Hamels: The beast beneath the flash

Hamels delivering in the 2008 World Series: Hamels won four postseason games that year and was a major reason the Phillies celebrated the season with an October parade. Ron Cortes / Staff Photographer
Hamels delivering in the 2008 World Series: Hamels won four postseason games that year and was a major reason the Phillies celebrated the season with an October parade. Ron Cortes / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 18, 2012

Mark Furtak has been telling the story for years now.

Long before Cole Hamels hit the Nationals' Bryce Harper with a pitch for no apparent reason, long before the Phillies pitcher had built a well-deserved reputation for painful incidents and painful honesty, Furtak — Hamels' high school pitching coach — could get a good laugh by recalling the day he walked to the mound at Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego and told his pitcher to intentionally walk a particularly troublesome hitter.

Hamels response: "Can't I just hit him?"

What few people got then is what few people get now. Not even after that World Series run of 2008, when Hamels pitched through the worst conditions without his best pitch and positioned the Phillies for their second world championship in franchise history. Not even after that closeout game against Cincinnati two years ago or the gut-it-out win over St. Louis in Game 3 of the NLDS last summer, when Hamels pitched with a hernia and bone chips in his elbow. Not even after he drilled Harper, the Washington Nationals' phenom, in the first inning of that game in May.

What no one gets is that Hamels is San Diego in dress and diction only. The Hollywood label comes from that, from his inherited looks, and a disarmingly easy off-field Jekyll. But that persona belies the Hyde that hovers just under his smiling surface. This is a guy who once broke his hand coming to the aid of a friend in a bar fight, someone whose career was nearly derailed in high school when his left arm broke horrifically while delivering a pitch.

He's been through some nasty, um, stuff.

To get Cole Hamels, this is what you should know: His father, his grandfather, and his entire paternal side of the family all hail not from the West Coast, but from South Boston, that infamously tribal parcel of land that gave us, among others, Whitey Bulger, the former gangster, fugitive and inspiration for Jack Nicholson's character in "The Departed." And as much as Hamels seems to embody the sunny vibe of California, he's also got more than a little Southie in him.

People from Southie have a reputation for being tough, loyal and, truth be told, a little crazy. That's not to say Cole's father, Gary Hamels, is crazy. Far from it. An assistant superintendent of the San Marcos (Calif.) Unified School District, he prefers golf over baseball. He was not that guy in the dugout coaching his middle child through Little League and beyond, living through his kid's triumphs. He was not that guy in the stands wearing out the umpire, either.

Similarly, Amanda Hamels was happy that her son found something he enjoyed, but pretty much indifferent to the fuss made about it. She drove the kid to his games, picked him up, and — as long as she didn't have conflicts with the lives and interests of Cole's younger siblings — might even stay and watch.

That's why she was there that day when her son, a stick-figured sophomore at the time, let loose his familiar changeup and, in the same moment, a most unfamiliar scream. "I will never forget the pop sound his arm made," said Furtak. "Like a branch breaking off a tree."

"It was and still is," said Hamels, "the worst day of my life."

The snap was in the upper part of his left arm. The humerus. Hamels stood there, a thousand thoughts running through his 16-year-old head. Furtak believed that Hamels had thrown his last pitch. Quickly, although it seemed like ages, Amanda Hamels pulled the van up and she and her son drove to a nearby hospital, where they waited to be seen in the emergency room for two hours, long enough for Furtak and head coach Sam Blalock to join them there.

"We told the emergency-room doctor, ‘Don't just set this thing,' " said Furtak. "This is a million-dollar arm.

“He just rolled his eyes."

But he didn't set it, and the next day Hamels saw Dr. Jan Fronek, the Padres' team physician and a well-regarded orthopedic surgeon. He reset the arm by inserting two rods into the bone.

Like Furtak, Fronek thought the kid's pitching days were over — and told him so. To this day, Hamels sounds both thankful and bitter when discussing the good doctor. Asked if he uses the episode still, a dozen years later, as motivation, he snapped quickly, "Oh, yeah."

"When a doctor says, ‘You need to pick up another sport ...'" said Hamels. "I mean, this was everything I ever wanted to do. And I know I'm good at it. And now I can't? I was like, ‘Doc, give me a shot. He never even gave me a shot. Like, ‘You have a percentage of this to get back.' There was nothing, no hope.

“Now he's like, ‘Man'! I see him all the time. And he's very happy for me. And he's had a few guys since then who have been in the same situation. And he points to me and tells them there is hope. But what I got was ‘zero percent.' "

One function of The Cole Hamels Foundation is to award college scholarships. Hamels gets involved in this every year. And every year he looks, he says, "For people who have suffered an injury. Because I think that's where you see character ... I know what it took to come back from an injury. It takes a lot. You can ask anyone who has had surgery. It changes you. It changes you. It makes you harder. It makes you try a little bit more."

If Cole Hamels sometimes sounds, at age 28, more like Elton John than Tommy John, you might imagine how a mid-pubescent version might have been perceived by the scouts who came to watch him play. Furtak said he didn't play much in Little League because he was so small. He was about 5-9, maybe 110 pounds when he first tried out for the Rancho Bernardo High School team as a sophomore. The recovery and rehabilitation that followed his surgery absorbed his entire junior season. By the time scouts started to come around again, Hamels was pretty close to his current height of 6-3, but had added only a dozen or so pounds.

"They used to dress up a fungo [bat] in my uniform and put a hat on it and put it out there on the field," Hamels said of his high school teammates. "I was little for a long time. And then I had that injury happen. And I had a lot of fire in me because of all of it."

Darrell Conner, the Phillies' scout who stayed on Hamels after the injury, has said that a lot of his fellow scouts missed that part. They saw the terrific changeup, a natural snakelike pitch that Hamels could throw on virtually every delivery in high school to get outs. They saw an above-average fastball for his age, and a frame that could produce a few more mph, provided it held up. What they didn't see was the guy who has as much Southie in him as he did San Diego — the kind of guy who wanted to hit a batter rather than throw four meaningless pitches.

When Hamels finally did take the mound in March of his senior year, Conner was the only scout in attendance. Soon more would come. By draft day, the only questions about Hamels were about his health, not his ability. There was a general consensus on that part. He was special.

The Phillies chose him with the 17th pick of the 2002 draft. He rose quickly through their farm system. That is, when his health wasn't getting in his way. He began the 2003 season in extended spring training and in 2004 was shut down for a month due to tendinitis in his elbow (an injury that everyone now believes was due to his arm getting used to the professional workload, and his body filling out that gangly frame ever so slightly). There was also a back issue that has led to a lifelong commitment to chiropractic care. Then, in 2005, Hamels again started in extended spring training, this time due to surgery on his left hand after getting into that bar fight.

But the numbers, small sample that they were, suggested the Phillies had it right in terms of his potential. From 2003 until his promotion to the big club in 2006, Hamels started just 36 games, but his earned run average over that time never hovered much above two runs per nine innings. He went 9-8 with a 4.08 earned run average in 23 starts after his promotion to the Phillies in 2006, and won 15 games the following season — still his high-water mark — as the Phillies won the first of their five consecutive National League East titles.

He did this with basically two pitches: A fastball that could reach 95 on the radar gun, and that baffling changeup, already considered among the best in baseball. And he did it at age 23. "He got here at a young age," said Rich Dubee, the Phillies' longtime pitching coach. "And he was too good too soon."

By then, he had developed a reputation for being a little off. On an unusually warm October afternoon in 2007, Hamels took the mound for his first postseason start — wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt. By the time he shed it, the Colorado Rockies had a 3-0 lead and went on to win, 4-2. Two straight losses later, the Phillies were eliminated on a cold Colorado night in which that undershirt would have come in handy.

Frustrated, embarrassed, determined, Hamels was the Phillies' ace in 2008, from start of the season to glorious finish. He was among the National League leaders in almost every category but wins, including second in innings pitched. This time, he flirted with history in his first postseason start, retiring the first 14 Milwaukee Brewers he faced and the last eight he faced in Game 1 of the NLDS. The Phillies moved past the Brewers in four games.

By the time Hamels took the hill for that cold, rainy Game 5 of the World Series, he had already won four postseason games, received the National League Championship Series MVP for his mastery of the Dodgers, and won Game 1 of the Series against the Rays. But the weather and the pressure served to rekindled conversations about his birthplace and toughness, and about that little episode with the T-shirt.

The rain was light when the game began, but it turned heavy by the time the third inning rolled around. "That was the most intense focus that I've ever had," he said of Game 5. "Everyone has this fear of failure ... But it's always going to happen in life. But that moment I was like, ‘I am definitely not failing. I am going to ride this out for as long as possible. And they are not going to break me.' Everything that was going on, it was not going to break me. This was the game. And I am going to stand here and take it all, punch after punch."

Unable to spot his changeup because of the slippery conditions, Hamels battled through six innings before the game was halted at 2-2. Two days later, the Phillies closed out the World Series dramatically, scoring the go-ahead run in the eighth, Brad Lidge punctuating his perfect season by getting the final three outs in the ninth. But there was no doubt who the series MVP was.

Hamels was 24 at the time, and what followed is now a milepost in his journey. He did commercials and talk shows — and played right into that Hollywood image. His off-season work was lighter, but then again he was coming off a season in which he threw 263 innings, far more than he ever had. He was resting his arm, he told himself.

But he was not himself in 2009. Or maybe he was. He hurt his elbow almost immediately in spring training, then battled through an erratic season (10-11, 4.32 ERA) in which he just could not contain the big inning. "He stopped competing against the other team," said Dubee, "and started competing against himself."

It left the impression of a selfish brat more interested in himself than his team, an impression aided by Hamels comment — after absorbing the Game 3 loss to the Yankees in the World Series — that he couldn't wait for the season to end. Three games later, it was.

"I was like, ‘I've done some crazy stuff, how come I can't do it now?' And it was because everything bad that happened I was like, ‘C'mon, I can't catch a break.' I was living in that sort of realm instead of just keep fighting. And fight and fight and fight.''

Beloved just 12 months before, fans now pleaded for the team to trade him in the off-season and sign Cliff Lee long-term. Outwardly, Hamels smiled and shrugged, but his off-season bore no resemblance to the previous one. Said Dubee: “He did some real good work in the off-season and started to understand that this game is not only played with physical talent but is played with mental toughness."

He improved his curveball, added a cutter. He was the epitome of mental toughness in 2010 (12-11, 3.06), winning just two more games than the year before despite an ERA that was more than a run less. He set a career high in strikeouts (211) and pitched masterfully in both postseason starts. His two-hit shutout to close out the Reds in the Division Series was dubbed, "The Imperfect Perfect Game," coming days after Roy Halladay's historic no-hitter.

Hamels won his only start of last postseason as well, shutting down the high-octane, stay-alive Cardinals for six shutout innings. "That was a really hard game," he said. "I got everyone to 0-2 and they got me to a full count every time. But I was like, ‘They are not breaking me.' "

He threw 117 pitches over those six innings, and pushed the Phillies to within a game of their fourth consecutive NLCS appearance. A week later, after they failed to do that, it was revealed that he pitched with bone chips in his elbow and with a hernia.

Hollywood?

Yeah, right.

"I still think he still has some growth left," Rich Dubee was saying recently. We were in the Phillies' dugout, recounting all these junctures in his career, reconstructing the rungs that have led to this season, in which he has emerged as the Phillies ace among aces. "In ‘09, when things went bad, he completely lost it at times. But last year when he didn't get run support, when he had quality starts that he didn't get rewarded for, it never affected him. That's when you saw real growth.

“The moment doesn't affect him anymore. He likes being in the moment and he knows how to control the adrenaline in the moment. That's probably been the biggest growth. In his head."

After an 8-1 start put him in early Cy Young talk, Hamels lost his next two starts. In those losses, he has pitched well enough to win, but was undone by a pitch or two, and some of the shoddy fielding that has marked the Phillies' most recent play. But now there are no excuses, no pointing fingers, just about teammates picking each other up.

That's not to say he's entirely shaken the perceptions of him. His honesty still gets him in trouble — a Southie trait if there ever was one — the most recent example coming after he drilled Harper in the hip with a pitch, then admitted afterward that he, indeed, intended to do it.

Can't I just hit him?

A five-game suspension followed, as did criticism from those who insisted that he should have followed baseball's time-honored tradition of lying about it. The opposing general manager, Mike Rizzo, called him "chicken s**t." His own manager said he acted as a lone gunman, then suggested he follow tradition next time.

Even his own family ...

"My mom and dad were like, ‘We stand behind you for telling the truth. But ... Really, Cole?'

“And I'm like, ‘I know, I know.'

“I've always had trouble with the ‘politically correct way,' " he said. "Some people can't handle the truth sometimes. Good and bad. It's like, I'm not boasting. They asked me if I did it and finally I said, ‘Yeah, I did.' So ..."

This is why he keeps getting asked, tested, really, in this, his final season before free agency. He cannot tell a lie, at least not for very long. So everywhere Hamels goes, questions about his desires and allegiances follow. How real is his professed love for the team that drafted him? How much of it is political correctness? And what should we make of the fact that, as July approaches, a deal to make him a Phillie well into his 30s seems no closer than it was on Opening Day?

So far, he says his preference is to remain with the Phillies. He remembers that when he finally did return from that high school injury, two seasons later, when Darrell Conner, the Phillies scout, was the only one in the stands. That means something to him, he said. How much? He's not sure.

He also spoke during spring training of how awful it would be to "sit in a clubhouse in spring training and know you're already out of it." His team is floundering in the National League East. The Phillies are getting older, not younger. The Dodgers, a quick drive up from San Diego, are among the best teams in the National League this season, and are full of up-and-coming stars. The Yankees and Red Sox both will have money to spend this fall.

The Red Sox. Southie. "Got a lot of cousins up there," he said this spring.

The safe play, it would seem, might be to find that seven-year deal elsewhere. Except that Hamels has never been about safe. And he can't shake the image of that lone scout, sitting there after all that time, watching him pitch after no one gave him a chance.

"There was belief," he said. "Someone who takes a chance on you, you better know why and you better give them the benefit of the doubt. That's what my wife pounds on me all the time, my parents pound on me all the time and I'll pound on my kids all the time. The people you see on your way up are the people you're going to see on your way down. Everyone fits that. And I've learned that." n

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