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Mudville: May 25, 2022 9:54 am PDT
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Bring The Hammer

Bob Hamelin remains, in many ways, a folk hero in Kansas City. While he is the first to point out that though he may have a cult-like following around Kaufmann Stadium, it’s not the adoration that Royals’ fans have for a player like George Brett.

That much is true. Hamelin is not spoken about in the reverential manner accorded the Hall-of-Fame infielder. However, the hulking first baseman/designated hitter and former American League Rookie of the Year does hold a distinct place in Kansas City lore, creating special moments in the strike-shortened 1994 season that remain as vivid today as they were when “The Hammer” was at his best.

Hamelin is one of four Royals to win Rookie of the Year [Lou Piniella, 1969, Carlos Beltran, 1999, and Angel Berroa, 2003] taking home the award in ’94, a year that, despite Hamelin’s effort, is still best-remembered for when baseball went away. While the award doesn’t seem as significant because of the way the season came to an end, Hamelin proved that he was no less deserving than the aforementioned trio.

“I guess I am bigger there because I had the Rookie of the Year and I was The Hammer; that nickname was kind of cool,” Hamelin said. “It’s more cult-hero stuff if you were there at the time and watched me play. It’s not like George Brett where it goes on for generations. For me it was just the time I was there. People tell you they saw you play so it’s fun. You know what I mean? That’s kind of what it was all about.”

He rose to prominence quickly, fell from his perch almost as fast and was out of Kansas City following the 1996 season. Hamelin was done playing altogether by the middle of 1999, closing out his career in Toledo in an oft talked about fashion at the age of 31. He returned to the game in the middle of the next decade, beginning a second career as a scout, one that continues today with his work for the Washington Nationals.

“My first at-bat I kind of had no chance. It’s a whole different world against Lee Smith. You think he’s going to throw it a thousand miles an hour because he’s so huge, he’s gigantic.”

JERSEY ROOTS, WEST COAST STYLE

Most of Hamelin’s family is from the Syracuse, New York area but he moved to North Jersey when his parents were presented with a better work opportunity.  He stayed there until he was 11 then moved to Southern California, where he continued to establish himself as both a baseball and a football star. Though he lived in California, he was a Cincinnati Reds fan having grown up admiring the Big Red Machine.

“They [the Reds] were good then,” he said. “I remember going to Cooperstown and getting a Reds hat, the real one. They were my favorite growing up and I stayed a Reds fan. Of course, I got to see them play a few times against the Dodgers.”

Hamelin had options by the time he graduated from Irvine High School. He could choose between baseball and football and could play on a major collegiate level regardless of his choice. While both were appealing – Notre Dame and legendary coach Lou Holtz wanted him – he opted for baseball.

“The only reason I really think about football [now] is because people bring it up,” Hamelin said. “But baseball was far and away what I liked and what I enjoyed. It wasn’t even close for me. It wasn’t like I was a quarterback or a running back or a wide receiver. I was a lineman and it wasn’t all that fun anyway.

“Notre Dame won a National Championship in 1988 and that would have been right in my wheelhouse. I enjoyed high school football; the Friday night lights thing. Your friends get fired up and all that but as far as passion for a sport, it was baseball. [A] football [career] can go pretty quick, too.”

Hamelin’s baseball career got off to a fast start, though, at UCLA. He led the Bruins with a .362 batting average as a freshman to go along with 13 homers and 47 RBIs. Hamelin was named a second-team All-American on a squad that included future Major Leaguers Eric Karros and Torey Lovullo. He was focused on playing pro ball, though, and thought that a change of scenery would provide him with a better opportunity.

Detroit Tigers carcher Chad Krueter chases down Milwaukee Brewers SS Pat Listach during a game at County Stadium In Milwaukee, WI. (Getty Images)

So, he transferred to Rancho Santiago Junior College for the 1988 season and proceeded to hit 31 homers and drive in 107, which were both junior college State records at the time. Hamelin also hit .514, becoming a highly sought-after prospect.

“Leaving UCLA wasn’t really a big deal,” he said. “It just wasn’t really my thing. I wanted to play and sign and move on. You don’t ever really know what’s going to happen, if you’re going to get drafted somewhere. It was just something that I felt like I would rather move on than stay there [at UCLA].”

Hamelin’s strategy worked. He was drafted in the second round [48th overall] by Kansas City and sent to Eugene [Ore.] of the Rookie-Level Northwest League where he had a splendid season. He led the league in homers [17] and OPS [1.035] while finishing third in RBIs [61]. He also hit .298 and had a .431 on-base percentage. Hamelin, who also had an unsuccessful tryout for the U.S. Olympic team that summer, added a strong Florida Instructional League season to his resume that fall.

“I didn’t know much about the Royals,” he said. “Basically, it was George Brett, Hal McRae, Willie Wilson and Dan Quisenberry. That’s what I remember. Once you get drafted by a team, though, you realize that’s the team that wanted you because they drafted you.

“Eugene was cool. It was the first time you’re gone [from home]. I had been out playing a few places but for most guys it’s their first time away. You don’t get paid any money, the eight, 12-hour bus rides are a grinding experience and everything is new. You play every day and have only two days off during the season but it is fun.”

The experience proved important for Hamlin because he proved to himself that he could play on the professional level. Success in college and success on that level are differed and the confidence he gained that first summer in Oregon provided a solid foundation.

It also provided him with something else.

“I got my nickname the Hammer in Eugene from the [team] announcer,” Hamelin said. “He started to call me that and it just kind of stuck. I think he made a wild call one day and used it and the guys picked up on it and started calling me that so it stuck.”

HEADING SOUTH

The Royals were impressed enough with Hamelin that they jumped him over A-Ball directly to Memphis of the Double-A Southern League in 1989, where he hit .308 with 16 homers and 47 RBIs. Back issues became a problem that year, though, limiting Hamlin to 68 games while forcing him to miss much of the final month or so of the season.

“It was a big jump to the Southern League and I got off to a good start [seven homers, 20 RBIs through May 13],” said Hamelin, who was named to The Southern league All-Star team. “I was doing well, but I got hurt. Had I not had the back injury, I might have gotten to the big leagues quite a bit earlier than I did. I probably would have been there by the end of ’89. I had 15 or 16 homers by June and that’s when I got hurt.

“It was a stress fracture. It ended up being very painful and I had surgery a few years later [in 1991]. I got it over with in 1992. You can hurt yourself doing something when you’re young or it could just be something that develops. Some people have them [stress fractures] and it doesn’t affect them too much. Probably, just a lot of people have sore backs but this got probably got amplified because of the things I was doing.”

Hamelin remained high on Kansas City’s prospect list even with the back issues. In fact, The Lawrence Journal-World [Oct. 4, 1989] labeled him as the only legitimate power hitter in the Royals’ system. So, it was no surprise that he was bumped up again, this time to Omaha of the Triple-A American Association for the 1990 season.

However, the back problems flared up again, limiting him to 90 games. This time, his production suffered. Hamelin hit .232 with eight homers and 30 RBIs in 271 at-bats over 90 games. It led to the surgery in 1991, when he was limited again, this time to 37 games during which he hit .189 with four homers and 19 RBIs.

“I didn’t last that long in Omaha because I could do anything because of my back,” Hamelin said. “I didn’t get off to a good start, I wasn’t healthy and I was hurting. That [1990] was for sure my toughest year mental wise because of the injury. I missed the end of 1990 so I had the surgery in ’91.”

Hamelin split 1992 between Omaha, Memphis and Baseball City of the Class-A Florida State League as he rehabbed his way back from the surgery. He combined to hit .274 with 12 homers and 43 RBIs, setting the stage for a big 1993 season at Omaha. Hamelin returned healthy and hit .259 with 29 homers and 84 RBIs, which were good for fourth and sixth, respectively, in the league.

He was also, according to the July 31st edition of The Independence Examiner, the first Omaha player fined that season “for violating the minor league ban on chewing tobacco”. The commissioner’s office clipped him for $300 for what it said was a violation on July 14 in Indianapolis. The article pointed out, however, that Hamelin “wrote to the commissioner to thank him for his concern for his health before pointing out that Omaha wasn’t in Indianapolis on July 14. He added that he probably did have a big dip in his mouth while he lounged around the pool that day in Omaha.”

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS CITY HERE I COME

The Royals were impressed with his play, however, and not worried about his tobacco habits. They promoted him to the parent club and he made his Major League debut on Sept. 12 against the Yankees, striking out against Hall-of-Famer Lee Smith in the eighth inning.

“It’s special when you get called up; it’s cool, no doubt,” Hamelin said. “My first at-bat I kind of had no chance. It’s a whole different world against Lee Smith. You think he’s going to throw it a thousand miles an hour because he’s so huge, he’s gigantic. That and the whole background thing – I had never been in that stadium before, I had no experience and it was very overwhelming. You wonder how these guys get hits right away. That calms down quickly but it was a little out of body experience.”

Hamelin picked up his first hit, a single to center, on Sept. 18 in Seattle off Chris Bosio. He hammered his first homer three days later in Oakland off Kelly Downs and finished by hitting .224 in 49 at-bats with a pair of homers and five RBIs. That stretch, combined with what he did in Omaha, had his name front and center all winter during the Hot Stove League.

The Sporting News [Oct. 4] wrote that he was leading the early contenders to be KCs designated hitter in 1994 while Hall-of-Fame writer Tracy Ringolsby wrote in a national column that December that Hamelin was “taking his chance to replace George Brett as the DH very seriously … and that he was working with conditioning guru Mackie Shilstone on a conditioning program to strengthen his back.”

The opportunity for playing time was certainly there in 1994 for Hamelin. While he wasn’t a regular in the lineup at first – he appeared in 19 of 35 April games – he made the most of the opportunities he did have. Hamelin hit .361 [22-for-61] in April with six homers and 21 RBIs. He closed out the month on a five-game hitting streak during which he went 10-for-17, cementing a place in the lineup.

“I started off against right-handers mostly but when I got off to a good start that got me in there full-time,” Hamelin said. “I started swinging the bat good and they were playing me more against lefties and I got into that rhythm. You hit a game-winning homer or whatever and you start feeling like you’re a big part of the team. You force them to do those things and you don’t let them take you out.”

That Hamelin had an ally in manager Hal McRae also played a role in his success. McRae told Hamelin to relax, that he was going to play every day regardless of who was pitching and that made a huge difference for the rookie slugger.

“My communication was good with Hal,” Hamelin said. “He had been a DH, too, so he understood that. I think him being a DH was a strength of his knowing what I was going to go through. You go 0-for-3 or 0-for-4 and you sit on the bench and wonder can I help in any way.

“We had a real veteran team and he was able to spend time with me because he didn’t have to mess with the other guys. We had some stuff in common, he’s a hitting guy and he was an offensive kind of guy. He probably still didn’t want to talk to the pitchers when he was managing.”

May pushed into June, then July and the work stoppage was looming. Not that Hamelin paid attention to what was going on. He was young and enjoying his first season in the Major Leagues and admits that he didn’t know any better. He was focused on baseball and it showed. Hamelin hit .394 [13-for-33] in 10 August games, which included an eight-game hitting streak during which he hit .481. He had three homers and eight RBIs in the 10 games when the world came to a crashing halt the second week of August.

The season ended and wouldn’t be resuming. Hamelin finished the year hitting .282 with 24 homers and 65 RBIs in 312 at-bats. While there was no World Series, awards were given out that fall and Hamelin found his name on the American League Rookie of the Year Trophy, garnering 25 of the 28 first-place votes to easily out distance Cleveland’s Manny Ramirez, who was the runner up.

“We knew what was going on with the negotiations but we didn’t think about the whole season being gone,” Hamelin said. “They still had the awards but it did take a little air out of that. It was the first time the World Series was cancelled and rightfully people were upset so it took away a little of that [the excitement] for sure.

“The Cy Young Award has this really cool hand and forearm; all the trophies are cool. The Rookie of the Year is just a wooden plaque. It has Jackie Robinson’s name on it. They should make it cooler. I was listening to XM Radio and Steve Sax was talking about [Cincinnati’s Jonathan] India winning and when I was listening, I thought they can’t take that away. That’s the cool part. You’ll always be labeled with that no matter where you go.”

THE PARTY DOESN’T LAST

The strike turned out to be an omen for Hamelin, who never recaptured the magic he had that rookie season. McRae was let go that fall and Bob Boone was named manager for if and when the 1995 season would start. Hamelin struggled from the outset in 1995 and was hitting .164 with five homers when he was sent to Omaha at the end of July. He hit .294 with 10 homers and 32 RBIs in 36 games at Triple-A but couldn’t muster much upon his return to Kansas City in September. He finished the season hitting .168 with seven homers and 25 RBIs.

“I got off to an awful start, not that I would know why,” he said. “Just obviously, I didn’t play well. The labor, the new manager, there were a gazillion things but we were all in the same boat. You start not playing and you lose a little confidence. The same things that make you go up make you go down. Whether it was the sophomore jinx, I’m not so sure of that.

“You’re not making the adjustments they are making to you. If it were something you knew, you would fix it. When you’re struggling like that, you feel miserable. You have such tunnel vision. At the time, it’s all you’re thinking about. You get pissed off about not doing well and it’s pretty encompassing. It’s amazing, you’re in that little bubble and there’s not much else that’s going on. It does play on you, for sure.”

Hamelin hit .255 with nine homers and 40 RBIs in 89 games in 1996 before the Royals released him on March 26, 1997. He signed with Detroit two weeks later and spent most of the season with the Tigers, hitting .270 with 18 homers and 52 RBIs. He added six homers and 24 RBIs in 27 games for Triple-A Toledo of the International League.

“I was arbitration eligible and they [the Tigers] didn’t want to pay me so basically I got non-tendered [that December],” Hamelin said. “I was feeling good but you have to remember at that time, you had really better be the middle of the lineup guy. That’s where the money went. It wasn’t like I had a lot of options.

“So, I went to Milwaukee. It was their first year in the National League. I knew I was going to be pinch-hitting and not starting but it was a big-league job. It was great going out there that season but it’s hard to be productive when you’re not getting at-bats consistently.”

Hamelin hit .219 with seven homers and 22 RBIs in 146 at-bats for the Brewers, who released him that November. He ultimately resigned with the Tigers, who sent him to Toledo, where he famously called an end to his career after grounding out in an International League game against Ottawa.

He ran back into the dugout and told Toledo manager Gene Roof that he was finished, grabbed his glove and headed for the clubhouse and the end of his playing career.

“Obviously, I had been thinking about it [retiring],” Hamelin said. “In spring training, I had signed with Boston but got released so I signed back with the Tigers for Triple-A. I just kind of felt done. I wasn’t looking that forward to getting called up. I was thinking about it and in that game I just did it. I wouldn’t have done it [in that game] if I had gotten a hit that at-bat but eventually I would have.

“I don’t think I was happy. I knew I was going to stop at some point. I wasn’t old but I just didn’t feel like I was going anywhere. I don’t think I was happy but I don’t think I was sad. It was tough because you have a long way ahead of you that you have to figure out.”

A PLACE IN HISTORY, SORT OF

The Hammer left his mark on Major League Baseball, forever cemented in the history books with his Rookie of the Year season. He also left his mark, though, several years later when  when his 1996 baseball card was judged to be one of the worst of all time. It features an ultra-closeup of Hamelin’s head as he holds a placard underneath his chin that bears his name. The picture that made its way onto the Pinnacle Foil No. 289 came from the Royals 1996 spring training media day session.

Author Josh Wilker, who wrote the book Cardboard Gods, told Slate.com in 2013 that the card is “so jarring and awful, a collision of unpleasant forms and surfaces. I fear for anyone dwelling on this card too long. There should be contests to see who can last the longest staring at it before screaming into the night.”

The card now sells for upwards of $40 on the secondary market.

“I hope it goes up to a thousand [dollars],” Hamelin said. “I have had a few calls to do stories about that. Obviously, back in the day when we had media day and all that, everyone had their station, whether it was ESPN or Topps or the other baseball card companies. There was no digital stuff.

“First they have you hold up a card with your name on it under your chin and then pose. It’s actually a picture with my name on it and that’s the one they used. It got voted on the ugliest or whatever and it took off from there. I never heard much about it until five or six years ago when it got voted on. It’s funny for some people who are younger, they understand you holding your name like that; why would you do that?”

While Hamelin still remains in the minds of many because of the card he is better known these days for his work as a scout. He left baseball for several years after his playing career ended but decided he wanted to get back into the game and completed Major League Baseball’s scouting program. Hamelin began scouting for Washington in the Carolinas, Tennessee and Kentucky before moving on to Toronto, where he worked the pro side. He then spent nearly a decade with the Red Sox before returning to the Nationals, for whom he now works covering the Orange County and San Diego areas in California.

“I was thinking that I probably might want to do some coaching [after playing] but my kids were young,” he said. “That was basically going back to being a minor-league player. That wasn’t conducive to raising kids. The scouting end was more appealing though I probably would have gone into coaching if not for the kids.

“I enjoy scouting. I hope I can keep doing it for a long while. I have no desire to get back into uniform. I kind of like what I am doing. The game has gone a lot of different ways [since I played]. There is a lot of swinging and missing. We used to always say when you were doing amateur and college games that you miss the pro game but now the pro game is hard to watch. Guys starting World Series and playoff games and it’s their first career start. How does that make sense? How can you expect to win and this guy never started and wasn’t even on the roster two days ago? A lot of the guys in uniform are just getting overruled by a lot of things. When you get right down to it, the guys in the locker room and the camaraderie are still special but a lot of the other stuff is strange to me.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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