As Rockie, Hammonds grows into player O's envisioned

June 27, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

Who is Jeffrey Hammonds? The Orioles asked that question for the better part of six seasons. And Hammonds couldn't answer.

Who is he now? The everyday right fielder for the Colorado Rockies, batting .370 with 13 home runs and a career-high 56 RBIs in 50 games.

Who was he then? A kid who played only 60 minor-league games. A kid who frequently was injured. A kid who didn't know how to be a major-leaguer.

"I didn't have a feel for the game," Hammonds said last week. "In Baltimore, when I got hurt for an extended period of time, my skills diminished. Coming back, being young, not knowing the game, I pressed. I pressed, no doubt."

Hammonds, 29, is no longer young, no longer the next Rickey Henderson. He has never batted more than 400 times in a season. And he has been traded not once but twice, by the Orioles and Cincinnati Reds.

Little wonder, then, that he describes his first season with Colorado as "a job far from being completed." Hammonds won't get carried away, even coming off an 18-game hitting streak. He knows how humbling the game can be.

When Hammonds was an Oriole, he would have considered an 18-game playing streak a major triumph. The difference now is that he is healthy and playing regularly, a combination that took him seven seasons to achieve.

"From Day One in spring training, he has had a lot of urgency to him," said Rockies assistant general manager Josh Byrnes. "This was meaningful to him. We were a club willing to give him regular at-bats."

The Orioles couldn't, for they rarely had Hammonds available for extended periods. The Reds wouldn't, for they considered Hammonds a reserve, even though he batted .331 with 10 homers after the All-Star break last season.

First-year Colorado GM Dan O'Dowd, however, had a different idea. He wanted to improve the Rockies' speed and athleticism. And last Oct. 30, he traded the popular Dante Bichette - an original Rockie - for Hammonds and reliever Stan Belinda.

So far, O'Dowd's plan is working. The surprising Rockies are only two games out in the NL West. And Hammonds finally looks like the player the Orioles expected when they made him the fourth overall pick in the 1992 draft.

"I was like, `They're bringing me here to play. I'm healthy. I better be good. They're asking me to do a job,' " Hammonds said. "It wasn't a situation where they were cutting costs. It was, `You've got to come in here and produce, son.' "

Like so many Rockies, Hammonds is something of a Coors Field creation - he's batting .442 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs at home, .299 with three homers and 15 RBIs in about the same number of road at-bats.

Still, who can deny his impact?

Hammonds doesn't just hit - his speed makes him a dangerous base runner and above-average defender. And just as in Cincinnati, he's emerging as something of a leader.

The Rockies now celebrate walk-off victories with "the bounce," a dance in which players gather at home plate and hop joyfully in unison. The impetus reportedly came from Hammonds.

"The void of him being gone is definitely being felt. That's just a fact," Reds outfielder Dmitri Young told the Cincinnati Enquirer.

"Jeffrey is well-rounded. He gets along with everybody and can talk to anybody. He's a gentleman. At the same time, he's a fierce ballplayer. That's the thing people didn't realize."

So, did the Orioles blow it by trading him?

Well, they certainly acquired the wrong player in return - Willie Greene, when they could have had Shawn Green. But like Armando Benitez, Curt Schilling and others who failed to mature as Orioles, Hammonds probably needed a change.

His medical history in Baltimore included reconstructive knee surgery, a herniated disk, a strained knee, a strained Achilles' tendon. But it wasn't just the injuries that held him back.

Only now, recalling the Orioles' veteran clubhouse, does Hammonds realize how much he had to learn.

"You saw that they all had routines," Hammonds said "They knew that when they got into their routines, it made their chances for success that much greater. Everyone in the major leagues goes through a routine to get ready for games.

"I never had a routine. I didn't understand the importance of time management in your preparation. The bottom line is, you've got to be ready to go out at 7 o'clock and be ready to play. If you're scatter-brained, you're going to be in trouble.

"That's what happened. I had so much going on around me. I was trying to do everything. I didn't do anything."

At the time, some questioned Hammonds' desire, a criticism frequently directed at Stanford players. But Hammonds put his intelligence to use, absorbing the game's lessons from Cal Ripken, from Eric Davis, from Rafael Palmeiro.

Like most players, Hammonds admired Ripken greatly, but could barely relate to the Iron Man's feats of endurance. Davis was perhaps a better example - Davis, who battled back from colon cancer with the Orioles in 1997.

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