It's healthy debate on Hammonds

May 17, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Orioles manager Ray Miller has made a point of refraining from criticism of his players. But now he appears to be sending a message to Jeffrey Hammonds, one that the 27-year-old outfielder does not welcome.

Miller, speaking before Thursday night's 5-4 loss to Cleveland, said Hammonds is frequently too injured to play. Hammonds responded by saying that he has yet to ask out of the lineup this season.

General manager Pat Gillick said he, too, has been "frustrated" by Hammonds' lack of availability. But outfielder Eric Davis -- a player dogged by similar questions early in his career -- rose to his teammate's defense.

The names and faces change, but the debate over Hammonds is essentially the same as it has been ever since his swift recovery from reconstructive knee surgery in 1995.

The Orioles want him to prove that he can play regularly. Hammonds says he would love to, if only the team would give him the chance.

"I want to see him more and more," Miller said. "I told Jeffrey the longer you stay healthy, the better the numbers you're going to put up. That's one thing a young guy has to learn.

"You can say whatever you want about Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds, Raffy Palmeiro, Cal Ripken. The only way you put up the stats those guys put up is by going to the post every day."

Miller praised Hammonds' recent play, saying he's making "great strides." But citing several Orioles veterans who battle through injuries, he added, "You've got to learn to play with pain."

Hammonds, sitting in the dugout before Thursday night's game, stared out at the field upon learning of Miller's remarks, visibly upset.

He later met with the manager.

"I'm not going to create any waves. I'm going to do it between the lines," he said. "I've yet to ask to come out of a game. I've yet to ask to be scratched."

Davis, competing with Hammonds for playing time in the Orioles' crowded outfield, also bristled when informed of Miller's comments.

"I don't think it's a fair question," Davis said. "He didn't ask to come out of the lineup. I don't recall hearing Jeffrey ask to come out of the lineup. That playing with pain stuff, who is that for? I don't see it written anywhere that you've got to play with pain.

"Why single Jeff out? That ain't fair to Jeff. Y'all been spoiled around here with the Iron Man. Everyone is not like Cal Ripken. There's only one Cal Ripken Jr. Because Cal does something doesn't mean everyone else can.

"Don't single him out," Davis repeated. "If you want to give somebody the AB's, give him the AB's."

Which, of course, leads to the central issue:

Playing time.

Now that Brady Anderson is healthy, Miller is essentially using four players -- Hammonds, Davis, Joe Carter and Harold Baines -- in two spots.

Anderson plays virtually every day in center, and B. J. Surhoff has been largely exempt from Miller's rotation, starting 36 of the Orioles' first 39 games in left.

Miller often uses the players with the best statistics off that night's starting pitcher. But Hammonds is sometimes left on the bench even when his numbers indicate that he should play.

He's the Orioles' only outfielder under 33, he's superior to Carter defensively, and he leads the team with six stolen bases.

His new contract ties him to the club through 2000. But Miller won't guarantee his immediate future.

"Every time I play him two or three days in a row, something happens," the manager said.

Examples?

"He slid and messed his leg up [in Cleveland on May 6]," Miller said. "He doubled in a tie game and barely got to second base [in Tampa Bay on May 9].

"Not that I'm blaming him for barely getting to second base. He's got something wrong with his leg. Whether it's real or imagined, I don't know. I'm sure there was something to it. But he bounced back from it pretty quick."

Miller made the right call in removing Hammonds in Tampa Bay. If Hammonds were healthy, he should have run better. If he were hurt, he shouldn't have been in the game.

Club officials say that Hammonds' body language frequently indicates that he might be hurting. Miller is then left in a difficult position, trying to decide whether to believe Hammonds' actions or words.

Manager Davey Johnson had similar concerns last season -- he gave Hammonds just 96 at-bats after Aug. 1, citing the outfielder's strained left Achilles' tendon.

Then as now, Hammonds said he could play.

"I think in his own mind he has to feel comfortable before he goes out there," Gillick said. "Evidently, there have been times this year when he hasn't felt comfortable."

Still, if Hammonds is unable to start, why is he able to finish games as a defensive replacement or pinch runner?

And if he says he's healthy, why shouldn't he get the same opportunity as other Orioles who play through pain?

Anderson, Ripken, Palmeiro -- they virtually call their own shots. Hammonds is less established, and he won't gain Miller's trust by failing to run out balls that he hits off the wall. But then, he has cause to be frustrated, too.

Here he is, one of the Orioles' few young talents, seemingly on the verge of a career breakthrough. But the team seems to be catering to aging veterans, several of whom might not even be with the club next season.

Again, the rotation is not even a rotation. Surhoff batted .298 before the All-Star break last season, .270 after it. He'll be 34 in August. He could again wear down.

"I keep wanting to take him out," Miller said. "But every time I open the statistics, he's 16-for-30 off somebody with five homers. He doesn't want to come out, either.

"He works so hard, maybe there are some times I should give him a rest. But every time a lefty comes in, he stays in so good against lefties, you end seeing good numbers there."

It's difficult to argue when Surhoff has been perhaps the Orioles' most consistent performer. But if Miller indeed wants to use Hammonds "more and more," then let's see it happen.

Once and for all, let's see Jeffrey Hammonds play.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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