From the Pages of Vine Line: Jason Hammel is making his dreams come true

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

Cubs starter Jason Hammel is enjoying his first season on the North Side. The 31-year-old is 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA in six starts. He’s also enjoying his opportunity to pitch at Wrigley Field, something the veteran hurler had never done prior to this season. The following can be found in the May issue of Vine Line.

Everyone has a wish list—places they want to see, things they want to do. For pitcher Jason Hammel, that list has always included pitching at Wrigley Field. That’s part of the reason the veteran free agent wanted to sign with the Cubs this offseason.

Remarkably, in eight previous major league campaigns, including three with the Colorado Rockies, Hammel made only 21 starts against NL Central opponents and never threw a pitch at the Friendly Confines. Now, he hopes he gets the chance to throw a lot of them.

“I love the fact that it’s a stadium in the middle of a highly residential area,” Hammel said. “I’ve never been to Lambeau Field [home of the Green Bay Packers], but I’ve heard so many things about it. That’s why they have such a great following, because it’s so accessible. Wrigley’s the same. It’s a neighborhood.

“The Cubs have so much history in their own franchise, going way back. There are so many stories about so many big names and Hall of Famers who have come out of this franchise, it’s a bucket list [item] for players. You want to go there at some point. Now I get to go there, and it’s a dream come true.”

The right-hander, who signed a one-year, $6 million contract in February, knows there’s a chance he could be traded this season. He also knows Cubs history doesn’t include many World Series championships. But that doesn’t concern him. His goal is to help turn the franchise around and have a long, successful run on the North Side.

“Obviously, we haven’t won in a long time,” he said. “But we’re going to change that.”

Hammel brings some much-needed experience to a relatively green starting staff. He joined Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva in the Cubs Opening Day rotation, and, at 31, he’s the oldest of the bunch.

“And I’m longer off the tee than all of them,” he said, laughing.

Over the years, golf has been a good way for Hammel, now with his fourth major league club, to get to know his teammates.

“All the teams I’ve played on before, all the guys say, ‘Oh, I love golf, we’ll play,’” Hammel said. “You come into the season and go on the road, and most of the guys sleep. I’m getting to that stage in my life where I need to get up and get moving, go do something to get the body moving, and it’s always been golf.

“All the guys—Jeff, Woody, [James Russell]—play a little. It’s fun having guys around with the same common interest and also goes to the baseball side of it. They’re all pushing in the same direction. They want to win. We want to continue to get better. Winning seasons are based on starting pitching.”

Though he’s the newest member of the rotation, Hammel has worked hard to forge a bond with his fellow starters.

“It’s a new team for him, and, as the new guy, he wants to get to know everyone. A lot of times that’s what the conversation is about,” Samardzija said of their talk on the golf course. “Ham’s great. He’s a great dude.

“He enjoys talking baseball, which is always an important attribute for a ballplayer. You learn so much more from talking than playing sometimes.”

So who’s the best golfer? According to Hammel, it’s Russell.

“He just bangs it out there,” Hammel said of the lefty reliever. “He’s really good with his irons.”

WINNING WAYS
The Cubs are hoping Hammel can provide the kind of veteran leadership the club has been lacking since the departures of players like Ryan Dempster and David DeJesus. And Hammel knows a thing or two about winning. He was on the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008 when they reached the World Series (though he didn’t pitch), and was part of the 2012 Baltimore Orioles team that shocked the baseball world by winning 93 games and reaching the American League Division Series.

A 10th-round pick in the 2002 draft by Tampa Bay, Hammel was traded to the Rockies in April 2009 for Aneury Rodriguez, and then traded to the Orioles in February 2012 along with Matt Lindstrom for Jeremy Guthrie.

“I’ve always wanted to be a one-team guy—that’s everybody’s dream,” Hammel said. “I’ve learned about the business side of baseball through [my transactions]. As much as it’s tough and sad, it’s also more opportunity. Every team I’ve gone to, I’ve had a better experience than the last.”

He’s also gotten the opportunity to learn from different pitching coaches and players, and discovered new things about himself and how to be a big leaguer. Now, he’s taking that accumulated knowledge and using it to mentor the Cubs’ young players.

“His first year with us in Baltimore was 2012,” said Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta, who was Hammel’s teammate with the Orioles. “My first impression was that he was turning into that veteran-type guy, a guy who really understood himself. He understood what it takes to be successful at a high level on a consistent basis and [was] a guy who exuded a lot of confidence. I really liked that and respected that and those aspects about the way he carried himself. It really showed, especially in 2012.

“I think he’d agree that he had a down year [last year] and wasn’t happy with it,” Arrieta said of Hammel’s 7-8 record and 4.97 ERA with Baltimore. “In 2012, we got a good look at what type of guy he really can be. It was fun to watch. He brings a lot to the table. He’s got a lot of insight and knowledge that a lot of guys in the clubhouse can utilize. I think he’ll have a good year for us.”

In that magical 2012 season for the Orioles, Hammel went 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA in 20 starts, including a one-hit shutout of the Braves on June 16. Though he struggled last year, Hammel certainly knows how to bounce back from adversity. In his first big league season in 2003, he was 0-6 with a 7.77 ERA in nine starts with the Rays.

He also knows what’s ahead of him in Chicago. He’s seen teams rebuild—and rebound—beginning with Tampa and then again with the 2012 Orioles.

“[The rebuilding] was something I was able to learn and go through, and it helped give me my personality in baseball,” he said. “You see a lot of that here with the Cubs—a lot of young guys finally starting to reach their peaks. They’ve got, from what I can see, the right amount of veteran leadership and the right amount of young guys who are really starting to pull their weight and getting an idea of how to be a big leaguer, and the guys in the middle who are doing well. There are a lot of positive things.”

During Spring Training, Hammel got a glimpse of the Cubs’ future watching top prospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora make their mark on the Cactus League. Hammel said he would like to stay and see those players develop.
“Staying with the same group of guys, that builds winning teams,” Hammel said. “If you have guys coming in and out, it’s tough to gel and mesh and find that comfort zone with everybody around you.”

BUSINESS SENSE
Hammel is also well aware of what’s happened with the Cubs roster over the last two years at the trade deadline. In 2012 and again in 2013, the Cubs front office dealt two of their starting pitchers by July 31. One of those was Scott Feldman, who was traded to Baltimore for Arrieta and Pedro Strop.

“When he came over at the trade deadline last year, I immediately liked him, and we meshed well,” Hammel said of Feldman. “He said it was a great experience over here, and he had a lot of fun being part of the Cubs franchise. He said they treated him very well. It was very family oriented and just a bunch of great guys.”

Feldman gave Hammel a little advice when he became a free agent this past offseason.

“[Feldman] said, ‘Give [Chicago] a good thought, and I bet you’ll like it if you end up there,’” Hammel said.

Hammel listened, but he also understands he could be gone at the deadline, like many veteran pitchers before him. The Cubs are still trying to stockpile young talent in the minor leagues, and if a team is out of contention coming into the All-Star break, moving veteran players is one of the fastest ways to accomplish that task. Previous trades have yielded prospects like C.J. Edwards, Mike Olt and Arodys Vizcaino.

“Anybody can be flipped during the season, whether you have a long-term contract or you’re just a rookie,” Hammel said. “I’ve seen it all happen. It’s part of the game, but my job is to come over here and win baseball games, and it doesn’t matter what uniform I’m wearing. I’m excited to be here, and I want to win here. If further down the road, something happens, it happens. I can’t be thinking about that.”

Instead, he’s focused on finally pitching at Wrigley Field. Prior to the season, Hammel’s teams had come to the ballpark, but it was never his turn to pitch. He thought he’d be the starter for the home opener on April 4, but Travis Wood landed that assignment

Even before he threw his first pitch at Wrigley, Hammel already knew about the quirkiness of the wind. But he said it shouldn’t bother him too much because he’s a sinkerball pitcher.

“I want to get ground balls, so I’ll try to stay in the bottom of the zone,” he said. “Sometimes my four-seamer will end up [in the zone], but if you make good pitches, you should get the product of the pitch that you want. I’m not going to worry about what the wind is going to do. Yeah, the wind can dictate certain ways to pitch guys. It will tell you if you want to challenge a guy who’s a pull hitter, and he’s going to hit right into the teeth of the wind. That’s fine. Overall, it’s not going to change my game plan.”

Despite the fickle winds, Hammel knows his wife, Elissa, and 2-year-old son, Beckett, are excited to be in Chicago. Elissa was a social worker and was associated with an adoption agency when the couple was in Tampa. It’s something she wants to pursue again onceHammel’s baseball career is over. Right now, the couple is expecting their second child, a girl, around mid-September.

“Hopefully, she’s a playoff baby,” Jason said.

Fans can stay connected with Hammel through his blog, HammelTown, on cubs.com. He started it a year ago to promote some of his off-the-field activities and recently posted a photo from Opening Day at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

“It won’t be an everyday thing, but it’ll be something we’ll go in and out on,” he said.

While on the golf course, Hammel has talked to other Cubs pitchers about the direction the team is headed and what they want to accomplish this season. He sees a lot of similarities between his career and Samardzija’s, as both have moved between the rotation and the bullpen.

“He throws a lot harder than I do, but there are similarities,” Hammel said. “We talk. I’m not a guy who’s going to force myself on someone. I try to make that feeling for young guys that if they want to approach me, I’m there.”

Arrieta and Hammel became close through their wives, and both have sons about the same age.

“He’s a good friend of mine,” Arrieta said. “I’m glad to call him a teammate again.”

And Hammel is glad to call Wrigley Field his home.

—Carrie Muskat, MLB.com

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