Perfect Gamer

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

Instead, he signed with coach Tom Cantrell of DeKalb Junior College (now Georgia Perimeter College). These days, Hammock calls Cantrell "my most significant and influential person in teaching me how to think as a ballplayer."

Says Cantrell, now the head coach at North Georgia College: "I knew he had that intangible, that thing that makes someone go places in this game or in life. He needed coaching, and I gave it to him. He loves the game so much, and loves to get better at it. He cares the way all ballplayers used to care."

When Hammock was a freshman, however, the pair butted heads after the coach pulled him out of a game because he was playing poorly.

Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Robby Hammock makes it big on the playing field.
Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Robby Hammock makes it big on the playing field.
"Like all of the other "Baby Backs," Hammock has suffered through growing pains in this, his first full season in the majors."
"Like all of the other "Baby Backs," Hammock has suffered through growing pains in this, his first full season in the majors."


Photography by Jackie Mercandetti

"He kind of gave up for a minute and was ready to quit," Cantrell recalls. "I told him I knew I was driving him hard, but that I knew he would do the right thing and take responsibility. He just went from there, and became someone that anyone would want on their team strictly because of his joyous attitude."

The following year, Cantrell says, Hammock again played badly in one conference game. Afterward, he tried to return his meal money to the coach.

"He said he'd let me down, and I didn't deserve it," Cantrell says. "I wouldn't take it, no way. The boy didn't have no money, period. Robby is a perfectionist in his own way, particular about the way he looks and moves and everything. That second year, I told him he was going to have a chance to play pro baseball. And he did."

After the season, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays drafted him in the 89th round, the 1,604th player taken. But he knew the chances of making a rookie-league roster as a bottom-feeder were slim.

Instead, Hammock accepted a scholarship offer from the University of Georgia, where he mostly played outfield. His dad often visited him in Athens that year, and the pair would have long chats over dinner.

"We talked about his college education versus baseball," Dennis Hammock recalls. "I asked him what his dream was. He said, 'I want to play major league baseball.' I told him to follow his dream, and I'd support him the best I could. I knew the only thing holding him back was his size. The pros love those big guys."

By then, Robby Hammock had met his future wife, Marci Carey, at a party through friends. Marci was a lovely, churchgoing young woman from Buford, who had been a good enough basketball player to earn a scholarship to a small school in South Carolina. She was a few years older than Robby, and was working at a bank in north Georgia when they met.

After an excellent junior year at Georgia in 1998, Hammock waited to see if he'd piqued anyone's interest in that June's draft. The Diamondbacks chose him in the 23rd round, one of four catchers they drafted that year.

Hammock says he was "extremely pumped" to get a $12,500 signing bonus with the D-Backs. The organization assigned him to rookie ball that summer with the Lethridge Black Diamonds, in Alberta, Canada. He was 21.

Robby Hammock says he soon became aware that he had much to learn about all aspects of the pro game, on and off the field.

"Everything you know, you throw out the window," he says. "How you squat, set up, call pitches. That's on the field. Then there was the chafing -- cup rash -- just the basic how to take care of yourself kind of stuff, how to eat, everything. I asked myself more than once, 'Do I really want to do this?'"

The pay also stunk. Hammock collected about $700 in take-home money every two weeks, a sum that usually didn't go farther than his pocket.

He quickly became friends with another rookie in Lethridge named Jack Cust -- a slugger from New Jersey who had signed with the Diamondbacks as their first pick in the 1997 draft for $825,000.

The pair roomed together as rookies, and the highly touted and newly affluent Cust helped Hammock financially.

"We'd go to a clothing store, and he'd be too lazy to try on a new shirt or pants," Hammock says of his pal, now with the Baltimore Orioles' Triple-A team in Ottawa. "He'd give me something to try on, and if it fit me better, he'd buy it for me."

Hammock hit .286 that rookie season, after which he returned to Georgia and worked with his future mother-in-law at an insurance firm. He and Marci were getting married that November, an event Hammock calls "big-time important to me in my life."

The D-Backs assigned Hammock in 1999 to the High Desert Mavericks, its High-A franchise in the California League. The newlyweds moved to Victorville, where they shared a home with Jack Cust and his fiance, and two other ballplayers.

"It wasn't so much fun at the time because we were so broke," Marci Hammock says, "but we were able to survive financially with the help of our families, who love us. There were lots of ramen noodles in our cupboard."

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