WASHINGTON — The busy-ness of the pregame clubhouse at National Park on Friday afternoon was slightly unnerving. With the Phillies gearing up to make a run at a fourth straight trip to the playoffs with newly acquired ace Roy Oswalt on the mound in his first day in a Phillies’ uniform, the visiting clubhouse was more crowded than usual.
On one side of the room shortstop Jimmy Rollins held court, commenting on everything from the X Games shown on one of the TVs hanging from the ceiling of the clubhouse while discussing everything from Sponge Bob Square Pants, Scooby Doo and the 1960s live action Batman series with Adam West.
Oh, it was deep.
Boom! Bash! Pow!
Meanwhile, in the opposite corner from Rollins, Cole Hamels sat slouched in a chair in front of his locker, with his Barnes & Noble Nook, lamenting the fact that if he would have waited he would have probably purchased an iPad, like most of his teammates, instead.
See, it’s never easy to be a ballplayer like Hamels. No, he’s in a financial situation where he can have a Nook and an iPad, but that seems a little superfluous to Hamels. Besides, in due time the next version of the computer gizmo will come out and it will likely be better and faster than the current one. In the meantime, he’ll get all he can out of the Nook.
No, where it’s not easy being Hamels is playing in a place like Philadelphia. Forget all the stuff about how he’s Southern California cool with so much talent brimming over the surface that he makes the game look effortless by default. Forget that he’s similar to Mike Schmidt in that sometimes it’s not cool to be cool even if that’s just the way the guy is.
He’s so cool that the cockiness and arrogance just oozes from every pore when he walks on and off the field. It’s not exactly a trait that works for everyone, but with Hamels it’s real. It’s him. There was never a time where he didn’t think he could routinely throw a baseball past the best hitters on the planet.
And we ought to know the guy by now, right? Drafted not long after he turned 18 in the first round of the 2002 draft, the first world out on Hamels was that he was damaged goods. Sure, he could throw 94-mph and developed an otherworldly changeup after his pitching coach, Mark Furtak, taught him the circle change grip, but the broken left arm when he was a sophomore in high school scared away teams. Even his hometown Padres shied away and took college shortstop Khalil Greene with the 13th overall pick.
Eight years after that draft Greene is out of baseball while Hamels is going through another resurgence of his own.
In fact, Hamels ought to be good at that by now. Five seasons into his big league career, Hamels has been damaged goods, a delicate injury-prone lefty, a knucklehead from breaking his hand in a bar fight that cost him much of the 2005 season, a phenom, a future Cy Young Award winner, the MVP of the NLCS and World Series, to struggling pitcher trying to find his game.
Now he’s a spoke in the wheel of one of the best starting rotations in baseball and working on his renewed focus and maturity. No longer is he just the cocky kid with injury problems, Hamels a father and a husband now. On one hand he says his four-year marriage and 10-month old son, Caleb, haven’t changed anything from the way he goes about his business or approaches a game, saying, “I don’t bring [family life] to work.” However, he added, being the father to an active, healthy 10-month-old boy changes a guy’s perspective.
On the field it has made him understand things a bit more. For instance, he’s not buying the hype about the Phillies’ new, “Big Three,” the top-notch pitching trio that also includes Roy Halladay and Oswalt. The Big Three play for the Boston Celtics, he said, giving a nod to Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce over the Miami Heat’s LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
“I feel like I'm building on things,” Hamels said. “I'm more aware of what I have to do, how to pitch guys, and I'm comfortable in throwing all the pitches I have.”
Truth is, Hamels talks like a veteran pitcher now instead of the young, brash guy who talked of pitching no-hitters, winning Cy Young awards, going to the Hall-of-Fame and gallivanting with Letterman or Ellen DeGeneres and appearing on his wife’s (second) reality show, as well as the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Those things are fun, but they really don’t mean too much. Take, for instance, the 10-strikeouts he got in seven innings against the Nationals on Sunday afternoon. Sure,
“That was great and all, but I left two pitches up, one to [Ryan] Zimmerman and one to [Adam] Dunn,” he said. “That kind of sums up the game. You can be on things, but you make that one mistake to those two guys and it's costly.”
See… so mature and only 26.
It doesn’t make Hamels less enigmatic, though. After all, some people find a path and that’s the only one they need. Hamels, on the other hand, has been all over the map, especially at the end of the 2009 World Series when the frustration of a mediocre season boiled over into bad body language on the diamond, a misconstrued (foolish) comment, and a minor tiff with a teammate. In Philadelphia, during the digital age, those things get blown up.
Philly ballplayers are supposed to take their beatings stoically. If a player like Chase Utley makes a throwing error, the pitcher has to be cool and can’t go skulking around the mound with bad body language or public displays of dissatisfaction. That’s especially the case during the playoffs where an error by Utley at Dodger Stadium sent Hamels into a mini-tizzy on the mound.
As the post-season wore on and the performances weren’t as good as they were the season before, folks started to turn on Hamels a bit. That was exacerbated by some post-game comments after a poor outing in the World Series when Hamels said he could not wait for the season to end. Sure, it came out harmless and was probably taken a bit out of context, but what ballplayer in the World Series wants the season to end?
How did things change so fast? How does a guy go from 4-0 in the postseason in one season to a combined 11-13 with a 4.61 ERA through the entire 2009 season?
Better yet, who cares? Based on the first half of the season Hamels has rewarded general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and manager Charlie Manuel for their faith in him. Aside from the strong numbers, Hamels has regained his cool even when things don’t go well. Take Saturday afternoon’s game in Washington where Hamels rebounded from Dunn’s homer to retired five straight with a pair of strikeouts. He also whiffed the next two hitters after Zimmerman’s two-run double in the fourth inning and racked up eight strikeouts between the fourth and seventh innings.
The 7-7 record is not indicative of the season Hamels has had. Obviously, the record and the 3.56 ERA show a lack of run support. Considering that the low run support was part of Hamels’ frustration in 2009, the fact that he’s been steady throughout 2010 with nearly a full run less of support from last year, Hamels has impressed his bosses.
“I think right now he’s very good. I can tell you this, he should have more wins than he’s got—without a doubt. He’s pitched good,” Manuel said.
“Hamels is a big-time pitcher. If you sit there and watch how he pitches and things like that, hey, over the course of his career he’ll be known as a big-time pitcher. He’s a good pitcher and he’s smooth and he has a tremendous feel for how to pitch, and yeah, he gets hit some, but so does everybody else.”
As far as comparing the postseason of 2008 to now, don’t bother. Hamels, still far from his prime, hasn’t lost a thing.
“Talent is great. If you can’t see talent then something’s wrong with you,” Manuel said. “Hamels has got good talent and he’s a great pitcher. He might not have a 95-to-100 mph fastball, but he knows how to set up his fastball and when he’s throwing 93 or 94, he can put the ball by you. He can strike people out. That’s hard to find.”
It’s also hard to find a guy who realizes what needs to change and jumps on it. Hamels is still a work in progress — his metamorphosis is far from complete. Hamels refuses to remain static, which might be his best trait…
He’s not boring.