Henry Aaron." Hammonds smiled and said, "No, I'm just Jeffrey Hammonds. And it's about time."

Hammonds later added: "I feel at ease again. I'm letting it happen, just keeping it simple. As Davey and [hitting coach] Rick [Down] said, just use what you got. Raffy's been saying that to me for the last three years. This is the first time I could honestly understand because I'm healthy."

And he knocked on wood.

Club officials question whether he can achieve consistency -- Hammonds leads the club with 17 strikeouts in 74 at-bats. Some wonder if he'll ever be anything more than a spare outfielder. Certainly, Gillick wasn't gushing with enthusiasm when he said, "I think Jeffrey has still got some talent."

Johnson is the only one who still seems excited by Hammonds' potential, the only one saying, "When Jeffrey knows about himself, has it figured out, the sky's the limit." Hammonds looks more determined this spring, Johnson said. He's lifting weights while playing almost every day.

"There's just a few things he needs to figure out," Johnson said. "Once he gets it, knows what he can and can't do, then it becomes easy. That's where I want to get him. At that point, he's a helluva player. And I think he's close."

So do Hammonds' teammates. Reliever Alan Mills said Hammonds "is in the best shape I've ever seen him in." Palmeiro said: "Let him get 500 at-bats, then evaluate him." Hammonds is popular in the clubhouse. No one wants to see him traded.

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