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SHOOTING STAR Hammonds' meteoric rise sends expectations into orbit, but rookie remains down to earth

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Everything has happened so fast, rookie Jeffrey Hammonds isn't quite sure what to make of it. Two months ago, he was touring the two-horse towns of the Double-A Eastern League and today he is enjoying the first stop on his first major-league road trip.

If Chicago is "the city of big shoulders," then Hammonds should fit right in. He already is carrying a lot on his, including the tremendous expectations that are sure to haunt him throughout the early years of his professional baseball career.

"My parents have always reminded me that nothing comes easy," he said the other day, perhaps to remind himself that his first week in the major leagues was a little too magical to take for granted.

He had two hits in his major-league debut to help the Orioles stage a six-run comeback against the New York Yankees. He had a home run and a double in his second game to prompt the first of what could be a career full of curtain calls at Camden Yards. He hit safely in his first six games to tie Chito Martinez's club record for hits in consecutive games at the start of a career. It may not be that easy, but Hammonds certainly is making it look that way.

How good is this guy? Good enough to put the front office on the spot later this week when starting left fielder Brady Anderson returns from the disabled list. Anderson is certain to return to the starting lineup, but Hammonds may not be returning to the minor leagues. If he stays, something will have to give.

Nobody wants to speculate about that yet, but there is a critical organizational decision to be made. The club seemed determined to keep Hammonds in the minor leagues for at least one full season, but that idea was abandoned 10 days ago when the decision was made to call him up. Though he would go back without complaint, the Orioles' lineup is not so deep that he is expendable.

How good is he? Good enough that when he was batting .421 with a home run and four RBI after five games, assistant general manager Frank Robinson insisted that "you haven't even seen the best part of his game yet."

The right choice

The Orioles have every right to be excited. They have done extremely well with their first picks in the amateur draft the past few years. Four of their five first-round choices from 1988 to 1992 -- Gregg Olson (1988), Ben McDonald (1989), Mike Mussina (1990) and Hammonds -- are on the 25-man major-league roster.

Hammonds is just the latest high-profile draftee to be tagged as a potential Hall of Famer in Baltimore, but manager Johnny Oates doesn't want the anticipation to get out of hand. He saw the way unrealistic expectations inhibited the development of McDonald. He would like to see Hammonds allowed to progress at a normal rate.

"You can say anything you want," Oates said, "but you don't have any collateral yet. So many people get carried away making predictions, but let's just sit back and enjoy him . . . let him play."

That's exactly what the Orioles are doing. They called up Hammonds from Rochester when Anderson was forced onto the disabled list with a severe case of chickenpox. The move altered the chemistry of the lineup -- Harold Reynolds has moved into the leadoff spot and Hammonds has been batting ninth -- but it did not undo the club's offensive recovery.

Hammonds had six hits in his first three games, is hitting .382 with two homers and eight RBI after nine, and has filled in nicely for Anderson in left field. He had a three-run homer in last night's 9-6 win over the Chicago White Sox. He has generated excitement in the stands and in the front office, but his conservative manager is trying to keep a lid on the Hammonds hysteria.

"He looks very talented," Oates said. "When we scouted him, we graded him across the board as a plus player, but do you remember Steve Chilcott?"

Oates was playing the devil's advocate. Chilcott was the No. 1 selection in the 1966 June draft, but he never made it to the major leagues. The No. 2 pick that year did pretty well. His name was Reggie Jackson.

And the first shall be fourth

Hammonds was the fourth player in last year's draft, but he might have gone higher if the Houston Astros, Cleveland Indians and Montreal Expos -- the three teams choosing ahead of the Orioles -- had not been under the impression he would be difficult to get under contract.

No. 1 pick Phil Nevin was the College Player of the Year, but Hammonds was considered the best athlete in the draft and the market bore that out. He got the highest signing bonus of any 1992 draftee, signing for $975,000 after contract negotiations that were surprisingly quick and painless.

"I wasn't a tough sign," Hammonds says now. "I think a lot of people thought I was going to demand Brien Taylor money [$1.8 million as the top pick in 1991, by the New York Yankees], but we were just trying to get what was applicable to my situation."

There were a lot of people who felt he manipulated the draft to get to the Orioles' organization, where he could play close to his New Jersey home, but he insists there was no such master plan.

"There wasn't really any game plan behind it," Hammonds said. "The only thing a player can have any control over in the draft is how much you sign for. There were a whole lot of rumors and you can't control that because people are going to believe what they want to believe."

Hammonds and agent Jeff Moorad both contend that the three teams choosing ahead of the Orioles in the 1992 draft were told nothing different than the Orioles.

"There is no doubt that Baltimore was high on Jeffrey's list," Moorad said, "but Jeffrey -- like every other player -- was at the mercy of the draft process. I know his family made it clear to the first three clubs that he was going to be interested in a substantial bonus if they drafted him, but that same point was made to the Orioles.

"Was there some back-room agreement with the Orioles? Absolutely not."

General manager Roland Hemond says he doesn't know why the Astros, Indians and Expos all decided to pass on Hammonds. He's just glad that they did.

"We were hoping that he would still be [available] and, for whatever reason that clubs choose not to take a player, he was," Hemond said. "Maybe someone was operating on grapevine information instead of factual information. We're just happy it transpired, whatever the assumptions."

A dissenting opinion

Indians officials give a different account of what went on during ,, the weeks leading up to the draft. Assistant general manager Dan O'Dowd and scouting director Jay Robertson both say that the club was informed by Hammonds that he did not want to be drafted by the Indians.

"What I recall is that they informed us that they would prefer not to be selected by this organization," O'Dowd said.

Robertson said that the club received a letter to that effect from Hammonds, but he concedes that there was nothing keeping the Indians from drafting him anyway.

"This kind of thing does happen," said Robertson, who was the club's West Coast scouting supervisor at the time, but has since replaced Mickey White as scouting director. "I'm sure on file somewhere in this office we have the letter. I don't believe he wanted to play in Cleveland, but we have to take some responsibility also. I believe that if we had called his bluff and drafted him, he would be playing on our club today."

Instead, the Indians drafted right-handed pitcher Paul Shuey of North Carolina. The Expos then took left-handed pitcher B. J. Wallace of Mississippi State.

One of the top prospects in this year's draft -- Alex Rodriguez -- tried to dissuade the Seattle Mariners from making him their No. 1 pick, but the Mariners chose him anyway.

"He [Hammonds] sent us a letter and we passed, so the Cleveland Indians have to take some responsibility," Robertson said. "In hindsight, I don't know that we don't take Jeffrey Hammonds. That's why the draft was set up. We can't allow it to be manipulated."

Special project

It didn't take great scouting acumen to identify Hammonds as a special talent. He was a ninth-round draft choice of the Toronto Blue Jays out of Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School in New Jersey and he was an immediate impact player at Stanford University.

In his freshman year, he batted .355 and set school records for stolen bases (48) and runs scored (83). He also had a 37-game hitting streak on the way to becoming the first Stanford freshman to be a first team All-America selection.

The rest of his college career was just as distinguished. He remained an offensive force for the Cardinal and also played well on the 1991 USA Baseball Team that finished third in the Pan American Games.

All the while, the Orioles were getting regular reports on Hammonds from West Coast scout Ed Sprague, who also is responsible for selling the club on Mussina and minor-league first baseman Paul Carey. Not long before the draft, Robinson went )) to Florida to watch Hammonds participate in the NCAA regionals. He was sold, too.

"I saw him and I didn't have to see him anymore," Robinson said. "You could look at his mechanics and at what tools he has. You could look at him and see he was a complete player."

The Orioles signed him the day Team USA played Korea in a pre-Olympic exhibition at Camden Yards. Hammonds went on to lead Team USA with a .414 batting average and a .586 slugging percentage at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain.

He has wasted no time displaying that power and hitting skill in the majors, but he has yet to flash his tremendous speed on the bases. That, said Robinson, is the best part of his game. If that's true, the Orioles might have another Rickey Henderson on their hands.

Jeffrey knows

Hammonds has been very much in the spotlight the past 10 days, doing countless newspaper and broadcast interviews and handling each with a charm and maturity that belies his 22 years.

Somewhere, probably at home as the third of three brothers, he learned how to be diplomatic, so he is careful not to sound too immodest when he is pressed to evaluate his own talent or predict the future.

He already knows all the right things to say, and he probably means them. Even though he already has made a small fortune playing baseball, he is planning to go back to finish his degree in history at Stanford.

"Education is something that is valued in my family and should be in America," he said. "I went to college because I felt that education was important. If I didn't really value that, I would have gone somewhere easier."

Hammonds played both football and baseball in high school, but did not pick up a football at Stanford . . . not that he wasn't tempted. He was a talented running back and cornerback who was recruited to play major-college football, but settled on baseball and stuck with it. If only Bo Jackson had been so prudent.

"I can't say I didn't think about it," Hammonds said. "I had the itch after my freshman year, but they said, 'Get that out of your head.' I knew I had to concentrate on one sport and I chose the safer of the two."

The Stanford connection

There was little doubt that Hammonds had major-league potential when he left high school, but he does not regret the three years he spent in one of the best college baseball programs in the nation.

"I'm sure school helped me," he said. "I was away from my family for the first time and I think it helped me to cope with academics and athletics. Maybe it's helping me cope with this situation. I'm in awe here, but I realize that I have a job to do. I don't know if I would have been ready out of high school."

Mussina agrees. He could have signed with the Orioles out of high school. They made him their 11th-round pick in the 1987 draft even though he had signed a national letter of intent to attend Stanford.

"The comparison isn't easy to make," he said, "but I think we came out of college at an advantage physically, mentally and emotionally over a kid who signed out of high school."

It didn't hurt that they chose one of the truly top-flight college programs. Stanford was so successful that Hammonds was playing under the college equivalent of pennant and playoff pressure throughout his three years of college ball.

"Obviously, he's talented," Mussina said, "but every guy on that team was talented. They had Paul Carey in right field. [David] McCarty at first base. There was always a lot of talent around

you and that made you play better."

Here to stay?

The return of Anderson will force the Orioles to tip their hand on Hammonds. If he stays, then it seems likely that something will be done to clear room for him in the outfield. If not, look for something to happen during the off-season.

In the meantime, he's enjoying his stay in the major leagues and hoping it lasts more than a few more days. If not, he is confident he will be back for good eventually.

"I know that God has blessed me with a lot of ability," he said. "Whether I can be a great baseball player, time will tell. What I can control is going out there and doing everything I can do and giving it my all. If I go out and learn something every day, I feel I can play for a long time."

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Rookie phenom Jeffrey Hammonds has wasted no time making a big impression everywhere he has gone in the Orioles' organization. He introduced himself to the club with a home run in his first exhibition appearance this spring and has had a big day at the plate in his debut at every level of the organization.

April 9, 1993: Hammonds had two singles in four at-bats in his Double-A debut with the Bowie Baysox.

May 3, 1993: In five at-bats for the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, Hammonds had two hits, including a bases-empty home run.

June 25, 1993: In his major-league debut, Hammonds entered the game in the sixth inning and delivered an RBI single in his first at-bat. He reached base in all three at-bats, with another single and an intentional walk.

June 26, 1993: In his first major-league start, he had a double and his first major-league home run in four at-bats.

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