KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Mike Hampton rubs down the ball, stares toward home plate and delivers a pitch that sweeps across the outside corner. Mark Kotsay never gets the bat off his shoulder.
The outfielder nods approvingly toward the mound. "That’s better," Kotsay says.
Brayan Pena is even more enthusiastic. "That-a boy!" the catcher barks, giving a slight pump of the fist.
For Hampton, it’s another baby step in one of baseball’s longest-running comebacks.
"My pitches are starting to come around," he said a few minutes later, standing by his locker in the Atlanta Braves’ clubhouse. "My arm’s been feeling pretty sound. I’m happy where I’m at right now."
Remember Mike Hampton? Left-handed pitcher. Former 20-game winner. Perhaps best known for getting one of the richest contracts in baseball history.
Well, he’s still around, though no one could be blamed for thinking he retired or took up coaching or settled for a job overseas. Hampton hasn’t made it through a full year since 2003. Heck, he hasn’t pitched at all over the last two seasons.
"Put yourself in his shoes," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "You like to play, you like to pitch, you like the competition — then, all of a sudden, it’s taken away from you. It hurts."
But, now, entering the final year of that infamous eight-year, $121 million deal he signed with Colorado in 2001, Hampton is back on the mound, trying to show in the early days of spring training that he’s still got a little something left in that scarred-up pitching arm.
"I’ve been preparing for this day since the day after the surgery," Hampton said. "I’m excited."
For the record, he’s referring to last year’s operation on his balky left elbow, the one that cut short Hampton Comeback, Version 2006. At that time, he was coming off Tommy John surgery, which replaced the ligament in his elbow and cost him the ‘05 season. When the pain returned, he went back under the knife for a torn flexor tendon.
Another season gone.
From all outward appearances, Hampton never let two major operations dampen his enthusiasm for the game or his determination to get back on the mound. During two full years of rehab, he often strolled through the Turner Field clubhouse cracking jokes or ribbing teammates.
"When you feel sorry for yourself and at the end of the day you’re still feeling sorry for yourself, well, your mind is messed up and your arm still hurts. It doesn’t really help anything," Hampton said. "I decided to keep a positive mind-set, get it taken care of and look forward to the day when I could compete again."
A cynic might find it hard to muster a whole lot of sympathy for Hampton. After all, those big paychecks kept on coming, and he’s due to make $15 million this season, no matter how much he pitches (or doesn’t pitch).
Then again, it wasn’t his fault that Colorado doled out such a foolish contract, or that Hampton’s sinker-heavy repertoire just wasn’t cut out for the Mile High City. He can even laugh about his experience with the Rockies.
"When I was in Colorado, I forgot how to throw everything," Hampton joked. "I was like, ‘What in the hell are you doing?’ I was throwing a sinker down here" — he drops his arm below his waist — "and my four-seamer from up here" — his arm rising above his head. "I went straight brain dead. Now, I’m pretty comfortable."
That’s just what the Braves want to hear.
While they’re not counting on Hampton as much as they did a year ago, they know he could make a stronger rotation look downright formidable. The Braves already have John Smoltz, Tim Hudson and Tom Glavine. A healthy Hampton would give them four top-line starters, the sort of rotation that could help Atlanta challenge the free-spending New York Mets and defending champion Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East.
"Everything we get from him is a bonus," Smoltz said. "There’s no other way to put it."
Hampton had hoped to start his comeback in the Mexican winter league, but that plan lasted all of three outs. Yes, he hurt himself again, pulling his right hamstring in the first inning of his very first start.
He had to take another month off, and still feels a bit of tightness in the back of his leg when he throws. He’s had to re-examine his workout routine, giving more attention to his legs and making sure he shows up early enough to do plenty of stretching.
Cox doesn’t really care how Hampton throws in spring training, as long as he makes it to opening day without getting hurt again.
"I’m sure he’ll be rusty a little bit," Cox said. "But we’re not looking for that. We’re looking for health."
Actually, the aborted stint in Mexico boosted Hampton’s confidence. His arm didn’t hurt, and when he watched a video of the inning that popped up on YouTube, he was relieved to see that his mechanics looked basically the same as they did before all the injuries.
"It’s like Smoltz told me, ‘Dude, you don’t forget how to pitch,’" Hampton said. "It’s like a bicycle. You don’t forget how. You might need a refresher course, but you don’t forget how. When I saw that video, I was like, ‘Dude, you look just like you did before.’ I’m fine."