Chris Hammond is pitching tonight at SunTrust Park in Atlanta. No, Hammond, now 53 years old, hasn’t decided to revive his Major League Baseball career for a second time. It’s Alumni Weekend for the National League East leading Atlanta Braves as they meet the Los Angeles Dodgers. Hammond, who calls Randolph County home these days, and his wife, Lynne, drove to Atlanta on Friday in time to take part in the alumni parade prior to Friday’s game.
There are a number of alumni activities from Friday through Sunday. Hammond isn’t sure exactly what he’ll be asked to do and doesn’t seem too concerned.
“When I get there I feel like I’m just part of the herd of cattle. Tell me what to do and where to be and feed me,” he said with a chuckle. “I look forward to it every year. … The older people get, even the rowdy guys slow down and they’re not so bad any more. I enjoy it.”
Saturday evening, about an hour before first pitch for the Braves and Dodgers, a team of former Braves from the 1990s headed by Brian Jordan will challenge a 2000s team led by Jeff Francoeur in a softball home run derby. Hammond will be throwing fat pitches for Francoeur’s team.
It may seem strange that a man who once made a very comfortable living for his family by keeping hitters off base and the baseballs in the park now enjoys seeing softballs fly beyond the shortened fences set up especially for the home run derby. Hammond said Thursday that he thinks of the annual home run contest much like he thinks of pitching batting practice.
“I learned quickly after I retired that my job now is to build people’s confidence. I throw pretty good batting practice,” Hammond said.
It all started in 2017, the Braves' first year at SunTrust Park. Every hitter got to choose his own pitcher. Someone, Hammond thinks it was former pitcher John Rocker, asked if Hammond would throw to him.
“I was throwing them just perfect for him. The next round, another guy on our team said, ‘Hey, Chris, can you pitch for me?’ They called me in for relief. I finished up and I haven’t lost the job since,” Hammond said.
Hammond pitched in parts of 14 seasons in the majors. Just one of those — 2002 — was with Atlanta but it was a season for the ages. Pitching solely in relief, he was 7-2 with a microscopic 0.95 earned run average over 76 innings in 63 games. At age 36, he struck out 63 batters with an assortment of off-speed pitches, including a devastating changeup.
“I couldn’t ask for a better year than that year. Take away the first series of the year and I practically did nothing wrong. You just can’t do that,” Hammond said. “It was just flat-out amazing.”
Mike Remlinger, another left-handed reliever for the Braves in 2002, finished with a 1.99 ERA. Hammond recalled that as the team came back from New York at the end of the regular season he noticed Remlinger looking at him and shaking his head.
“I had an outstanding year,” Remlinger said. “My ERA was 1.99. Your ERA was a complete run better than mine.”
It almost didn’t happen. Hammond was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the sixth round of the 1986 draft and made his major league debut in 1990. He pitched mostly as a starter for the Reds, the expansion Marlins, the Red Sox and the Marlins again before retiring during the 1998 season.
“I didn’t plan on coming back,” Hammond confessed. “My wife just said, ‘I hate it that our kids never saw you on the field,’ and I go, ‘Let me get my arm back in shape and let’s give them something to look at,’ and we had the best time in the world.”
In 2001, Hammond was pitching well in Triple-A for the Cleveland Indians when he heard the Indians had a rule that their big league pitchers had to throw at least 90 miles per hour. He asked to be released if that was true and Cleveland released him. The Braves picked him up. In 2002, he made the big league roster out of spring training.
After the 2002 season, Hammond was a free agent again. The New York Yankees made a salary offer significantly greater than the one he received from Atlanta and Hammond became a Yankee. He continued to pitch until he retired for good in 2006.
Who does he look forward to seeing from the 2002 team?
“I always love sitting around with (former catcher) Javy Lopez. His smile never changes. He’s just a fun person to be around,” Hammond said. “I love Darren Holmes when he comes back. … He’s one of the guys I sat by all the time in the bullpen.”
What about a second comeback with the current Atlanta bullpen struggling?
“I thought about it for about one second and I thought, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ I’m just happy the way I feel right now and living the rest of my life feeling good.”