On an unusually warm June night in 1999, just outside of Toledo, Ohio, Bob Hamelin, an American League Rookie of the Year Award winner for the Kansas City Royals in '94, strode to the plate in the middle innings before a sparse crowd at Ned Skeldon Stadium.
Hamelin sat the barrel of the bat on his left shoulder and peered at another Minor League pitcher he’d never seen before.
A fastball came in, low and inside, and Hamelin was unable to whip the barrel to the ball. Instead, jammed, he bounced a routine roller to the right side, as he had done hundreds of times throughout a pro career that started in 1988.
But this ground out was different.
Hamelin, playing for Detroit’s Triple-A affiliate, the Mud Hens, ran through first base, then pivoted to his right and jogged back into the home dugout. Once inside, Hamelin grabbed his first baseman’s glove, found Toledo manager Gene Roof and flatly announced he was done.
“You mean for tonight?” Roof asked.
“No,” Hamelin answered. “For good.”
Hamelin was quitting baseball.
After the game, Hamelin hooked up with an old friend, Jeff Cox, his former Minor League manager in the Royals’ system at Memphis who coincidentally was the manager that night for Toledo’s opponent, Ottawa.
“Had a few beers with Coxie,” Hamelin said, “and I just told him I couldn’t handle this anymore. I was 31 years old, hitting .221 in the Minors. It wasn’t fun anymore. It just wasn’t.”
The next morning, Hamelin packed up his stuff, loaded up his car and headed west on I-70 for the 10-hour trek toward Kansas City, where he still had a home.
The once promising and briefly legendary career of the man affectionately known as “The Hammer” was now finished.
“It’s really another example,” Hamelin’s former teammate Brian McRae said, “of just how brutally hard this game can be.”
Hamelin, though, certainly seemed immune to the flash-in-the-pan syndrome. He burst onto the Royals' scene in the spring of 1994 armed with a reputation for hitting breathtaking home runs in the Minors. He hit 29 bombs in '93 at Triple-A Omaha.
“The stories we would hear about this guy were pretty amazing,” former Royals right-hander Mark Gubicza said. “We heard he hit balls as a far as Bo [Jackson] could hit them, maybe farther. We saw some of that in Spring Training. He had such a short, quick swing from the left side and the ball just jumped off his bat.”
Royals fans got to see that in person in 1994, when he hit .282 with 24 home runs, 65 RBIs and a .987 OPS in 101 games. He immediately became a fan favorite, too, thanks to his regular-guy image.
Hamelin was 6 feet tall and a fleshy 240 pounds back then. His wire-rimmed glasses and noticeable paunch made him look more like your plumber than a budding baseball star.
“No doubt that was his appeal,” said Royals infielder David Howard, who was Hamelin’s Spring Training roommate for two years. “He was just a normal guy. Nothing flashy. Fans ate that up.”
Hamelin felt the love.
“When you’re young,” he said, “stuff like that becomes your whole world. It was a just a special time in my life.”
Hamelin also felt protected by his manager, Hal McRae, who didn’t expose him early on to tough left-handers.
“I remember this time in early July, though,” Hamelin said, “and I had gotten knocked down by some veteran pitcher. And I got back up and hit a home run on the very next pitch. After that home run, Hal grabbed me and told me, ‘You’re playing every day from now on.’”
In the summer months of his rookie season, as Hamelin’s homers and fame mounted, fans took to coming to the ballpark with foam hammers and waving them in a tomahawk chop with each of his plate appearances.
The Hamelin craze may have peaked on the night of July 25 at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals were playing the rival Chicago White Sox, and, at 51-47, were trying desperately to crawl into the American League Central race.
But the Royals were trailing 4-3 in the 12th inning, and the White Sox appeared poised to finish off yet another win behind right-hander Roberto Hernandez, at the time one of the most dominant closers in the game. Hamelin came up with two on and one out and promptly blasted a first-pitch, walk-off three-run home run to deep center field.
Fans at Kauffman Stadium went nuts. The Royals’ dugout was delirious.
“Hitting that homer against Hernandez was amazing,” Gubicza said. “Teams didn’t do that to Hernandez. But the thing about the Hammer is that he never seemed fazed by anything. The moment was never too big for him.”
The victory was the third straight in what would turn out to be a 14-game winning streak that eventually vaulted the Royals to within one game of the lead in the Central. Kansas City was alive again with baseball fever it hadn’t felt since the Royals’ World Series title in 1985.
“We were on fire,” Royals closer Jeff Montgomery said. “The town was so behind us. In our minds, we were going to win the division. You had two tough teams in the White Sox and the Indians. But we felt something unique was going in for us.”
But within a week of the winning streak ending in early August, that feel-good mood in Kansas City was extinguished.
The players strike hit after the night of Aug. 10, the season eventually was canceled, and the events that followed forever changed Hamelin’s career, and the direction of an entire organization.
Born in Elizabeth, N.J., Hamelin was the second of four children to Robert James Hamelin III and Margaret Hamelin.
Hamelin’s father, a salesman, was transferred to Irvine, Calif., when Hamelin was 11, and that allowed him to be consumed by his passion -- baseball -- year-round.
Hamelin also was a nose tackle on his high school football team, and was so good, in fact, he attracted a scholarship offer from Lou Holtz at Notre Dame. Hamelin was interested and made an official visit to South Bend, but he was more interested in playing baseball than football.
“[Holtz] said I’d have to participate in spring practice that very first year,” Hamelin said, “and then he’d consider letting me play both sports after that. I just got up and said, 'No thanks,' and walked out. I know people probably thought that was being disrespectful or rude, but I was young. And I wanted to play baseball.”
Hamelin, who oddly wasn’t drafted out of high school despite hitting .520 with 10 home runs his senior season, had a backup plan -- a scholarship offer to play baseball at UCLA, which he then accepted. That team was loaded with stars such as Eric Karros, Jeff Conine and Sean Berry. Hamelin won freshman All-America honors.
But Hamelin eventually soured on UCLA and transferred to Rancho Santiago, a junior college where he hit 31 home runs -- then a JUCO record -- with 107 RBIs the next season. That got the attention of the Royals, who drafted him in the second round in 1988.
“I think I met him that fall in the Instructional League,” Howard said. “What I remember most was how far he could hit a baseball.”
Hamelin became known as somewhat of a free spirit. He loved baseball. But he also loved to eat. And he loved to play poker.
“You did not want to get into a card game with him,” left-hander Mike Magnante, who came up with Hamelin through the Minors, once said. “You would lose.”
Howard also recalled how some players would hear the sound of cards being cut in the clubhouse, and immediately ran out of the clubhouse, clutching their wallets.
“I don’t know how true all that was,” Hamelin said. “But I did love poker, loved going to Vegas. And I was pretty good at it.”
Hamelin also adored food, and some in the Royals organization felt at the time he adored it a little too much. His weight, he said, often fluctuated between 225 and 260.
When Hamelin complained of back issues in 1989, the Royals said they couldn’t find any specific injury and suggested his weight was the culprit. He tried to play through the pain but eventually got a second opinion. A bone scan revealed a stress fracture, and he had surgery in '91.
Hamelin bounced back and had a productive season in 1992 -- .274 with 12 home runs in 73 Minor League games. And that led to his breakout season at Omaha in '93, which led to a September callup and to dreams that offseason of actually making the big league roster the next Opening Day.
But Hamelin had to overcome a scare in January when he tore a flexor tendon in his elbow while participating in an ESPN-sponsored arm-wrestling tournament in Las Vegas.
“Yeah, that was pretty dumb,” Hamelin admits. “I thought it was pretty innocent at the time. But hey, I won both my matches.”
Luckily, the injury scarred over enough -- he didn’t want to undergo surgery -- that he was ready to play by Spring Training. “I thought my best chance to play was DHing anyway,” he said, “and it didn’t really hurt when I swung.”
Sure enough, Hamelin showed enough in Spring Training in 1994 to catch his manager’s attention.
“You can’t imagine how much that means to a young player,” Hamelin said. “It’s such a life-changing experience, going north with the club.”
Hamelin’s presence that season was the spark that team needed, Montgomery recalled.
“We had a lot of veterans, like David Cone and Gubie and Kevin Appier and Greg Gagne and Wally [Joyner],” Montgomery said. “But what you need on those teams is for someone to come out of nowhere and have a big year. And that was the Hammer for us.”
Hal McRae was certain Hamelin would have a long career in the big leagues.
“He’s not some flash in the pan,” McRae said at the time. “He’s too good a hitter for that. He’s got a good eye and a level head.”
But after the strike hit in 1994, Hamelin’s career with the Royals seemed doomed. As the strike rocked the baseball world and dramatically accelerated the gap between the large and small markets, the Royals were headed for a dark period in their history. The Royals, who finished 64-51 in ’94, had just one winning season over the next 20 years.
The Royals had been searching for a new owner since Ewing Kauffman died in 1993, and they were financially strapped in the mid-'90s. As a result, Royals management opted to trade off the team’s expensive assets, including Cone, one by one.
But what affected Hamelin the most was when management also decided to go in another direction in the dugout -- Hal McRae was let go in the fall of 1994. The manager who had promoted Hamelin, protected and encouraged him, was now gone.
The new manager, Bob Boone, and his bench coach, Gene Mauch, didn’t seem to be very big fans of the Hammer, and Hamelin’s playing time immediately plummeted.
“Maybe it was a weight thing,” Howard said. “I think Hammer came into camp in ’95 a little heavier. Maybe a lot heavier.”
Brian McRae, though, wasn’t sure weight should have played a big part to the new coaching staff.
“It was a different time back then,” McRae said. “You didn’t have all these strength and conditioning coaches. Players kind of worked themselves into playing shape. I mean, you had ash trays in the clubhouse back then. Players and coaches smoked all the time.
“So, I don’t think it was a weight or conditioning thing. Hammer was a better athlete than he looked anyway.”
Hamelin got off to a terrible start in 1995 and hit just .168 with seven home runs in 72 games. He was demoted to Omaha in August.
Some observers noted that part of the problem was that Boone wouldn’t always put Hamelin in favorable matchups, as McRae had done so often the year before.
“I think that was some of it,” Hamelin said, “but I have to take responsibility, too. You have to hit in the big leagues. And when I had chances, I didn’t hit.”
Boone said at the time his handling of Hamelin was nothing personal.
“After the season began, he just seemed overmatched,” Boone said. “It didn’t seem like he was able to adjust to the American League pitchers he’d faced the year before.”
It didn’t get much better in 1996, either. Hamelin appeared in 89 games that season and hit .255 with nine home runs.
By the next spring, Hamelin knew his time with the Royals was nearly finished, as a new wave of young prospects, including Mike Sweeney, Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran, became the team’s focus.
To avoid arbitration, Hamelin agreed to a one-year $700,000 deal. But he was released in March of 1997 before he was even was paid $100,000 of that contract.
“I think they tried to sell me to Japan for like $500,000, too,” Hamelin said. “But that didn’t work out.
“I don’t think I was really bitter about it all. Let’s face it, if you’re going to be a DH, you need to hit, or you’ll get whacked. And I hadn’t hit for two years. It came down to maybe a lack of confidence. I wish I knew.”
Hamelin eventually hooked on with the Tigers and put up some decent numbers in 1997, hitting .270 with 18 home runs and 52 RBIs. But the Tigers’ general manager, then Randy Smith, had plans to sign Bip Roberts, whom Smith knew from their days in San Diego together, to be Detroit’s DH in '98 (that experiment lasted 34 games before Roberts was then traded to Oakland). Once again, Hamelin was looking for employment.
After a somewhat wasted season in 1998 serving mostly as a pinch-hitter with the Brewers (.219, seven home runs), Hamelin began to have thoughts that his playing days were near an end.
“I was in Boston’s camp in ’99 and got cut and signed again with the Tigers,” Hamelin said, “but I could feel by then it wasn’t going to happen for me. I’m not even sure I was looking forward to a potential callup anymore.”
As Hamelin drove home from Toledo to Kansas City that fateful June morning in 1999, he began to think about what he would do next. He wound up leaving baseball altogether for several years while running a manufacturing business.
Hamelin got the baseball itch again around 2005 and completed scout school. He served as scout for the Nationals for five years. Coincidentally, Boone was an assistant to the general manager for Washington at the time.
“We got along fine,” Hamelin said. “You don’t burn bridges in this game.”
Since 2012, Hamelin has been a scout with the Red Sox.
“I have a lot to be grateful for,” Hamelin said. “I mean, [I] was the Rookie of the Year. My favorite part of that story is that you know who the runner-up was that year? Manny Ramirez. I beat out Manny Ramirez.
“I’ve got that forever. It was special. And I got to do something I loved.”