Perfect Gamer

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

But an injury to another player on Opening Day last year created a spot with the Diamondbacks for the 25-year-old nobody, if only for a few days at first.

"I told Marci, 'Call up everybody and tell them that your husband is a big leaguer!'" he says.

Hammock hopped into his car (he'd retired the Camaro in exchange for a Ford Explorer) and drove to the BOB. He says the security guards didn't believe at first that he was a member of the D-Backs.

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

One of Hammock's most precious memories of that day happened near the steps to the D-Backs' dugout. There, veteran third baseman Matt Williams, himself just a few months from midseason retirement, stopped the wide-eyed kid for a moment.

"Matty put his hands on me and looked straight at me," Hammock says. "'Hey, Hammock. Let's go to the big leagues!'"

Hammock bounced up and down from Phoenix to Tucson three more times before being recalled for good on August 6. As advertised, he played some third base and outfield, and caught more and more as the season wore on.

Almost overnight, Valley fans took to Hammock's infectious smile and dogged hustle. Beyond that, the unheralded rookie was hitting well and showed unexpected maturity behind the plate.

"A lot goes on if you get to this level," Hammock says. "There's always a puzzle you can work out with a hitter, like going through a maze. You change direction with a guy, find something that works. Then you come up against a Barry Bonds or a Todd Helton. Man!"

Hammock recalls the first time he caught as feared home-run king Bonds stepped to the plate:

"Brandon Webb was throwing. The way Bonds sets up, he's a perfect distance off the plate, and has a perfect stride on every pitch, short to the ball through the strike zone. I had the feeling Barry was gonna hammer whatever came up there. Nothing against Brandon. It would have been anybody. Webb threw a pitch two inches outside. Ump called it a strike. Bonds says, 'That was two inches out, blue,' and I was thinking, 'Sucker's right.'"

Like most rookies, Hammock kept his thoughts to himself most of the time. But he wasn't that shy. Early on, he'd introduced himself to Randy Johnson in the clubhouse on a day the superstar lefty was scheduled to start.

Hammock may have been unaware of the Johnson Rules, which apparently also apply to players, especially rookies: Randy Johnson just doesn't talk to anyone on the day he's scheduled to pitch unless absolutely necessary.

Several players looked on to see how this one played out. By all accounts, Johnson stared at the young upstart for a long moment, then stuck out his right hand and said, "Nice to meet you, too."

By September 1, 2003, Robby Hammock was spent from his mercurial rookie year.

"I basically didn't breathe the whole season until it ended," he says. "I was losing weight, as usual, but it really was more mentally draining than anything else. It's like looking down from a cliff. You don't want to fall off. I'd be in my hotel room thinking, 'When I get to the big leagues.' . . . Then it was, 'Wait a minute! I am in the big leagues.'"

Last July, Hammock had become a father for the second time when Marci gave birth to another daughter, Kayda. Marci says she loved the sound of Matt Kata's last name, and it went from there. (Matt Kata's tongue-in-cheek take: "It's a tight name. She can't help but grow up and be cool with a name like that. Cool and good-looking.")

At the BOB last September 14, Randy Johnson and Hammock had an unsuspecting dress rehearsal for the Perfect Game eight months later.

Johnson was trying to regain a semblance of his old form after undergoing surgery on his right knee last May. His 4-8 record going into that game against the Colorado Rockies showed that even five-time Cy Young Award winners can be as human as the rest of us.

But that night, Hammock experienced firsthand what he'd been hearing about the Big Unit for so long.

"His velocity and his locations, the sharp break on his slider, all made me realize why he's done what he'd done all those years," Hammock says. "It was almost unfair. I just fed off Randy's intensity and got lost in the moment. I have no idea what I did offensively."

Only a single by rookie Rene Reyes in the fifth inning and a walk prevented Johnson from throwing what would then have been his second career no-hitter.

"It was getting near the end of the game," continues Hammock, "and Randy threw a nasty slider down and in to a righty. The guy missed, and I slid to catch it -- block, scoop and catch. I went to throw the ball back to the dugout, and I just saw everyone coming out. I had no idea what was going on. Randy was just kind of looking at me. I'm like, 'Are there only two outs?' Randy kind of chuckled. 'Last time I checked, there's nine innings and three outs in this game.' I had no idea it was the end of the ball game. That's a rookie right there."

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