Bob Ford: In re-signing with Phillies, Hamels affirms his fervor for Philadelphia

Posted: July 26, 2012

In an era when it is easy to view professional athletes as detached mercenaries whose loyalties are readily transferred to the highest bidder, the fans of the Philadelphia Phillies got a rare reminder on Wednesday that the passion and love they feel for their team are not necessarily emotions that travel down a one-way street.

Cole Hamels, a child of this franchise who has grown into one of the best pitchers in baseball, opted to bypass the lure of free agency and sign a long-term contract to stay with the Phillies.

He did it despite the fact he could probably have commanded more money on the open market, and despite the current precarious nature of the team, which is struggling to remain a contender for the near future as its core players age quickly.

And he said he did it largely because of you.

"To have the fans standing and cheering, I think that was ultimately the deciding point, wanting to really be here because of them," Hamels said. "You play for a reason, and that reason is to win a World Series, to play in front of sellout crowds, to play in front of a Philly Nation of fans that are everywhere, here and on the road, that are cheering you on. That's the reason we play this game."

It isn't as if the 28-year-old lefthander got a bad deal, though. The six-year, $144 million extension is a record payday for any Philadelphia athlete and the second-highest guarantee given to a pitcher in baseball history.

Hamels would have been rich for life whether he stayed or left. Leaving would have meant leaving home, however. He is one of the few Phillies who lives year-round in the Philadelphia area, and despite his West Coast roots and laid-back demeanor off the field, the San Diego kid has become a true Philly guy.

"It's very hard to leave a place you've had so many great memories and have been able to enjoy so much good, and you know there's so much more good to come. You don't want to miss it. You don't want to not be a part of it," Hamels said. "I understand that free agency is great, the opportunities that are out there, the unknown. But I really do feel this is the place I call home and the place I want to call home for a really long time."

That things would turn out this way didn't always seem likely, from the very start of Hamels' career, right up until the last week, when the contract negotiations broke through and the Phillies didn't have to contemplate dealing him away at next Tuesday's non-waiver trade deadline.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. described the negotiations as "long and laborious," and at times in the last decade that would also describe both the 6-foot-3 Hamels and his relationship with the team and its fans.

The Phillies took a chance on Hamels in the 2002 amateur draft when they selected him out of Rancho Bernardo High School in the first round. Hamels had broken his throwing arm as a sophomore, didn't pitch as a junior, and many teams cooled on him as a prospect. When Hamels suffered through a series of injury issues as he made his way through the minor-league system, he was still a risk to fall through the cracks and disappear.

Potential is a heavy burden to carry, and fans didn't always warm to his California cool when he advanced to the major-league team, mistaking his demeanor for a lack of competitive fire. In a way, his problem was just the opposite as a young player. He was too competitive and needed to channel it better as he learned not to bark at umpires or throw his arms in the air when a teammate committed an error behind him.

After he pitched to a 15-5 record in a breakout 2007 season, he came to spring training stung that the Phillies would not agree to rework his contract, calling it a "low blow." He had also spent a month on the disabled list near the end of the previous season, and speculated that his elbow injury might not have occurred if the Phillies ponied up for a team chiropractor to work on his chronically balky back.

Well, 2008 changed a lot of things, and it was certainly a pivot point in the career of Cole Hamels. He finished that season as the most valuable player in the World Series, and he has helped keep the Phillies in contention since. It may be that $144 million is a lot of money for a pitcher who still hasn't won more than 15 games in a season and just 85 in a seven-year career, but the Phils believe he is vital to having another shot soon. They definitely ponied up this time.

"We think this is the best way to bring home another championship here in Philadelphia, with Cole rather than without him," Amaro said.

If that happens, it will be bringing a championship home for the fans, and bringing one home for Hamels. This is home, after all. He signed on the line to seal it.

"I can never thank the fans enough," Hamels said.

But he just did.


Contact Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @bobfordsports. Read his blog, "Post Patterns," at www.philly.com/postpatterns, and his columns at www.philly.com/bobford

 

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