Mike Hampton ends it his way
In the final days of spring training, besides getting rosters set up and the excitement of Opening Day, the end of the line also comes for a lot of players. For example, Mike Hampton announced his retirement this week, and it reminded me of the moment when I realized that my career was over.
I don't know how Hampton came to this place, but for me, that was when I was with the Yankees, with a week to go in camp. Brian Cashman and Joe Torre called me into the office to let me know that they were releasing me. Afterward, I sat around my apartment for a week, considering some options with my girlfriend, and really coming face to face with the idea that this was it. After that week of sitting on it, I decided to head home, to reject the Triple-A offers and to turn the page. Even so, it was a heavy page to turn, and would be even when it is on your own terms. Hampton was not released, but he elected to pack it in. It had become hard to compete, hard to find the fire, hard to climb the mountain of age that makes it take longer to get ready to play than to play.
I think of Hampton in a lot of different ways. Even on the way up in his career, he had a big reputation that preceded him, a time when we were both clawing to survive in the minor leagues. He was a rising Mariners prospect, in an organization that was deep with good pitchers. Before the first time I faced him in Double-A, I had heard about how he was a dominant pitcher and a top prospect.
I finally got the chance to face him, and found he was the first pitcher I'd ever faced armed with an electric cutter, a pitch that would later become a required part of every pitcher's arsenal. I remember swinging with confidence, but then all of a sudden the ball would seem to move a few inches across the zone. For opposing hitters, this led to a lot of broken bats, a lot of mistimed swings. He had a ton of movement on his pitches, nothing was straight, everything slid, moved, dipped, sank and dove, even while sitting in the low 90s. Facing him was nightmare for any hitter.
Funny enough, now when I think of his career, a few other moments come to mind. Most players would rank Hampton as one of the strongest, toughest guys to wear a uniform. I remember watching a game when he was pitching with the Astros. Before the first pitch of the game, just as the cameras had zoomed in on him on the mound, you would see him look out towards right field. Then you see him sprint off of the mound towards right. Everyone in our locker room who was watching the game and think, "What in the world is going on?" Even the cameraman was completely baffled. It turned out that a rogue fan had jumped the fence and attacked Astros right fielder Billy Spiers for no reason whatsoever. Hampton was rushing to help his teammate, and he was one of the first players on the scene. That is a guy you want on your team.
He also could swing that bat to the tune of hitting seven home runs in one season when he was with the Rockies. I think he hit more home runs than a few starting players that year. Not to mention the 16 RBIs, the 20 runs scored or the .291 batting average. During every part of the game, he was going after you, he could hit, he could fight, he would try to steal a base, he could field with the agility of a cat and, oh, he could pitch. In 1999, when hitting was at a premium, Hampton delivered a 22-4 record on a 2.90 ERA, also hitting .311 with three doubles and three triples. That's a complete player.
You knew that when you competed against him, he was "game on." After one game when we knocked him out of a game early at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, he came out, clearly annoyed, and disappeared into the tunnel. Later we heard that he used his bat to "redecorate" the big-screen TV in the visitors' locker room, also writing a check to pay for the replacement. Being that he could hit, he probably knocked it out in one shot.
During one at-bat when I was with the Phillies, I watched on as Scott Rolen worked his way to a hitter's count. Up two balls and no strikes, he was sitting in anticipation of the cookie that was supposed to come his way. The pitcher reared back and fired, Rolen took a hellacious swing... and popped the ball weakly to the infield. Rolen started walking to the dugout before the play was finished (there were runners on base), and when he reached the top step of the dugout yelled, "Does EVERYONE have a cutter?"
He can thank Mike Hampton for a big part of that.
Hampton's era was one when hitters could not sit on a fastball, because it was rare to see one that didn't move in one direction or another. A batter in a hitter's count still had to know that a smart pitcher would use your aggressiveness against you. You would talk to yourself and say, "Oh, I got this guy: 2-0 count, runners on base, he has to lay one in there." The pitcher does, except that it moves across the zone, going from cookie status to a pitch moving to the outer corner at 92 mph. The dreaded cutter, after teasing you with the speed of a fastball, can make you miss the ball by just enough. Instead, you pop up to second base on a 2-0 count, demoralizing you. Advantage, pitcher.
Few pitchers were as crucial during the time of my career by using movement off a fastball than Mike Hampton was. He loved to work fastball and hitters' counts and wrap it around, letting you hang on your own noose. He rarely gave in, and would pitch the exact opposite way of a typical pitching plan. He'd sneak in the straight fastball early on, and employ movement in any count. It drove you up the wall, and when he was in the Astrodome, forget about it, because he'd be coming at you with a sidearm delivery and a release point beyond the batter's eye backdrop. Not only was he nasty, but he became hard to pick up too.
So I congratulate Mike Hampton, as I do many players who will retire, fade out of the game and head into a new reality this week. Some will see it coming, some will be shocked, some will take the step before someone takes it for them. It is a hard thing to swallow after years of playing the game you love for as long as you can remember.
Hampton will go down as a scrapper, a fighter and a serious teammate. A man who was tough to hit, and tough to get out. It was only fitting that he chose to get himself out of the game because no one could get him out on their own.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and the fundraising committee of Boundless Readers. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released May 11, 2010. Click here to buy it on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dougglanville