No Babe in the Woods
The impending strike by major league players comes at an especially bad time for several teams, including Kansas City. The Royals had won 14 of their last 16 at week's end, but they insist that they won't lose their momentum even in the event of a long stoppage. "The strike might come at a good time for us," said Royal DH Bob Hamelin last week. "We might be in first place on August 12."
On July 23 that was unthinkable. The Royals were 49-47, 9� games behind the White Sox in the American League Central and far removed from the wild-card race. But their 14-game winning streak, which ended last Saturday night in an 11-2 loss to Seattle, moved them to within a game of first. The Royals now have the best bullpen in the league (led by closer Jeff Montgomery), they have perhaps the league's best one-two starting-pitching punch ( David Cone and Kevin Appier), they have a terrific defense, and they have finally started to hit.
One major contributor to that trend is Hamelin, a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year. As the successor to George Brett, who retired after last season, Hamelin was hitting .281, with 24 homers (a Royal rookie record) and 64 RBIs through Sunday. Hamelin had the biggest hit of the Royals' season, a three-run homer off the White Sox' Roberto Hernandez in the 12th inning on July 25, turning a 4-3 deficit into a 6-4 win. "A homer can give a team an emotional lift," says Hamelin. "It's not just a win; it pumps everyone up. And it can take the steam out of the other team for the rest of a series."
Royal manager Hal McRae says that if his team had lost that game to Chicago, "they would have put toe tags on us." It would have dropped the Royals back to 9� behind the White Sox: instead, it started a four-game sweep of Chicago and put the winning streak into high gear.
Hamelin, 26, almost missed the start of spring training after injuring his right arm in an arm-wrestling contest in Las Vegas in January. His nickname is the Hammer, but Royal catcher Brent Mayne calls him the Babe because he's 6 feet, weighs 235 and wears number 3. The resemblance was never more striking than on Aug. 3, the night Hamelin broke the club's rookie homer record; wearing a baggy replica of the Kansas City Monarch uniform in honor of the famous Negro leagues team, Hamelin looked positively Ruthian. "How can you not pick number 3 if it's available?" he says. "With a body like this, there's not much of a choice."
Though Hamelin actually has decent speed and is an extremely smart baserunner, the fans love to watch him chug around the bases. "They'd rather see me run than hit," says Hamelin, laughing. "I've got bad running form. I never knew how bad it was until I saw it on the tape. I just try to get all my weight going in one direction."
Hamelin is a baseball junkie. If he isn't playing, he'll go to a high school field and watch a game. He never cared much for football, but his friends played in high school, so he played too—and was offered a full ride to play linebacker at Notre Dame. But he chose baseball, went to UCLA in 1986 and played one season, then went to Rancho Santiago Junior College, in Santa Ana, Calif. The Royals took him in the second round of the June 1988 draft, but it wasn't until Brett retired that Hamelin got his chance.
"He loves baseball," says Mayne. "He loves to hit, and he loves to eat."
Paying the Price