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Hammonds' mood improves with knee A leg up on a comeback

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. — East Brunswick, N.J. -- She asked him to bend his surgically repaired right knee, and he grew agitated. Fresh off a nearly three-hour drive from Baltimore, he turned to his father and told him they should find another place to resurrect his major-league baseball career.

So began the patient-therapist relationship between Orioles .

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star-in-waiting Jeffrey Hammonds and HealthSouth physical therapist Leslie K. Marcks.

Weeks later, Hammonds' mood has kept pace with the condition of his knee. It's getting better all the time.

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A 2 1/2 -inch vertical scar serves as a reminder of the anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction surgery Hammonds underwent Oct. 11 in Birmingham, Ala. But the swelling, where is the swelling? Almost all gone.

And the scowl, where is the scowl that crossed Hammonds' face the first day he went to the rehabilitation center near his parents' New Jersey home? Gone. All gone. Replaced by a smile and an undying determination to be in the lineup Opening Day, provided baseball's labor dispute ends.

Opening Day arrives one week shy of six months after surgery, and it can't come soon enough, as far as Hammonds is concerned.

"I won't be devastated if I'm not ready," Hammonds said. "I won't be shattered, but I would be surprised if I'm not ready Opening Day. I see no problem being ready by the middle of March."

Hammonds is aware more conservative estimates have him returning in June. The awareness helps him endure the tedium and fatigue of rebuilding his knee.

"That fuels me on," he said. "Not to the point of resentment or anger or revenge to show people I can get it done, but for myself and my obligation to my team to be back."

Translation: A competitive athlete, Hammonds is trying hard to earn the right to say, "I told you so," even if he won't say it if he succeeds.

Marcks calls Hammonds a "rehab star," and the Orioles are encouraged by the reports they are getting on the 23-year-old outfielder.

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"All the reports indicate he's coming along very well," Orioles assistant general manager Frank Robinson said. "He's doing all the things he's supposed to do to rehab. Unless there's a setback, he should be ready to do some things at the beginning of spring training. We're very optimistic about his outlook."

Hammonds spends four hours a day, three days a week at the rehab center not far from the Rutgers University campus using weight machines and treadmills and performing strengthening and stretching exercises. Two days a week, Hammonds undergoes pool therapy. He also does exercises at home every day.

"He's been very faithful," Marcks said. "If he weren't doing all of his exercises at home, I'd be able to tell. He's doing them. There are days I have to lean on him, and there are days I have to cheer him up."

Marcks calls the recovery protocol established by Birmingham orthopedist Dr. James Andrews "aggressive but appropriate."

Hammonds could have continued playing baseball without his ACL, a ligament he tore in high school football and never had repaired. It eventually withered away.

This past season, after he missed time because of a strained medial collateral ligament, Hammonds revealed he had an ACL-deficient knee. Shortly after the season was canceled, he sought the medical advice of two surgeons. He consulted with family, friends and professional associates, and decided to go ahead with the reconstruction.

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"We're glad he decided to have the surgery," said Robinson, whose advice Hammonds often seeks. "Now, the knee is stable, and he won't be concerned about it every time some little thing may happen. He won't think it's related to that."

Ironman in making?

Indeed, Hammonds said he envisions the day when he can be viewed as a player who is in the lineup every day, all season, such as teammates Cal Ripken and Rafael Palmeiro.

"I look at Cal and I look at Raffy," Hammonds said. "They're out there every day, and they're still smiling for various reasons. I want to see what that feels like."

Ripken and Palmeiro both earn roughly $6 million per season, reason enough to smile. Some think Hammonds has that kind of earning potential, but he isn't worth that kind of money yet. He says he knows he has a lot to learn, a lot to prove first, the very sense of self-awareness that could help him reach that level one day.

"He's mature beyond his years," Robinson said. "He's not afraid to ask questions. He's not one of these know-it-alls. He respects and values your advice. He'll sit down and talk with you for hours. That's refreshing. You just don't see that a lot anymore."

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The relationship between Robinson, former superstar, and Hammonds, potential superstar, is one that stands in sharp contrast to baseball's current state. Even as management and players war daily, this club official and this player remain in close contact.

"I respect him for who he is, not for what he did as a player," Hammonds said. "He was before my time as a player. It's a relationship I'm very lucky to have. He's a friend and an elder who can give me quality, quality advice that I can apply to life and to my career. I try to talk to him at least once a week."

Said Orioles general manager Roland Hemond: "Jeffrey's a great student of the game."

An astute enough student to know his talent was being wasted guarding the scoreboard in right field and hitting No. 9 in the order. Yet, Hammonds kept his mouth shut and paid his rookie dues.

"I'm not going to sugarcoat what kind of player I'm supposed to be," he said. "I want to make a mark in this game."

What kind of a leadoff hitter would Hammonds make?

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"An exciting one," he said. "One who can steal a base and leave the yard."

Speed, but more

A .299 lifetime hitter with 11 home runs in 355 at-bats, Hammonds might never regain all of his pre-surgery speed, a risk he was willing to take.

"My objective is to still feel fast," he said.

Though speed always will be his No. 1 tool, it is far from his only one. He has the potential to compete for batting titles, and he is no slap hitter.

"In time, I see him hitting anywhere from 20 to 25 home runs," Robinson said.

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In time, Hammonds will be back in uniform. As for how much

time, no one can say for sure.

"The rule of thumb for an ordinary person in the general population is that at 12 months you can go back to full-contact sports," Marcks said. "You certainly can run before then and jump before then. What you need to be concerned about is the contact."

Obviously, Hammonds is not an average slug who dropped his remote control just long enough to come off his couch, have surgery, then return to the couch. He is a goal-oriented professional athlete.

For professional athletes, the activation range for the surgery now is projected as four to eight months. In Hammonds' case, that would mean from mid-February to mid-June. His goal is mid-March.

"He was an excellent surgery candidate because he was in excellent shape," Marcks said. "He came as a very good athlete with good muscle tone and good strength. He is making some of my job very easy."

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A work in progress

Hammonds does not have to wait until his body fully integrates his new ACL in order to return to action.

"It takes 12 to 18 months for the ligament to take on its new role and for the body to rebuild, reshape and reorganize it to become an ACL," Marcks said of the new ligament, harvested from Hammonds' patellar tendon and grafted into place.

Hammonds said he has plenty of reason to feel encouraged.

"There is nothing they have thrown at me that I haven't been able to perform," Hammonds said. "I'm looking forward to coming back with a strong knee. It hampered every facet of my game, from throwing to hitting to running."

Where he will hit in new manager Phil Regan's batting order and where he will play in the outfield, for the moment, are secondary concerns.

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"My main objective is to be 100 percent so I can look at him and say: 'What do you want me to do?' " Hammonds said.


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