By Matthew Hendley
By Monica Alonzo
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By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
"I know I looked like Mini-Me out there on the mound, but I was so flippin' excited," says Hammock, the unlikely starting catcher of the Arizona Diamondbacks and a foot shorter than Johnson. "It was baseball immortality. I was screaming, 'Perfect, RJ, perfect! Tonight you were perfect!'"
You think! So was Hammock, who had celebrated his 27th birthday just five days earlier. He was flawless behind the plate during the 27 outs recorded in succession by the Diamondbacks during the May 18 game in Atlanta -- a few miles from where he'd lived from age 10.
Surely, Johnson's effort will be the highlight of what so far is a dismal season for the D-Backs, and one of the year's best moments in sports.
The photos of Hammock's dive into Johnson's arms and the Big Unit's reaction -- sudden unabashed joy -- were unforgettable. It seemed that it took the unbridled exuberance of a young man with whom Johnson had been in synch all night to yank the pitcher into the magnitude of the moment.
The next evening, Johnson appeared by satellite on David Letterman's show to read the "Top 10 Cool Things About Pitching a Perfect Game."
Number 4: "Your catcher hugs you and it feels kinda . . . nice."
It was Robby Hammock's 56th major league game behind the plate. Only Charlie Bennett had less experience before catching a perfect game. That was in 1880, for the Worcester (Massachusetts) Brown Stockings.
That Johnson and Hammock had become equals on the field is ludicrous on its face:
Johnson has been a major leaguer for 17 years, Hammock is practically a rookie.
Johnson will earn much more per outing this season -- about $500,000, based on 32 starts and his $16 million salary -- than Hammock's entire $315,000 annual salary.
And so on . . .
The odds of throwing (and catching) a perfect game are about 1 in 20,000. The odds of Robby Hammock making it to the major leagues were better, but not by much.
Hammock signed a pro contract with the Diamondbacks in 1998, the 703rd player chosen in the draft. That year, 51 catchers were picked ahead of him, including one by the D-Backs. Just three of those more sought-after catchers have made it to the majors.
Hammock was an afterthought for the D-Backs, a body to fill up a minor league roster for a year or two before being sent home. Thankfully, Hammock didn't read the lukewarm scouting reports that had relegated him to the 23rd round of the draft.
Six years and six minor league stops later -- some more than once -- he made it to the big leagues, as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
One year after that, Hammock became part, as he says, of baseball immortality.
John Rostic, a clubhouse security guard at the D-Backs' spring training home in Tucson, aptly describes Hammock's ascendancy: "He leapfrogged over all the studs, the big boys. He's hungry, and now he has two little kids who literally are hungry. He introduced himself to me the first time I saw him, and called me sir. He's still Mr. this and Mr. that to everyone. He's exceptional."
Five weeks before the Perfect Game, Hammock sat in the Tucson Sidewinders' clubhouse icing his sore left knee and aching right shoulder. At the time, he seemed unlikely to make much of a contribution to the big team for quite a while.
Hammock was on a rehabilitation assignment with the Diamondbacks' Triple-A farm team after undergoing surgery February 13 to repair damage in a kneecap.
It was turning out to be as difficult emotionally as physically.
"You start off in rookie ball," he said in his soft Georgia drawl, "and see how it goes. You move up to 'A' ball and wonder what you're doing there. Then you get comfortable and get moved up. But when you finally get to the big leagues, it's not just another step, it's the step. Now, I'm back here, out of the loop. I know it's just two hours up to the BOB. But it might as well be a million miles."
Hammock considered his own, uncharacteristically self-pitying words before saying something that, in hindsight, seems prescient:
"Whenever I start to feel sorry for myself, I think of RJ. Guy is 40 years old and is going straight to the Hall of Fame. He had knee surgery [in 2003] much more serious than mine and he's worked like crazy to get back to where he's been without any whining. I can't wait to get back there and watch what he does."
As the 2004 season neared, huge uncertainties about the Diamondbacks played cruelly with any local dreams of imminent baseball glory.
The loss of pitching co-ace Curt Schilling to Boston (no replacement has emerged), the effect of the trade with Milwaukee for slugger Richie Sexson (that took a disastrous turn when Sexson's season ended early because of injury), and ubiquitous uncertainties about the pitching staff (help!) were among the pressing concerns.
Manager Bob Brenly also awaited the output of the many young players that the financially challenged D-Backs had thrust into leading roles. That list included Alex Cintron, Brandon Webb, Matt Kata, Stephen Randolph, Jose Valverde, Oscar Villarreal and, after he healed up, Robby Hammock.