Jeffrey Hammonds has watched a lot of top-notch baseball. There are 29-year-old major leaguers who have played more ( Hammonds, a Rockies outfielder, averaged 80 games for seven years before this one and has never had 400 at bats in a season), but, thanks to eight trips to the disabled list in his career and a perpetual role as a fourth outfielder when healthy, few with his talent have had as much time to sit in major league dugouts and take mental notes. "There isn't a facet of this game that I haven't had a teammate excel at—Cal Ripken Jr., Rafael Palmeiro, Greg Vaughn, Barry Larkin, Eric Davis," says Hammonds, who started his career with the Orioles, was dealt to the Reds and then traded with righthander Stan Belinda to the Rockies for outfielder Dante Bichette after last season. "It's been a learning experience even when I wasn't playing."
Hammonds—known as Hammer in the Colorado clubhouse—is finally off the bench, and his years as an observer are paying off. Through Sunday he ranked third in the National League with a .365 batting average and eighth with a .424 on-base percentage, and had already set a career high with 85 RBIs. He also had 18 home runs and had developed into one of the most dependable clutch hitters on the league's highest-scoring team, leading the league in batting average after the sixth inning (.421). Seven years after he broke into the majors, it's finally Hammer Time.
The baseball world has been waiting for this since 1992, when Baltimore made Hammonds, an All-America at Stanford, the fourth pick overall in the draft, and scouts tossed around comparisons to Rickey Henderson before Hammonds had seen a big league pitch. Rushed to the majors after only 60 minor league games, Hammonds slogged through six maddening seasons with the Orioles, visiting the disabled list in five of them and hitting a combined .264. When Baltimore sent him to the Reds during the '98 season, he was backhanded on the way out the door by manager Ray Miller, who called him brittle and unreliable. "That's when things turned around for me," Hammonds says. "I had a broken hand when I got traded, and there were no expectations."
Injury-free in Cincinnati last season but part of a glut of outfielders, he was relegated to a backup role. Still, he hit 17 home runs in 262 at bats and didn't commit an error in 106 games, a performance that intrigued the Rockies as they rebuilt their roster last winter. Installing Hammonds as their starting leftfielder appeared to backfire when he pulled his hamstring on Opening Day and again landed on the DL. Since returning on April 22, however, he had missed just seven games and had gone hitless in three straight games only once. "He uses the whole field, and he's much stronger than I thought," says third base coach Rich Donnelly.
Last Friday, Hammonds prolonged a rally in an 8-1 win over the Phillies by hustling down the first base line on a potential double-play grounder, forcing pitcher Kent Bottenfield to make an errant throw to second. "You can see why Hammer gets dinged up—he's reckless," says Rockies manager Buddy Bell. "He plays hard, and he's very intelligent. Add that to his abilities, and it's quite a combination."