Hammonds still student of the game


He came to the Orioles with the burden of great expectations, a first-round draft choice with talent so abundant his potential seemed unlimited.

But, as Jeffrey Hammonds passed the 250-at bat milestone last night, he was still a weanling trying to learn the nuances and tough demands of major-league baseball.

After what is roughly equivalent to half-a-season on the field, Hammonds' early results have been mixed -- the talent producing eye-catching high points, and the inexperience producing rookie mistakes.

"I don't know what to think about what he can do," said manager Johnny Oates. "He obviously has a lot of talent and makes our lineup very potent. But he hasn't played a whole lot up here yet. Let's just let him go and evaluate him down the line."

Since rising from a brief minor-league career last June 25, Hammonds' progress has been slowed by a series of injuries.

A herniated disk in his neck restricted him to two 1993 games after July 30. This season he needed recuperatory time from a concussion after a collision at home plate and he was on the disabled list for more than a month with a strained ligament in his right knee.

Hammonds said he is bothered by pain in the knee, even after discarding the unwieldy brace he was wearing (he now has a lighter one) and asked Oates for a day off after playing in 17 consecutive games.

"I appreciated him [Oates] running me out there game after game," said Hammonds, "but I told him I was about 80 percent and he realized what was happening. I think the communication between him and me is light-years better than it used to be."

Hammonds said he is content with where he is at this point, but won't "feel comfortable until I come in every day knowing my name is in the lineup."

The adjustments from All-America collegiate status to big-league rookie have involved learning new positions (left and right field instead of center) and batting ninth.

Oates has hit Hammonds at the bottom most of the season "to let him relax, take the pressure off him" and that has worked, with Hammonds near or above .300 all season.

"I don't mind ninth although I don't dream about hitting there," said Hammonds. "I was in the two spot a lot before I got hurt. But that doesn't matter as much as playing consistently."

But defensively, the manager said "he needs a lot of work. There is a lot of polish to add, and only experience does that."

Knowing situations and how to react to them, getting jumps on fly balls and hitting cutoff men are among the skills still on Hammonds' things-to-improve list.

Hammonds agrees, but attributes that to changing from the middle to one corner of the outfield or the other after being in center field previously.

"In two years I'm sure I'll have a much stronger hold on some things than what I have right now," said Hammonds. "I'm only 23 and I'm going to make mistakes.

"But I'm very fortunate in that the veterans on this team have been a positive influence. With me, there is a lot of scrutinizing and opinionated responses. My teammates always give me constructive criticism."

Hammonds' current goal is to maintain his level of play and not worry about the statistics.

"I'm where I want to be for now," he said. "Expectations do not always have to be numerical. They can also be mental. I think the latter applies to me."

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