“God, I’m gonna pitch every single game like it’s going to be my last.”
Plenty of Major League Baseball players have come back from retirement.
In 1991, Jim Palmer tried it after seven years and it didn’t work out. Another Hall of Famer, Ryne Sandberg, came back after retiring in 1995 and had two respectable seasons before retiring for good. Dave Stieb came back after five seasons, Andy Pettitte after one and Babe Herman hit .265 at age 42 after taking five years off.
While most were understandably lesser versions of their former selves, our guest this week is a bit different.
Chris Hammond retired from baseball in 1998 and returned in 2002 to put up a historic season as a key member on an absolutely dominant Braves staff.
The venerable lefty joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
Injuries, a disheartening experience in Boston and a growing family forced Hammond to reassess his life during the 1998 season. Ultimately, Hammond retired at the age of 32. However, with his kids growing, the Hammonds thought it would be a good idea to have their children experience what it was like to watch their dad go head-to-head with Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa and other stars of the new millennium.
Hammond responded to his time off by becoming just the fourth pitcher ever to pitch at least 75 innings while posting an ERA below 1.00. The Braves led the Majors in ERA by half a run and on the strength of their bullpen, captured their eighth straight National League East title.
Hammond pitched five post-retirement seasons, going 19-6 with a 2.47 ERA in his first four seasons back.
Although lefties seemingly have an unlimited shelf life in Major League Baseball, Hammond remains happily retired at 55 and still operates the Chris Hammond Youth Foundation, which helps underprivileged kids in the South play baseball.
His path to the Majors was unique and not many players can say they came off a multi-year retirement the way he did, so let’s find out more as we go Spitballin’ with Chris Hammond.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Hammond. I think you had a pretty unique career, kind of two careers in one, and I can’t wait to hear the stories behind it. Let’s start at the beginning though. What was baseball like for you as a kid?
I was like every other kid growing up during that time. We lived outdoors and played yard football, kickball, stickball, baseball. Pretty much every night in the summer, my mom would have to ring her bell at dark for us to come in for dinner. We had about seven kids in our neighborhood and we played sports year-round. If it wasn’t baseball it was football and if it wasn’t football, it was basketball.
I was reading that in college you were a position player and a really good hitter and were somewhat surprised to be drafted as a pitcher. Could you take us through that story?
I had a scholarship out of high school to UAB and they wanted me to play outfield and DH. I was like, “Shoot, I kinda like pitching.” I did it though, but UAB didn’t work out. I didn’t make good enough grades to play for two years, so I went down to Gulf Coast Community College and they said they wanted me to pitch in the Spring. In the fall, I pitched one game against South Alabama. I lost 1-0, but pitched eight innings. Afterwards, a Cincinnati Reds scout told me he was hearing about me and liked what he saw that day. He told me he was gonna think about drafting me. I’m thinking, “Heck yea!”
I never thought in a million years that would happen. That was the first game I pitched since high school. Lucky for us, the guy who was our pitching coach had played in the Astros organization and he knew the Reds scout. He notified him that he needed to come look at me. He came to that game, and the rest is history.
“Pitching in Yankee Stadium is nerve wracking enough. That game, Joe Torre took Roger out and as I was running in from the pen, the whole place was booing me.”
In the minors you had a three-year stretch where your record was 42-13 with a 2.39 ERA. Was there a time where you thought you’d be a Major Leaguer?
When I got drafted, they gave me $500. I was just happy to get paid to play baseball. I told myself, I am gonna have the best time of my life and make whatever money I could. I never thought that in a million years that Chris Hammond would get called up to the Majors. That’s what really helped me to get through the hard times and the good times to move up to the next level every year. I never expected to make it, so I just kept working. I was 10-1 in 1990 and my manager said, “Hey Hamm, I need to talk to you after the game when we get back to the hotel.” I’m thinking, “Well, what did I do wrong?” He called me in and said I got called up to the Major Leagues and it was the biggest shock of my life. I never saw myself making it to the Majors. That was for the really good guys.
As someone who wasn’t really a pitcher in college and wasn’t really expecting to be a Major Leaguer, how do you adjust and have a very good career like you did?
My first start came for the Reds in 1990, the World Series year. I could sit here and try to explain it, but there’s nothing compared to walking out at Riverfront Stadium with the Reds in first place. There were 40,000 people there and I was like, “Oh my goodness. This is a different ballgame than what I’m used to.” I always tell people that it takes about two years for a young player to get used to feeling that they belong in the Majors.
I remember pitching in Shea Stadium and this guy kept yelling at me. I couldn’t figure out where he was and it turned out he was in the second deck. I could hear his voice and couldn’t tune it out. That’s just part of it. Five years later, I pitched my first shutout and it was at Shea Stadium and I was at the point then where I thought that I belonged there. It was like tunnel vision, like when people say they’re in the zone and you don’t hear anything. That’s when it felt like I belonged and I could pitch.
That 1990 Reds team was great to come up with and you pitched two more years there. Then you were part of a different experience as the number three starter for the Florida Marlins in their first year of existence. What’s it like being part of a franchise just getting started?
It was super exciting. Playing the inaugural Marlins team was fun because really Charlie Hough was the only veteran on the team. The Marlins gave me a shot. I remember losing my first three games and everyone was talking about moving me to the bullpen. Marcel Lacheman was the pitching coach and he said, “Heck no, he can pitch!” He pulled me aside after a game and told me he had my back. He said to just go out there and pitch and I won eight games in a row. I won Pitcher of the Month too. That really built my confidence that I can not only win in the minor leagues, but in the Majors too.
That’s great! Moving forward, you did something really not many people have done. You retired after the 1998 season and then came back in 2002. Some guys have come back from retirement, but I can’t remember anyone being retired that long then having the success you did coming back. What led to your retirement and comeback?
I had signed with Boston as a starting pitcher and when I went to Spring Training, they used me in the bullpen. All my contract incentives were as a starter, so at the end of Spring Training, I asked them to adjust my contract if I was going to be used in the bullpen. They said no and just left it was it was. That left a bad taste in my mouth. About half way through the year, my elbow was bothering me. I had an MRI and it showed a big bone spur. Boston said I should get it taken care of at the end of the year. I said, “No, I think I want to do it now.” The way Boston treated me took the love of baseball from me. I decided to call it quits for that year. At the same time, my wife was on bedrest with my second child. So combine that with the way Boston treated me, I figured that I might be done.
After a couple of years, my wife said she was kind of sad our kids never saw me play. I figured I was left-handed and just 33, so someone would sign me. I decided to give it a shot and ended up having the best four or five years of my career pitching out of the bullpen.
It’s amazing enough that you came back after a long layoff, but then you put up a historic season in which you pitched 76 innings with an ERA under 1.00. You were just the fourth pitcher to ever do that at the time. Can you take us through that season and what made it so special?
I hadn’t pitched in the Big Leagues in three years. We were in Spring Training and playing the Royals at Boardwalk and Baseball and Bobby Cox pulled me aside. He said, “Hamm, I think you’re gonna be part of our squad this year.” I told him I knew I could pitch. My first weekend back, I gave up a three-run homer to Jeromy Burnitz. I said a little prayer driving back home. I said, “God, I’m gonna pitch every single game like it’s going to be my last.” I ended up pitching 75 more innings the rest of the season and gave up just five runs.
You pitched in a number of roles out of the bullpen too, which makes that even more impressive. Did you find that difficult to do?
When the season started I was the last guy on the staff. Then I moved up to long relief and then was given roles in the sixth inning and seventh inning and then ended up the year as the setup man for John Smoltz. With Smoltz as our leader in the bullpen, we had a tremendous relationship among the relievers. We sat in the bullpen and picked each other up. It was remarkable how everybody in the bullpen had a career year that year. I remember Mike Remlinger said, “I had the best season I could ever have and my ERA was 1.99. Yours is a full run lower than mine!”
How much of that success of yours and your whole staff’s can be attributed to having guys like Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone as coaches and being on a staff with so many great pitchers?
It plays a lot into it, especially pitching out of the bullpen; having Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Kevin Millwood and all of them as starters. You gotta have trust that when those guys come out of a game, we’re still gonna win. One of the best compliments I ever got came when a reporter asked Greg Maddux about coming out of games. They were both [Maddux and Tom Glavine] going for their 300th win and would be coming out of games in the fifth and sixth innings. Reporters were asking them if they were getting tired and that’s why they were coming out. They were like, “Heck no, we don’t have to pitch nine innings anymore. With the bullpen we have out there, we just have to pitch five or six.” I have a big smile on my face right now just thinking about that.
After that Braves season, you pitched one year in The Bronx with the Yankees and were part of a historical game. Roger Clemens was going for his 300th win and when he was taken out by Joe Torre, you were the guy who came in for him. Looking back now, what is it like being part of that kind of history?
Pitching in Yankee Stadium is nerve wracking enough. That game, Joe Torre took Roger out and as I was running in from the pen, the whole place was booing me. They didn’t want Roger to come out. Way to build my confidence! But I understood. When I came out of the game and he won it, I was thinking that I was part of history.
You mentioned earlier that you were primarily a hitter in college. One of my favorite things to do when I interview pitchers is ask about their home runs. You hit four in your career. Do any stand out as your favorites?
My first one and my grand slam stand out as the most memorable. Every one of my homers were off a fastball, and I could always hit a fastball. My first one came against John Burkett. It was 3-1 and he threw me a fastball. I hit it, laid my bat down and looked in the dugout. Greg Swindell was looking right at me with his hands up in the air. When a pitcher hits a home run in the Major Leagues, it’s an impossible feeling to explain. When I got back in the dugout and sat down, my legs were shaking. Lucky for me, there was only one out and I had about ten minutes where I could calm down.
I wanted to ask about the Chris Hammond Youth Foundation, too. What motivated you to start the foundation?
We moved to Wedowee, Alabama in a rural area about 25 or 30 years ago. When my oldest son was about four, one of the coaches asked me if I had a big yard. I said that I had a pretty big yard and asked him why. He said they had about 15 teams in the town but only one little field. They needed space to practice. Coming from Birmingham, Alabama, there were fields all over the place. I was blown away that there were no fields. Little by little, my wife and I were talking and we said we needed to start a foundation to help underprivileged kids that live in areas where kids aren’t able to feel the excitement of sports.
That’s such a great cause… I can’t imagine my life as a kid without being able to play sports. What are some of the things the foundation has accomplished so far?
We reach out to all areas across the south for underprivileged kids. It could be in rural areas or inner city areas or anywhere they don’t have enough fields. I want kids to get excited about playing sports. Maybe we help them renovate their fields or just help in any way possible. Over the past 15 years we have helped high schools, communities, individuals and families whatever way we possibly can.
I think if you live in a bigger city, sometimes the underprivileged kids get swept under a rug. Nobody really sees them. Until they reach out or until someone reaches out for them, nobody realizes they’re struggling or need help. That’s why I love having the Chris Hammond Youth Foundation and getting that word out. If you know somebody or a school that needs a little help, just call us. It’s so rewarding for me to go to a small area and go, “Hey, for the next five years, we’re gonna give you $5,000 a year to help you out.”
We try to help out as many communities as possible. If anyone needs the help of the Chris Hammond Foundation in any way, just call me. I gave out my number on Braves TV. I said, “Hey Glavine, if anybody needs me they can call my cell, 256-276-9942.” Glavine was like, “You just gave out your cell on national TV!” At the break, he was like, “Are you serious?” I said, “Glav, if the 12 disciples of Jesus were here, do you think they’d give out their cell numbers so they could help people? I’m the same way.” I hope it hit him in a good way.
That’s so awesome and incredible to see that even 15 years after your retirement, you’re still giving back. This has been great, Mr. Hammond. I really enjoyed hearing your stories. One last open-ended question for you. Do you have any final reflections on your career or baseball in general that you can leave for our readers?
I’m a prime example that you don’t have to throw 95 miles an hour to make it. I mastered the offspeed and could throw my pitches wherever I wanted to and in any count. I’m a good example that anybody could make it if they put their mind to it.