The last time lefthander Mike Hampton started a game, he buzzed through the first inning with three strikeouts. Then, after the batter leading off the second inning had the temerity to put the ball in play, albeit on a harmless grounder to second base, Hampton redlined his intensity. That's it, he told himself, I'm going to strike out the next two guys.
And that's what he did. No matter that this happened two weeks ago against high school kids in an otherwise friendly exhibition game at the field named for Hampton at his alma mater, Crystal River High, in Citrus County, Fla. Hampton had a baseball in his hand, and somebody was keeping score. That's all he has ever needed to make him pitch as if it were the last game of his life.
You don't have Florida State asking you to play defensive back (coming out of Crystal River in 1990), don't become the first man in more than a quarter of a century to win 20 games and bat .300 in the same season (with the Houston Astros in 1999) and don't score the richest contract ever for a pitcher (eight years, $121 million from the Colorado Rockies in December 2000) without a major attitude as your business partner, especially when you stand only 5'10". Yet when Hampton took his trademark sinker and intensity to Colorado—not just to pitch, mind you, but to defy gravity—his career turned to quicksand. The more he fought, the deeper he sank. His 6.15 ERA was the worst in the majors last year among qualifying pitchers.
"I was going to prove it could be done," Hampton says about pitching at an elite level in Colorado, "or I was going to the trying right there on the mound. I almost died trying."
Hampton, 30, spoke last week in the clubhouse of the Atlanta Braves, still smiling in wonder over the Nov. 20 trade that moved him from the Rockies to the Braves via the Florida Marlins. Linebackers have Perm State, pianists have Julliard and pitchers have Atlanta. No other organization knows pitching as well as the Braves, who have ranked first or second in the National League in ERA for 12 years running.
The remaking of Hampton began last week at Camp Leo, the annual weeklong, invitation-only minicamp for Braves pitchers run by pitching coach Leo Mazzone, the Richard Feynman of the campus, only with a cherubic face and a longshoreman's tongue. Brilliant without airs, a disciple of like-minded pitching gurus Johnny Sain and George Bamberger, Mazzone immediately began fixing Hampton, just as he had Chris Hammond, John Burkett, Mike Remlinger, Rudy Seanez, Kerry Ligtenberg, Steve Bedrosian, Jay Howell, Mike Bielecki and the many others who found new life on the mound under his tutelage. This year's crew at Camp Leo included newcomers Hampton, Paul Byrd and Chris Haney as well as several highly regarded prospects.
The first time Hampton stepped on a mound in front of Mazzone, on Feb. 3, there was an ah-ha! moment. Mazzone immediately noticed that Hampton threw his two-seam fastball, or sinker, differently than his four-seam fastball. Hampton's release point (where the ball leaves the pitcher's hand) was much lower on his sinker. Further, as Hampton let go of the ball, he pulled his left elbow in toward his body rather than extending his arm straight out as if shaking someone's hand. Hampton was also rotating his wrist slightly inward upon release rather than keeping his fingers on the top of the ball.
Mazzone knew exactly what the diagnostic evidence was telling him: This is a pitcher who has lost confidence in his sinker. Instead of trusting the natural movement on the pitch, Hampton was trying to manufacture movement.
Hampton had built his riches upon the sinker, which pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre had shown him when they were together with the Astros in 1994. Hampton used it only occasionally and without confidence until 1997, when Houston manager Larry Dierker told him, "You can continue to be a .500 pitcher, but I know how you can become a better pitcher." He told him to feature the sinker.
"I got waffled the first half of '97," Hampton says. "But I stuck with it and developed a real feel for it."