Perfect Gamer

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

Hammock had a fine season with High Desert, batting .332 and showing versatility as a catcher and an outfielder. But the D-Backs brass still didn't consider him much of a "prospect."

"Scouts and team officials would always ask me who looked good on our team," recalls Jack Cust, now a 25-year-old still seeking an extended chance in the majors. "I was the high-draft guy, the future. I'd tell them, 'Robby Hammock.' They'd smile, as if they didn't believe me. I'd say, 'You're way wrong. He can hit the shit out of the ball,' and that he was a great catcher, too."

Cust says Hammock also carried himself like a pro in another department: "Robby's always thought that he's all that in the looks department. Every hair has to be just so with him. Then he goes out and gets filthy on the field. It's impossible to stay mad at the guy. But he's just lucky that he met Marci."

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

After the 1999 season, Cust invited Hammock to spend a few days with him in Texas, where agent Bob Garber was trying unsuccessfully to woo the young power hitter.

"I met and liked Robby even though I wasn't considering signing him," says Garber, who now represents 21 major leaguers, including five D-Backs. "I could see that he was an engaging kid, a smart kid, and he had that great smile. But it wasn't like he was going too far in baseball, right?"

Hammock moved up to Double-A El Paso from High Desert halfway through the 2000 season -- a quantum leap quality-wise, if not financially.

It had been something of a lonely summer for the Hammocks. Marci stayed behind at her parents' home, working at the bank and expecting the birth of the couple's first child that fall. Robby roomed with two other players in the west Texas border town.

He hit okay there, batting .250 in 45 games, played good defense, and quietly started to believe that, just maybe, he might get a shot at something big someday.

But Hammock didn't know yet that the D-Backs were planning on pushing hotshot catcher Brad Cresse, a 230-pound specimen and one of their top picks in the 2000 draft, up to Double-A in 2001.

Robby Hammock started the 2001 season in El Paso, playing sporadically behind Cresse. Then, eight days before his 24th birthday that May 13, Hammock was demoted to South Bend -- a Low-A team.

For Hammock, who had skipped that level coming up, Low-A was a low blow. He packed his belongings and ball gear into his beaten old Camaro, and drove alone from Texas to Indiana, blasting rock 'n' roll into the night as he gathered his composure.

Hammock drove straight to the ballpark, and introduced himself to manager Steve Scarsone.

"It wasn't a great situation for him, but he wanted to play, immediately," says Scarsone, now a Scottsdale real estate agent. "He didn't show up with an attitude. It was, 'Hell, put me in, right now.'"

In South Bend, Hammock was one of the oldest players on the team, and one of the feistiest. Within days, he exploded verbally in the locker room after what he considered a halfhearted effort by his new teammates.

"He saw things just the way I was seeing them, but I hadn't said much yet, being a rookie manager," Scarsone recalls. "He told the guys to get their heads out of their butts and be thankful for being able to play ball for a living. I mean, this guy had been dropped down two steps, and he wasn't moping about it. We didn't know it then, but Robby was going to be a walking example of someone who'd go farther than anyone thought he'd go."

Despite his upbeat exterior, Hammock couldn't escape the funk of getting dumped to South Bend:

"Steve had me in the three-hole [batting third], and I was just killing rallies. I went 0-for-4 on my birthday, and struck out. I couldn't believe I was playing so terrible. My wife was home, working, with a baby. I was making crap for money, was playing like crap, and was wondering why the hell I was doing this."

At one point in South Bend, Hammock says he went 20 days and 56 at-bats without a hit. "And the hit they finally gave me wasn't really a hit. It was an act of mercy."

Though Hammock says he'd done "absolutely nothing" to earn a call back up to El Paso, it happened after 34 games in South Bend. He drove back to Texas, played there about once every four games -- not well, he says -- suspecting all the while that his pro career was teetering.

Instead, Hammock again got transferred, this time to Lancaster, California, and the D-Backs' High-A team. After his trusty Camaro again landed safely in the small desert city, Hammock began the next chapter in his "downer of a year" with a hearty dose of trepidation.

But the final months of Hammock's troubled season did provide some bright moments.

First, he located his batting stroke, hitting again with frequency and authority.

Second, he connected with fellow future "Baby Back" Matt Kata. The pair would become baseball comrades and best friends.

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