Perfect Gamer

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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!"

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin