Perfect Gamer

Even after catching the big unit's masterpiece, Robby Hammock still marvels that he's made it to the show.

Brenly had anointed Hammock as his starting catcher even before spring training started. Dubbed the "Baby Backs," Hammock and the others had given the team and town a needed boost midway through the 2003 season.

Hammock, for one, had exceeded expectations in his 65 games with the big team. Playing four positions -- catcher, third base and left and right field -- and hitting for average (.282) and power (eight homers in 195 at-bats), Hammock won over fans spoiled by Arizona's memorable 2001 World Series win over the New York Yankees.

In Hammock, they saw a boyishly handsome man of average stature, who was reveling openly at being a big league player.

Hammock gets a piece of the action.
Hammock gets a piece of the action.


Photography by Jackie Mercandetti

Hammock seemed the antithesis of the "cool" modern athlete. Why, he'd actually smile on the field when things were going well. He also won favor as a "gamer" -- a team player, a hustler -- one of the highest unofficial honors that can be paid in any sport.

"We love Robby because you can see how hard he tries even when we suck," says Phoenix carpenter Johnny Morales, who took a charter bus from a west Phoenix bar to Bank One Ballpark a few weeks ago for a game against the San Francisco Giants. "He's little, and he wasn't supposed to be anything, right? But here he is, in the big leagues."

Hammock's wife of six years, Marci, sums him up like this: "He's like a little kid in some ways. But he don't take crap from anyone."

That's true, Hammock says: "I don't want anyone to think I'm this little guy who got lucky. The words for me are perseverance and hard work. I want that to come across, okay?"

Apart from the Perfect Game, it hasn't been a stellar season for Hammock, especially with the bat. Recovering from the knee surgery wasn't as smooth as he'd hoped, and his lack of spring training hampered him at first.

But Bob Brenly, who says Hammock continually reminds him of himself as a player, isn't complaining.

"The one thing that works in Robby's favor obviously is his versatility," says the manager, who continues to comport himself well in the face of a losing season that is likely to cost him his job. "Not only is he a very good catcher, but he can play first or third or outfield and do it capably. For a guy who isn't the biggest guy on the team, he's got surprising power to the opposite field, and has very quick hands. And -- here's a phrase I always hated -- he 'runs well for a catcher.' A lot of catchers look like catchers, move like catchers. Robby runs like an athlete."

Brenly pauses, and busts into a craggy smile:

"Oh, yes -- RJ loves to throw to him. That's big! That's one thing he doesn't have to worry about."

Back in his birthplace of Macon, Georgia, in the early 1980s, Robby Hammock never had to worry about much.

He grew up as the elder of two children in the comfortable home of Dennis and Judy Hammock. (His sister, Lori, still lives in Georgia, and works at a dentist's office.)

In those days, Dennis was a Macon cop, and Judy worked for Bell South, the phone company. Some of Robby Hammock's earliest and fondest memories revolve around playing sandlot ball in his neighborhood with a taped-up ball and a funky bat.

"As a 5-year-old, he'd watch the Braves all the time and ask all these questions," says Dennis Hammock, now the regional director of the Atlanta office of the International Brothers of Police Officers. "He knew about the game already, and loved it. And he always had intensity and focus. Even in tee ball, he'd get upset when things didn't go well, kick the dirt or whatever. Back then, I told my wife he was outshining the other kids."

Judy Hammock adds, "Dennis played softball into his 40s, but he quit to watch Robby. Robby's daddy is living his dream through Robby."

When Hammock was about 10, his family moved north to Marietta, an Atlanta suburb. There, Dennis bribed him to squat behind the plate.

"My dad said he'd give me a hundred bucks at the end of the season if I'd catch because I could throw people out," Hammock recalls. "Before that, if someone got on, they'd almost automatically get to third. But I could nail them. I caught and caught and caught."

For the record, both father and son agree that the older Hammock paid up as promised.

"Though I didn't word it this way," Robby Hammock says, "I always liked catching because you can live a split-second into the future. You have a good idea what's going to happen, where he's gonna throw it. As a catcher, you're like a puppeteer. Your job is to manipulate the puppet."

Hammock made the varsity at South Cobb High as a sophomore, and played more and more as that season went on. After two stellar years as the team's starting catcher, Hammock graduated from high school in 1995.

He hadn't been heavily recruited athletically -- 160-pound catchers usually aren't a hot commodity -- but the Florida Marlins selected Hammock in the 66th round of the 1996 draft, the 1,578th pick overall. The team offered him a signing bonus of $1, which he politely declined.

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