|Tuesday, February 25
Updated: March 13, 12:34 PM ET
Will Hampton be the latest to deliver for Braves?
By Jayson Stark
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- If you have a broken washing machine, you go to Sears. If you have a broken hip, you go to the Mayo Clinic. And if you have a broken pitcher?
You go to the Atlanta Braves.
Which is why, on a perfect spring-training afternoon, Mike Hampton is searching for his lost sinkerball in the shadow of Mickey Mouse's house, at the palacial Wide World of Sports Pitching Reincarnation Clinic.
It's no accident that Hampton is here, wearing that big 'A' on his cap -- even though it took one of the weirdest, most complicated transactions in baseball history to make him a Brave.
It's still hard to believe it required an off-the-wall three-team deal in which two of the clubs involved (the Rockies and Marlins) will pay Hampton more ($30 million) over the next three years not to pitch for them than the Braves will pay him ($5.5 million) to pitch for them. But remember: None of that insanity ever could have come about unless Hampton was cool with his final destination.
"I was willing to leave, but it depended on who and where," Hampton says now, as the ugliness of his two seasons as a Rockie begin to fade in his rear-view mirror. "I wasn't just going to go to any team (translation: the Marlins) and sit there in last place. It was going to have to be the right situation, or I was content to finish my career in Colorado."
Well, for a pitcher, there are "right" situations. And then there is paradise -- a.k.a., Atlanta -- where every year, some Chris Hammond or John Burkett wanders in off baseball's skid row and shrinks his ERA so well that you need a magnifying glass to see it.
It doesn't take a descendent of Christy Mathewson to deduce why Hampton wanted to be a Brave. But the bigger questions are:
A) Why were the Braves willing to commit for the next six seasons (the remainder of Hampton's contract) to a man who gave up (shudder) 112 more runs the past two years than the left-hander he is, in effect, replacing -- Tom Glavine?
B) What will it take, in the midst of a staff-wide renovation project, to rebuild Hampton's delivery and psyche, and turn him back into the 20-win ground ball-inducing machine he was before the scenic Rocky Mountains avalanched him?
The answer to the first question, says the GM who made the deal, isn't even that tough.
"For me," says John Schuerholz, "it's a worthwhile gamble on a guy who struggled the last couple of years in a very bizarre environment for pitchers. What we did was, we looked at Mike's record prior to going to Colorado. And we measured it against Darryl Kile's record and Pedro Astacio's record -- two guys who thrived after they left there. And Mike's record was so far superior, we figured that he would, as they did, get back to his previous level of ability."
Well, the logic is fine. Kile's ERA tumbled by almost 2½ runs once he escaped Denver, and Astacio's ERA headed south by almost a run. But even Schuerholz concedes he forgot to ask his logic professors for a money-back guarantee that Hampton's numbers will steer in the same direction.
"You can't be certain," Schuerholz says. "Who can be certain? We're dealing with human beings. But what you do is, you read your reports, you make an assumption, you stick your neck out, and you hope it works."
At least if he's sticking that neck out, though, he's sticking it out with the knowledge that his manager, the great Bobby Cox, and his pitching coach, the amazing Leo Mazzone, have saved his neck -- and maybe some other assorted body parts -- a few hundred times before.
If they could resurrect Hammond, at age 36, and resurrect Darren Holmes, also at 36, and resurrect Burkett, at age 35, then theoretically, resurrecting Hampton, 30, ought to be as routine as a 15-minute lube job.
If he only weren't coming from Pitching Hades.
"I took things for granted there," Hampton says of life a mile above sea level. "My first year, I started out 5-0 and 9-2, and I thought everything was fine. ... To this day, I still can't pinpoint why things went bad."
Hampton arrived in Denver with the greatest anti-Coors ballistic defense system ever invented: The ball never left the ground.
He got so many ground balls with his famed two-seamed plummetball, why wouldn't he succeed in Colorado? That was the Rockies' logic. That, too, seemed like a tremendous idea at the time.
What he didn't know was how much the lack of oxygen would sap his strength. Or how hard he would have to work to make the ball sink. Or how tough it would be to think of six innings, five runs, as a great day at the office.
"Even before I went there," Hampton says, "I was never going to win the fewest-walks-per-nine-innings award. But I could always throw a ground ball when I needed one. I could always get a double play. I was always able to make a pitch to get out of an inning. But you'd make that same pitch in Colorado, and it would be a knock. So you'd try to make the next one a little better. And the next one. And the next one.
"I always used to be a guy who wasn't afraid to challenge you, to make that one pitch I needed to get a ground ball. But by the end, I wasn't that guy anymore."
By the end, he'd become just the second pitcher since 1900, according to baseball-encyclopedia.com's Lee Sinins, to have the worst ERA in his league in two straight seasons. (The other was the inimitable Jaime Navarro.) Even worse, by the end, a pitcher who once threw as many as 75 sinkers a game had "pretty much abandoned it."
Who could ever have imagined that when he signed that contract? We knew Coors had chewed up many a pitcher before Hampton and spit them all out. But who could have figured it would make such a mess of Hampton's mind and mechanics that he was terrified to throw his best pitch?
"I lost confidence in it," he says. "My arm slot was terrible. I knew it. I just couldn't correct it. ... I was in such a rut, I was trying so hard to make the ball sink, I was practically throwing it sidearm. That's like telling the hitter what was coming."
It was so obvious that when Hampton first threw for his new pitching coach a few weeks ago in Atlanta, it took Mazzone barely a minute to see that Hampton's delivery of the sinking fastball was drastically different from his four-seam sailing fastball.
"I don't want to make it into any big deal," Mazzone says. "The only thing I saw was that, when he threw his (four-seam) fastball, he was fine. But when he went to the sinker, he was trying to really make it sink. He got out of sync trying to make it sink. That's the best way to put it."
So they immediately went to work trying to get Hampton to throw both the two-seamers and four-seamers out of the same, more upright, arm slot. Only a dozen throwing sessions later, Hampton says, "I feel so much better every time I get on the mound, it's exciting to come to the ballpark."
Could anyone have straightened him out? We don't know. Could a move to any ballpark not attached to a snow-capped mountain peak have been the answer? Don't know that, either. We don't even know if this move is going to work out.
We just know that Hampton has seen Mazzone, Cox and the team that employs them pull off enough magic acts over the years that he seems to sense he's in the right place. The Braves, by the same token, have done this enough that it hardly appears to occur to anyone that this time, with this man, it won't work.
"Pitchers talk," Mazzone says. "The guys who have been here. The ones who have left. The ones who are still here. And all I know is, not many pitchers come here and badmouth anything about our pitching -- or the team in general."
"It's about winning (the division) 11 consecutive years," Schuerholz says. "It's about the caliber of players who fill that clubhouse. It's about the caliber of the manager and the coaching staff. It's about this program and the legacy we've created and the expectations that grow out of that. And what it does, in almost unspoken fashion, is to help enliven the people who put on the uniform."
It has worked for them for 12 incredible years. Now it just about has to work again on Mike Hampton. Or else that $43 million the Braves have to pay him in 2006-07-08 won't make this acquisition look quite as brilliant as it did when the decimal points settled and people learned he will cost them only $5.5 million these next three years.
"All you can do is play ball and judge it over a period of time," Schuerholz says. "We can look smart. Or not."
So stay tuned on the Superstation for Braves baseball, followed by 4,000 episodes of "Saved by the Bell." After which we'll all know -- even Mike Hampton -- whether those amazing Atlanta Braves have gone and done it again.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.