Perfect Gamer

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

Though the game was meaningless in the final standings, the D-Backs' brass embraced the budding professional romance between the odd couple -- a grizzled veteran and a baby-faced rookie.

"Robby made an instant connection with RJ, and that's not easy to do," Brenly says. "Randy loves the way Robby catches a game and calls a game. We also saw that Robby wasn't afraid to go out there and get on RJ if he felt it necessary. That's something that usually doesn't come until later in a catcher's career, but he had that already, even with a legend."


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."

Robby Hammock was on the disabled list when the current season started, as his recently repaired knee and sore shoulder healed.

He had signed a one-year contract with Arizona for $315,000 -- just over the major league minimum -- which was more money than he'd imagined that he'd make playing ball.

When he was deemed well enough to join the team April 20, Bob Brenly threw him right into the fray, and had been playing him about two of three games ever since (until his tender knee and shoulder started acting up again recently).

Like all of the other "Baby Backs," Hammock has suffered through growing pains in this, his first full season in the majors.

"We've had a lot of guys trying too hard, myself included," he said after yet another loss, this one to the Los Angeles Dodgers a few weeks ago. "Younger guys try to throw themselves into things to fill the gap. We saw the World Series on TV, and we've heard the stories from Gonzo [Luis Gonzalez] and Fins [Steve Finley] and the rest of them -- but that's the only way we can fathom it. We're not Matt Williams or Mark Grace, veteran guys who have been there and back. We're trying to find our own way, and it hasn't been easy."

Brenly, who went through a similar maturing process as a young player with San Francisco, empathizes with his kindred spirit.

"Usually, the second year is when the guys start to view this as a profession and as a career," Brenly says. "The first year in the big leagues, most guys are just glad to be here. It's, 'I've got a uniform with my name on the back of it, they're giving me free shoes, free gloves, we're flying charter planes -- it's so cool.' Then you go to the ballpark and do what you've always done naturally. The second year, all of a sudden there are expectations placed on you, not to mention that the other team knows who you are now. And you start to overanalyze a little bit. Robby has a little of that going on. But he'll figure it out. He always has."

Still, Hammock can't help but worry about his continued place in the major league sun. He and Marci haven't gotten around yet to buying their own home, and are renting a place on the Raven Golf Club in south Phoenix.

"He gets wound up sometimes," Marci says, "and he has to remind himself about what he's got -- great family, great girls, his dream job, and the fact that I love him. Sometimes he'll say, 'Do I really deserve to be here?' He knows he does. I tell him, 'You got to believe!'"

Nagging doubts aside, Hammock says he does believe he's becoming topnotch at his position. That inner confidence held him in good stead on what always will be one of the biggest nights of his life, Tuesday, May 18, 2004.

"I wasn't nervous one bit out there," he says of RJ's instant classic at Turner Field in front of family and friends (Dennis Hammock couldn't attend because his mother had died the previous day after a long battle with cancer. However, Robby's mom, sister and wife sat nervously in the 13th row behind home plate.)

"The reason was that Randy was on the mound. Everything was under control. It wasn't like I was telling myself, 'One pitch closer to a perfect game.' I was trying to get people out. The number-one priority was to win."

When it was over, Hammock didn't know the historic particulars -- that Johnson had thrown just the 15th perfect game since 1901, and that he'd been the oldest man ever to accomplish it.

But Hammock knew just what the late Hall of Famer Jim "Catfish" Hunter meant when asked one time why he'd only thrown one perfecto: "The sun don't shine on the same dog's ass all the time."

"I knew exactly what it all meant," Hammock says, smiling. "I was jumping around for a reason."

The pitcher thought enough of Hammock's efforts after the Perfect Game to buy him a $10,000 Rolex watch before the end of the road trip.

It was engraved, "Perfect Game. 5-18-04. From R.J."

Hammock says the publicly taciturn Johnson tried to play a practical joke on him before presenting the Rolex at south Florida's Pro Player Stadium.

"Someone put a Nike watch in my locker in a box," he says. "I thought, 'Cool.' Then Randy walked over, and I knew something was up. Then he gave me the Rolex. Now, that was cool."

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