At 34 years old, the Nationals' Jeffrey Hammonds, a former Oriole, is struggling to stay on a major league roster, but he's not conceding defeat.

Nearing the end, far from quitting

Baseball Week

May 22, 2005|By DAN CONNOLLY

JEFFREY HAMMONDS wants to talk about today.

He doesn't want to dwell on any yesterdays.

Today, he is a 34-year-old on the deep end of the Washington Nationals' bench after starting the season in the minors. Today, his career is winding down. If Washington released him, he's not sure whether he'd look for another team or retire.

That's for tomorrow. Today, he's an aging veteran trying to hit above .200.

His yesterdays as a baseball phenom, however, are what make Hammonds' story so intriguing, so special.

He earned a baseball scholarship to one of the nation's most prestigious schools, Stanford University. He played on a U.S. Olympic team. He was the fourth overall pick in the 1992 amateur draft as a junior, earning a $975,000 bonus - one of the largest ever at the time - that made him richer than any other signee that year, including Derek Jeter.

Within a season, he was playing outfield for the Orioles. By his second year, he was third on the team in batting average, behind guys named Palmeiro and Ripken. With gobs of power and speed, he was on his way to proving the scouts right, that he was the next Rickey Henderson. He sure was making baseball look easy.

And then the game humbled him. Or more appropriately, it humbled his body.

"The kid sacrificed his body too much," said Hammonds' father, Ferdinand. "I'd tell him, `Stop running into walls, stop sliding on the ground, stop trying to climb walls. And his thing was, `Daddy, you didn't teach me to do it that way. You taught me to go 150 percent and that's the way I play the game.' And as a result it didn't take long to take a toll on his body."

This was supposed to be a cautionary tale. This was supposed to be a tragic look at the kid who couldn't miss a dozen years later, when the hits and misses were about even and he was now struggling just to hold on.

In his umpteenth comeback from injury, Hammonds wouldn't bite.

"Anybody would like to have a Hall of Fame career ... " Hammonds said. "But you are talking about someone who was drafted in the first round in 1992 and here it is 2005, and I'm still able to put on a major league uniform."

True enough, but Hammonds was supposed to do more than wear a uniform. Look at 2000, when he made the All-Star team and batted .335 with 20 homers, 14 steals and 106 RBIs with Colorado. That was supposed to be the rule, not the exception. Instead, he had knee surgeries and strained muscles and busted thumbs. Injuries turned a potentially amazing career into a 13-year anatomy lesson. That has to be frustrating. No one would blink if he, like so many other athletes, were bitter.

"I am not downtrodden," Hammonds said. "I made millions. I played in the biggest ballyards. I played in some of the biggest games. That would be selfish [to be bitter].

"I'm not the norm. And I can say that and say that with pride."

To illustrate the point, his father remembers when Hammonds had a chance to sign a six-figure contract with the Toronto Blue Jays out of high school. His dad sat him down and explained the options, but ultimately it was Hammonds' decision.

"Jeffrey looked me in the eye and said, `That's a lot of money, but we always talked about me going to college,'" Ferdinand Hammonds said. "That was one of the proudest moments of my life."

Hammonds never earned his history degree. After his junior year, he left for the riches of baseball. He's made more than $30 million since.

Last June, he found himself in the Bay Area rehabbing from thumb surgery after being cut by the San Francisco Giants. So he went back to Stanford and took more courses. He now needs just 15 credits - all ones he can complete by correspondence - to graduate.

He doesn't need the degree. But it's a goal he set, and he reaches his goals. Like being back in the majors. He's not what he once was. He's no longer a regular. But he returned to the minors, kept working, received a call-up and had a game-winning hit last week for Washington. If his career soon ends, he's at least added another memory.

"My job is to be Jeffrey Hammonds, whatever that means," he said. "Does that mean the scholar-athlete? Does that mean the injury-riddled outfielder? Does that mean the father of a family? Does that mean a role model? Does that mean a great friend? Does that mean a great husband? It means all of the above. That means I have a story to tell."

Hammonds doesn't want his past to define him. He doesn't want to dwell on it. He has learned from it, though. And that's worth sharing.

EXTRA BASES

Say what?

"I won't ever second-guess my catcher again, I'll tell you that."

Milwaukee pitcher Wes Obermueller after shaking off catcher Damian Miller in the seventh inning of Tuesday's game against the Nationals. Miller wanted a fastball in; Obermueller wanted to throw it outside. It ended up in the middle of the plate and Washington's Jamey Carroll smacked a line-drive single to break up Obermueller's potential perfect game.

Who's he?

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