Perfect Gamer

Page 7 of 8

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).

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin