Perfect Gamer

Robby Hammock remembers his every glorious hop, skip and jump into the arms of Randy Johnson after the Perfect Game last month.

"I know I looked like Mini-Me out there on the mound, but I was so flippin' excited," says Hammock, the unlikely starting catcher of the Arizona Diamondbacks and a foot shorter than Johnson. "It was baseball immortality. I was screaming, 'Perfect, RJ, perfect! Tonight you were perfect!'"

You think! So was Hammock, who had celebrated his 27th birthday just five days earlier. He was flawless behind the plate during the 27 outs recorded in succession by the Diamondbacks during the May 18 game in Atlanta -- a few miles from where he'd lived from age 10.

Surely, Johnson's effort will be the highlight of what so far is a dismal season for the D-Backs, and one of the year's best moments in sports.

The photos of Hammock's dive into Johnson's arms and the Big Unit's reaction -- sudden unabashed joy -- were unforgettable. It seemed that it took the unbridled exuberance of a young man with whom Johnson had been in synch all night to yank the pitcher into the magnitude of the moment.

The next evening, Johnson appeared by satellite on David Letterman's show to read the "Top 10 Cool Things About Pitching a Perfect Game."

Number 4: "Your catcher hugs you and it feels kinda . . . nice."

It was Robby Hammock's 56th major league game behind the plate. Only Charlie Bennett had less experience before catching a perfect game. That was in 1880, for the Worcester (Massachusetts) Brown Stockings.

That Johnson and Hammock had become equals on the field is ludicrous on its face:

Johnson has been a major leaguer for 17 years, Hammock is practically a rookie.

Johnson will earn much more per outing this season -- about $500,000, based on 32 starts and his $16 million salary -- than Hammock's entire $315,000 annual salary.

And so on . . .

The odds of throwing (and catching) a perfect game are about 1 in 20,000. The odds of Robby Hammock making it to the major leagues were better, but not by much.

Hammock signed a pro contract with the Diamondbacks in 1998, the 703rd player chosen in the draft. That year, 51 catchers were picked ahead of him, including one by the D-Backs. Just three of those more sought-after catchers have made it to the majors.

Hammock was an afterthought for the D-Backs, a body to fill up a minor league roster for a year or two before being sent home. Thankfully, Hammock didn't read the lukewarm scouting reports that had relegated him to the 23rd round of the draft.

Six years and six minor league stops later -- some more than once -- he made it to the big leagues, as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

One year after that, Hammock became part, as he says, of baseball immortality.

John Rostic, a clubhouse security guard at the D-Backs' spring training home in Tucson, aptly describes Hammock's ascendancy: "He leapfrogged over all the studs, the big boys. He's hungry, and now he has two little kids who literally are hungry. He introduced himself to me the first time I saw him, and called me sir. He's still Mr. this and Mr. that to everyone. He's exceptional."

Five weeks before the Perfect Game, Hammock sat in the Tucson Sidewinders' clubhouse icing his sore left knee and aching right shoulder. At the time, he seemed unlikely to make much of a contribution to the big team for quite a while.

Hammock was on a rehabilitation assignment with the Diamondbacks' Triple-A farm team after undergoing surgery February 13 to repair damage in a kneecap.

It was turning out to be as difficult emotionally as physically.

"You start off in rookie ball," he said in his soft Georgia drawl, "and see how it goes. You move up to 'A' ball and wonder what you're doing there. Then you get comfortable and get moved up. But when you finally get to the big leagues, it's not just another step, it's the step. Now, I'm back here, out of the loop. I know it's just two hours up to the BOB. But it might as well be a million miles."

Hammock considered his own, uncharacteristically self-pitying words before saying something that, in hindsight, seems prescient:

"Whenever I start to feel sorry for myself, I think of RJ. Guy is 40 years old and is going straight to the Hall of Fame. He had knee surgery [in 2003] much more serious than mine and he's worked like crazy to get back to where he's been without any whining. I can't wait to get back there and watch what he does."

As the 2004 season neared, huge uncertainties about the Diamondbacks played cruelly with any local dreams of imminent baseball glory.

The loss of pitching co-ace Curt Schilling to Boston (no replacement has emerged), the effect of the trade with Milwaukee for slugger Richie Sexson (that took a disastrous turn when Sexson's season ended early because of injury), and ubiquitous uncertainties about the pitching staff (help!) were among the pressing concerns.

Manager Bob Brenly also awaited the output of the many young players that the financially challenged D-Backs had thrust into leading roles. That list included Alex Cintron, Brandon Webb, Matt Kata, Stephen Randolph, Jose Valverde, Oscar Villarreal and, after he healed up, Robby Hammock.

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 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.

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.

"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."

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."

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.

"Robby took such a realistic approach to everything, even then, maybe because he got a family going so young," says Kata, currently on the D-Backs' disabled list with a torn-up shoulder. "I try to trick myself into stuff, talk myself into things. He doesn't. We'd stay up for hours talking about the game, and he wouldn't shy away from the bad. He has an interesting mind. We became awesome best friends, partly because of how we've approached our baseball careers. Neither of us will ever take anything for granted in this game."

Finally, Hammock bumped into Bob Garber -- the player agent he'd once met with Jack Cust. Garber had come to Lancaster to visit his younger brother, Mike, a rookie lefty who was Hammock's teammate.

During a ride to lunch, Bob Garber recalls, he mentioned in passing how much he liked Hammock's sunglasses.

"Robby said, 'Here, they're yours,' just like that. I thought, 'This is a nice guy. He ought to be able to say he had an agent, even if it's just for a little while.' I was thinking I could get him a pair of spikes or something before he got released. So you can say that Robby Hammock got himself an agent because he laid a cool pair of sunglasses on me."

Garber called Hammock when he returned home, and volunteered his professional services. Hammock said that would be wonderful, as long as he wasn't too much of a burden.

In the off-season that year, Garber also offered Hammock an internship in his Chicago office. The 24-year-old accepted, though it meant more time away from his wife and baby daughter, Gentry.

"I thought he was telling me something about my future as a ballplayer, or lack of it," Hammock says, drolly. "But it was an opportunity to learn about the business side of baseball, which is intense."

Garber says Hammock's sense of humor and good heart kept his business office loose during tense negotiating sessions that winter.

"Robby was right there when we negotiated with Joe [Garagiola] Jr. over [pitcher] Matt Mantei," Garber says. "He worked 12 hours a day many days, and he showed me the same work ethic that he shows today with Arizona. I'm more proud of him and what he's accomplished than of any of my other players."

Mantei eventually signed a four-year, $22 million contract, much to the current chagrin of the D-Backs bosses and their fans. And Hammock learned a ton about the fine art of negotiating for major league dollars.

Hammock played the entire 2002 season with the El Paso Diablos, catching often and batting 441 times, finishing with a .290 average. He deeply impressed manager Chip Hale along the way on several fronts.

"I started thinking, 'Why can't Robby be a full-time catcher who also plays here and there,'" says Hale, now the manager of the Triple-A Tucson Sidewinders. "He's as strong pound-for-pound as anyone. In El Paso that year, he energized everybody around him. He's the perfect example of someone who got a lot of ABs [at-bats] in the minors and improved as he went. Compare him to all those guys who got pushed too fast and flamed out before they could develop. Robby was lucky, and so was Arizona."

Naturally, Hammock had serious competition in front of him and behind him with the D-Backs. By then, Brad Cresse was in Triple-A, and youngish catchers Chad Moeller and Rod Barajas had been slated for the big team in 2003.

But, finally, Hammock truly seemed to have turned a corner, thanks to his versatility as a player and his unquenchable desire to improve.

After the 2002 season, the Diamondbacks invited Hammock to play for them in the Arizona Fall League, a prestigious, decent-paying showcase for big league prospects. He did well, and returned to Georgia to await the next step.

One momentous break in Robby Hammock's baseball career was the presence of Bob Brenly as the D-Backs' manager.

Brenly saw something of himself in the scrappy young catcher. Now 50, he wasn't drafted after high school or college, and had languished in A-ball for parts of four seasons.

But like Hammock, Brenly had scratched his way in the early 1980s to a major league job, at the age of 27.

Brenly also had been a catcher who was able to perform adequately just about anywhere else on the field. He also was pretty nifty with the stick, definitely an added bonus.

During spring training in Tucson before the 2003 season, Brenly saw for himself what Chip Hale had reported from El Paso and what others in the organization were starting to believe.

"Robby was carrying himself with such confidence behind the plate, which is so important," Brenly says. "If a catcher shows any sign of mental fatigue or feeling down on himself, it shows up. If he shows weakness, it's going to infiltrate the rest of the team."

Hammock did well enough to stick with the big team until shortly before the D-Backs broke camp.

After Hammock learned he'd be playing with the Triple-A team in Tucson, he sent for Marci, who was pregnant again, and little daughter Gentry. The couple rented a house in Marana, north of Tucson.

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.

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."

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."

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."

After the team returned to town a few weeks ago, Johnson had this to say about his baseball other half:

"Robby is very easy for me to work with. We're on the same page without having to say a lot. And everybody saw how enthusiastic he is, how much he loves to win. He's gonna be around for quite a while."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin