Perfect Gamer

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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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin