FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Maybe next year, Jeffrey Hammonds will be able to glide through his first spring training workout without drawing a glance or without anyone else's trying to draw a conclusion.
Not this year. When he arrived in camp yesterday, Hammonds drew a crowd and a barrage of predictable questions about the one issue he is most tired of talking about. Inquiring minds want to know if this is the year that he'll finally be healthy enough to live up to the hype, but it is not a question that he can answer sitting by his locker.
He has to prove -- perhaps even to himself -- that his reconstructed right knee is ready to carry him through a full season.
"I just know it feels better," Hammonds said. "Last year, I didn't feel anywhere close to where I feel now."
That much was apparent during yesterday's workout. Hammonds took the field without the knee brace that reminded everyone of his limitations last year. He took batting practice. Shagged fly balls. Ran without any noticeable limp. Flashed that bright smile that had straightened out during the course of a painful and frustrating 1995 season.
Everybody knows what happened last year. The same thing that happened the year before . . . and the year before that. Hammonds showed flashes of brilliance, but couldn't stay healthy enough to stay in the lineup. He missed time his first season with a neck injury, was held to 64 games in '94 because of the knee, then came back early from knee surgery last year only to suffer a severe shoulder injury.
He went from being the most sought-after college prospect in the nation to being an injury-prone underachiever in a surprisingly short time, but he's still young enough -- at 24 -- to embark now on the great career that everyone expects from him.
"I don't want to have an asterisk by my name anymore," Hammonds said.
Manager Davey Johnson is going to give him every opportunity to erase it. Hammonds is projected as an everyday outfielder, even though the club cannot afford to assume that he'll be healthy all year long.
"I told him he's going to play left, center and right," Johnson said yesterday. "I like to play guys at a lot of positions in the spring. He looks healthy to me. I expect everybody, with the possible exception of [catcher Chris] Hoiles taking it easy throwing for a while, to participate in full workouts."
Johnson said he doesn't know a lot about Hammonds, but he saw the potential a couple of years ago, when the Orioles played an exhibition game against the Cincinnati Reds in Plant City.
"I really liked what I saw," he recalled, "then I didn't see any great numbers the next couple of years. I saw the same thing with Manny Ramirez, then saw the great numbers from him. I talked to Jeffrey today and told him that it's time to establish himself. He looks like he's mentally prepared and physically prepared to do so. I like guys who can go and get the ball and guys who can hit the ball."
Hammonds may have been the fastest player in baseball when he arrived at major-league spring training camp in 1992. He was considered a big-time stealing threat and a possible successor to Rickey Henderson as the premier speed/power combination in the game, but he never really has been in a position to turn up the heat. Certainly not in '95, when he was hobbling around the bases with a bulky brace on his knee.
But will he ever be able to run the way he did before doctors transplanted a new ligament into that knee?
"That's a good question," Hammonds said. "It's pain-free. I think I can go as fast as anybody on the team. Whether I've lost a step or not, we'll see. I just want to get back in shape, back to being able to do what I want to do and do those things without worrying about a brace."
The outfield situation will take care of itself. Hammonds will work out at all three positions, but Brady Anderson is expected to start in center field and Bobby Bonilla is projected to play every day in right. If Hammonds is healthy and productive, he figures to get most of the playing time in left field, but Johnson could use him occasionally as the designated hitter and get newly reacquired Mike Devereaux some playing time in left.
Triple-A outfielders Mark Smith and Sherman Obando and journeymen Joe Hall and Jarvis Brown will get some consideration for the fifth outfield spot, unless general manager Pat Gillick succeeds in acquiring an accomplished left-handed hitter to fill that role.
Hammonds still has to prove that he rates a full-time job, but said he's looking forward to the challenge.
"It's easy to forget about what has happened," Hammonds said. "I know what has happened. It's there. It's part of my life. But look at this year, with B.J.'s [B.J. Surhoff's] locker right next to me and [Roberto] Alomar on the other side. . . . It's a whole different ballclub with great expectations. It's easy to get caught up in what's going to happen this year."