Perfect Gamer

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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."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin