When Atlee Hammaker went to Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, W Va., he was as big and durable as a three-sport athlete could be. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, he thought he was indestructible. As he raced through the minor leagues and became a major league star-starting the 1983 All-Star Game for the National League in his second season--he believed he could do or endure anything.
When he took his 10-10 record and 3.58 ERA to the mound at Candlestick Park to start Game Three of the National League playoffs for the San Francisco Giants, he knew better -- much better. Since that summer day in '83 when he was on his way to an ERA title, almost everything that can befall a pitcher has hit him. It's likely that no other pitcher in history has overcome the injuries and illnesses that he has, for the moment, beaten. Three times he's been the guinea pig for new surgical procedures when, in any other decade, his career would have been ended.
His left pitching shoulder has twice had rotator cuff surgery, in 1984 and 1986 (when he missed the entire season). No other pitcher has ever returned to full effectiveness after even one such surgery. He's returned twice.
He had elbow surgery, also in 1984, to remove five bone spurs and several small chips; he had pitched a whole season with those impediments. Both knees had surgery for cartilage damage in 1986. "I had them done simultaneously -- two for the price of one," he says. "I just couldn't bear to go back on the (operating) table again."
On top of that, for seven months in 1986 he had a mysterious disease, traced to the endocrine system but never identified, which caused him to lose as much as 20 pounds in nine days, despite round-the-clock milkshakes and total inactivity. He was tested for almost every life-threatening disease -- from cancer to Legionaire's Disease. Without explanation, the problem simply disappeared.
At one point in summer of 1986, he was simultaneously recovering from two knee surgeries and a shoulder surgery while still enduring the terror of his energy-sapping phantom disease. "That's when I had doubts that I'd ever come back," he says now. "One day I was traveling with the team in Montreal to do my rehabilitation work and I sat there wondering: 'Why am I wasting my time. I'm never going to pitch again.' "
Dr. James Andrews of Birmingham is primarily responsible for Hammaker's return. "I'm an on-going experiment to him," Hammaker says. "I've kept him in business. All my referrals have probably built his new clinic." Actually, Hammaker has gone to Andrews out of desperation. Three times, for both shoulder problems and the elbow, other famous orthopedic wizards told Hammaker that they'd have to cut some of his shoulder blade, trim a major tendon, or transplant a tendon, to fix him. Always, major muscle and ligament cutting would have been needed.
All three times, Andrews told Hammaker that, if he was willing to risk an experimental arthroscopic procedure, the surgery could be done without the traumatic cutting that makes recovery for athletes almost impossible. When Hammaker woke up after his last shoulder surgery in '86, Andrews first words to him were: "You'll be all right. I did the same surgery on Roger Clemens a year ago. He struck out 20 men last night."
Hammaker responded, "What did you put in there, doc?"
Along the way, Hammaker's faith in medicine and team doctors has been badly shaken. "The shoulder was always called 'tendinitis,' " he says. "I'm not dumb. When it's 102 degrees and you have to warm up for 45 minutes to get the ball to home plate, that's not tendinitis."
If anything, Hammaker has almost ruined his career by being too tough and motivated. "I overdo everything," he says. "For years I tried to do everybody's workout program. I figured, if I could outdo everybody in everything, I'd be that much better." On a typical day, it was routine for him to do Steve Carlton's entire Kung Fu and exercise program, lift free weights, ride a stationary bike, run the stadium steps and, finally, join the rest of the pitching staff for its entire running and conditioning program.
Now, his heroes are pitcher Rick Reuschel and Manager Roger Craig who preach laziness for hurlers: Less is more. "Reuschel weighed 285 pounds at one point," laughs Hammaker.
"I've cut way back (on work) and I've never felt better. I never thought I'd get this much of my old stuff back again. You tell yourself, 'I've gotta be totally prepared. I have to deserve to win.' But that can go too far. You have to be mature enough to realize that you know how to pitch."
Now, at 29, he is relearning his trade, striving for craft and savvy and moderation, rather than his old 93 m.p.h. fastball and best-in-the-league control. "It's tough for me to act like a slop-baller. I throw 91 (m.p.h.) and get hit. I throw 86 and get ground balls. I say, 'It can't be that easy.' "
Craig's task is to erase Hammaker's perfectionism. "He expects too much of himself," Craig says. "You can't think about one bad pitch for two innings." Now, Hammaker will return to the dugout and say: "Okay, okay, I've already forgotten it."
A piece at a time, Hammaker is learning the old-timers' tricks. For his start Friday, he has a surprise for the speedy St. Louis Cardinals -- a new quick-step delivery, a' la Reuschel -- to dampen their base stealing.
"Not too many pitchers would change something that basic just for one game," says Hammaker. "But I'm willing to try an experiment."
If it weren't for trying far more risky experiments -- as Andrews' baseball guinea pig -- Hammaker would never be on the mound in these playoffs at all.