After the fall, Hamels is getting back up

Cole Hamels is silhouetted against the Florida sky with other Phillies pitchers. His "can't wait for it to end" quote last postseason surprised his manager and infuriated Phillies fans.
Cole Hamels is silhouetted against the Florida sky with other Phillies pitchers. His "can't wait for it to end" quote last postseason surprised his manager and infuriated Phillies fans.
Posted: March 07, 2010

CLEARWATER, Fla. - After the 2009 World Series had ended and the noise of an irritated public and his own self-doubt quieted a bit, Cole Hamels went home to his wife and new son. Caleb Hamels was born on the frantic afternoon of Oct. 8, when his father lasted just five innings in a division series loss to Colorado, and spent his first days in the world with a dad facing incessant adversity.

In November, when the Phillies pitcher was finally able to exhale and spend time with his first child, he was impressed by Caleb's resilience.

The baby stared at unfamiliar objects with fierce interest and approached challenges with a determination that struck his father as admirable. And after enduring the most serious setbacks of his athletic life, Hamels embraced the inspiration.

"Kids never quit," the pitcher, now 26, said last week, smiling when asked about his son. "They're going

to fall down a million times before they learn how to walk. There's something I can learn from that in baseball, about how you have to get beat down in this game before you finally fix yourself."

Hamels had risen from emerging prospect to budding celebrity in 2008, then suffered an agonizing fall last year. Still profoundly talented but confused and not entirely healthy, he saw an inconsistent regular season devolve into a horrific October.

Hamels spent the most recent winter adjusting his physical routine and reflecting on his emotional response to struggle, and arrived at the current spring training feeling refreshed in body and mind. He hopes to achieve a new balance this year - and his teammates and adopted city eagerly await the results.

Not what he meant

There was a huge gap between intent and effect in what Hamels said after Game 3 of last year's World Series. The lefthander stood in the middle of a thick cluster of reporters and cameramen on Oct. 31, having just squandered an opportunity with what could have been a redemptive performance against New York.

With the Phillies and Yankees tied with one win apiece, the lefty had blown a three-run lead, allowed five runs in 41/3 innings, and was charged with the loss. The 8-5 win gave the Yankees the Series lead, and the Phils never recovered, falling four games to two.

The game also had extinguished any hope that Hamels could float back into his postseason trance of the previous fall. In 2009, it was not happening for him.

After that game, a particularly reflective Hamels mused for about 30 minutes - far longer than a pitcher's typical postgame session - about the nature of his problems. During that half-hour, after discussing at length his desire to pitch again in a potential Game 7, Hamels acknowledged he would be relieved when his stressful season was over.

Toward the end of the interview came the quote that, after being yanked from context, became a juicy talking point for talk-radio hosts and incited fans:

"I can't wait for it to end," Hamels said. "It's been mentally draining. At year's end, you just can't wait for a fresh start."

The comment accelerated Hamels' fall from hero to pariah in Philadelphia, and drew negative notice within his own clubhouse among players and a manager who were privy only to the excerpt and subsequent interpretation.

Charlie Manuel said he was "totally surprised," and Brett Myers needled his good friend after Game 5, leading to exaggerated reports of a confrontation. Other Phillies privately wondered why Hamels would say anything that could cause such controversy, regardless of what he actually meant.

It was that latter criticism that Hamels ultimately shouldered.

"I can't blame anybody," he said last week. "I said it. I think out loud a lot, and there I was thinking out loud, just kind of going with it. I wanted to be honest with everybody."

Hoping to avoid a similar experience in the future, Hamels watched televised sporting events during the off-season, paying close attention to postgame interviews. He wanted to see how other athletes managed to express themselves clearly and honestly following a disappointment.

"I came to a realization that I need to pause," he said. "I was at a point [during the World Series] where I didn't even know what was wrong with me. You're frustrated, so how are you supposed to tell people what was going on? I was just thinking out loud, trying to tell [reporters] what was going on. I just kind of came off in a way I didn't intend, so it's just about becoming more aware. You have to learn from your mistakes."

So Hamels did consider that event his mistake?

"Yeah," he said. "It just kind of makes you more aware of what can happen, so you become a little more reserved. Instead of saying it right then and there after the game, maybe I can think about it for a couple days, figure it out and then talk about it."

Stats tell one story

More considered responses may help Hamels avoid another media controversy, but they will not solve his on-field issues. In that area, he is trying to develop the opposite skill - how to refocus in the middle of a difficult moment.

Statistical analysts have correctly noted that the reality of Hamels' 2009 season was not as grim as the perception. An October study conducted by the Web site baseballprospectus.com demonstrated that the pitcher's important peripheral statistics, such as strikeouts and walks per plate appearance, were nearly identical in 2008 and 2009.

The report also illustrated that Hamels was unlucky on balls in play. His batting average on balls in play increased from .262 in 2008 to .321 in 2009. He can expect a regression to the mean this season, along with a lower earned run average, even with an identical performance.

Despite those facts, some analysts overreached by claiming there was nothing at all wrong with Hamels. His problems began to accumulate almost immediately after the Phillies' victorious 2008 World Series, when he paid too little attention to throwing a baseball and perhaps too much attention to exploring newfound celebrity.

Because of the layoff from throwing, Hamels experienced elbow soreness that limited his spring-training schedule and persisted into May. With an achy arm, he struggled in his April games, which bred a discontent that he could not shed for the rest of the season.

"I gave up a seven-spot in my first game of the season and a five-spot my second game of the season," he said. "You have an ERA of, like, 12.00, that's a big hole to crawl out of. I was rushing through the games and not being smart, not really analyzing what these guys were trying to do against me.

"That's what I've learned. You can't keep looking back in the past. You just have to move forward. That's where I was last year, just trying to catch up. And you end up digging yourself a bigger hole."

Getting on the same page

Hamels revealed that his frustration led to friction at times with catcher Carlos Ruiz. The two would frequently disagree on pitch selection, and an agitated Hamels would agree to Ruiz's suggestion without fully believing he should. Not committed to the pitch, Hamels would often allow hits or home runs.

"Chooch and I crossed each other up the whole season, and it wasn't his fault," Hamels said, referring to Ruiz by his nickname. "We just weren't on the right page. I had the feel for something, and he was calling something else, and I'm like, 'OK, fine.' I'd throw it, and bam. And I'm looking at him like, 'What the heck?' But if you're not feeling right yourself, you can't get on the same page with someone else. It wasn't his fault. I was just in la-la land."

Ruiz said he was not bothered by the exchanges, and believes that Hamels will have a much better season this year.

"He's going to be good," the catcher said.

As Hamels tells it, 2010 has already been better than 2009. The improvements began in the off-season, when the pitcher played long-toss nearly every day for the first time in his life.

"It took time to figure out the right type of program," he said. "In your first few years, you have a lot going on. You're just trying to live a life, get married, have a family, travel - you just get caught up in life. So it was a matter of how do I balance my workout schedule with my life?"

It wasn't as if Hamels was slothful after the 2008 World Series. He lifted weights and kept up with his cardio program, but he rarely threw a baseball. He thought that the layoff would restore arm strength, but it had the opposite effect, leading to soreness that prevented him from honing his pitches during spring training.

"I came in great weightlifting and running shape, but I wasn't in throwing shape," he said. "I couldn't throw a ball 150 feet 60 times, or get on the mound and throw it effectively at a velocity that you need."

During the regular season last year, Hamels noticed that his arm would feel stiff between starts if he took a day off from playing catch. From that insight, he took a simple philosophy into the off-season - don't stop playing catch. That proved effective in staving off spring elbow pain, allowing him to concentrate on improving his curveball and trying to add a cutter and sinker.

Unlike the previous winter, Hamels took a baseball and glove wherever he went. One of those stops was San Diego, where he worked out with his 20-year-old brother. It was there, in his native Southern California, where Hamels began to feel truly restored. The unconditional love from his family never seemed more essential after coming to an understanding of the highly conditional nature of sports-fan love.

Accepting responsibility

Even more valuable were the days and nights spent with his wife, Heidi, and Caleb. Hamels needed the support of his parents and siblings, but nothing made him feel more adult than caring for his own child.

"It definitely makes you more responsible," he said. "You can't just worry about yourself anymore. You have a whole other person. You're waiting on your baby hand and foot, and it makes you an adult. The way that you have to live, putting their needs in front of yours, that's what changed my life around. Just the fact of being that grown up, adjusting to it and doing the best I possibly can."

This season Hamels will continue that adjustment to a life that rushed at him before he was entirely ready. He might or might not find a second wave of success, but the attempt will surely be wholehearted, thoroughly considered, and fascinating to watch.


 

Read The Inquirer's Phillies blog,

The Phillies Zone,

by Andy Martino and Matt Gelb, at www.philly.com/phillies.

Inside

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Contact staff writer Andy Martino at 215-854-4874 or amartino@phillynews.com.

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