ON A MISSION : Former Rancho Santiago Star Hamelin Is Making a Powerful Bid to Reach Majors

Times Staff Writer

Bo played here. So did Jim Eisenreich, Charlie Lea and Tim Wallach. And don't forget Elvis. After all, he was the King.

Nestled along the banks of the mighty, muddy Mississippi River, Memphis always has provided a fertile proving ground for talented young performers.

Young men with major league aspirations and talent to match pour forth from the town like the soulful sounds of the blues bands on another festive Friday night down on Beale Street.

The latest player ready to emerge is a 6-foot-1, 230-pound slugger the denizens have taken to calling "Hammer." It's a nickname the owner, Bob Hamelin, says started in Eugene, Ore., with the Class-A Emeralds last summer and has followed him here.

It certainly has proven to be an appropriate moniker. The press box veterans at Tim McCarver Stadium, home of the Memphis Chicks, relate with reverence tales of Hamelin's monstrous home runs this season.

Such stories are just one measure of the man, albeit an important one.

Without prodding, the press box vets compare Hamelin's blasts to those of Bo Jackson, who spent 53 games with the Chicks before moving on to the Kansas City Royals.

Of course, comparisons are difficult, but the observers do try their best. Jackson is a right-handed batter. Hamelin is a lefty. Neither is much of an opposite-field hitter. As is the case with many sports tales, the homers seem to get longer as time passes.

Lessee, Bo hit one over the bleachers in left that landed at the base of that tower. That's about 575 feet. Hammer hit one up in the light standard there in right. I wasn't here for that one, but that's about 500 feet, maybe more. Then there was the one he hit over the Pepsi sign on the scoreboard . . . .

For his part, Hamelin remains unfazed by such talk. After all, there is still so much work to be done. Memphis is only double-A ball, a way station on the path to the majors.

"This guy is on a mission, and that's to play in the big leagues," Memphis Manager Jeff Cox said.

Hamelin's desire first showed itself at Irvine High School. He nurtured it through a season at UCLA and another at Rancho Santiago College, then realized at least a portion of his goal last season after the Royals drafted him in the second round and sent him to Eugene.

Now, it appears that dream is about to become a reality. It seems only a matter of time before Hamelin dons the blue and white colors of the Kansas City Royals and takes his spot at first base.

"We think the world about him," said John Boles, Kansas City's director of player development. "I hate to project when one of our minor leaguers will move up. (But) he's on his way, there's no question about it. We think he's going to have a bright, successful career in the big leagues."

This business of being on the verge of 747s instead of Greyhound buses, of dinner at Elaine's or Spago instead of McDonald's, of network TV instead of WREC could prove maddening. But not to Hamelin.

His desire to reach the majors is strong, but he's enjoying himself in Memphis. He seems to know it won't be long before Huntsville, Ala., and Columbus, Ga., are distant memories and he appears content to take a little part of the minors with him.

"I'll always be the same Bob Hamelin," he said.

Home is where the heart is. Elvis had Graceland Mansion. Hamelin's digs are in suburban Cordova, a 25-minute drive from the ballpark and a 40-minute haul from downtown Memphis.

He lives in a bare-walled, two-bedroom apartment with two teammates. It's a little cramped, but Hamelin has secured a bedroom all to himself.

"Shhhh. We were supposed to switch off," Hamelin said with a smile.

There's cold beer in the fridge, ESPN on the TV and Baseball America magazine--there's a big spread on Hamelin in the latest issue--on the coffee table. His girlfriend, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is driving out next week for a visit. What more could a successful, single 21-year-old guy want?

There could be worse places than Memphis to launch a hitting career. The weather is hot and humid, especially in July and August, but the park is homey--it's only 320 feet down the right-field line and 398 to center--and the crowds are friendly and supportive. Friday and Saturday night games can attract 6,000 or more fans.

Hamelin has been elevated to hero status in Memphis. On a recent Sunday morning, he and Cox appeared at a local baseball card show to sign autographs. Children and older collectors, knowing a good investment when they see one, flocked around Hamelin.

This is one of the things Hamelin will take with him when he moves on. First professional home run, first autograph session, it's all part of the nurturing of a ballplayer.

"It was fun, it went well," Hamelin said of the show.

Fun is important to Hamelin. Without it, he wouldn't be playing today.

It's why Hamelin gets to the ballpark at 1:30 p.m. when he doesn't need to be there until 4. It's why he takes extra batting practice each day. It's why he didn't miss an inning in 70 games at Eugene and why he kept the streak going until back spasms sidelined him two weeks ago.

"His back was hurting for two days (before a game at Chattanooga)," Cox said. "But he didn't say anything. Finally, he hit a home run and he couldn't get around the basepaths, he was hurting so much. He had to jog around the basepaths. And still he went out to play first base. He hobbled in after the inning was over and gave me this (Cox runs a finger across his neck) sign. That's what we're dealing with."

Hamelin doesn't play golf, watch the soaps or carouse late at night. Mostly, he said, his mind is focused on baseball.

Such diligence is a sure-fire way to impress the folks making the promotions in Kansas City, not to mention your manager, but Hamelin has a genuine enjoyment for all things baseball. Just as long as it involves having fun, that is.

He wasn't having fun at UCLA and that's why he left the school a quarter into his sophomore year.

He played about half the team's games and was named to the freshman All-American team in 1987. Many figured Hamelin would become an important part in UCLA's baseball fortunes for years to come.

But something was missing. Baseball wasn't fun for Hamelin.

"I decided the best thing for me was to go ahead and try something different," Hamelin said.

He transferred to Rancho Santiago in Santa Ana and, whether it was the change in the scenery or the change in the level of competition, Hamelin began to emerge as one of the finest collegiate players in the nation.

"We left him alone; that's why he's so good," Rancho Santiago Coach Don Sneddon said. "Bob Hamelin is one of those guys who made himself."

Hamelin set state records for home runs (31) and runs batted in (107) in a season and batted an astounding .514, leading Rancho Santiago to the Orange Empire Conference championship.

"I was able to have fun and get what I wanted out of it," Hamelin said. "That made (Rancho Santiago) special."

The Royals came calling soon after the season ended and made Hamelin their No. 2 pick.

At Eugene, he batted .298 and led the Northwest League in home runs with 17, was third in RBIs with 61 and was named to the league's All-Star team. A quick promotion to Memphis followed.

Hamelin hopes he'll again be promoted at the end of the season, he hopes to Kansas City, but probably to triple-A Omaha.

"I think he needs to continue to play here and put up some statistics," said Cox, who paused a moment. "Well, he already has, and he will continue to do so."

Sixty games played, .316 batting average, 14 home runs, 12 doubles, four triples, 43 RBIs, 40 runs. His average and home-run total are second best and his RBI total fifth best in the Southern League and earned him a spot on the league's All-Star team.

Hamelin's numbers speak for themselves.

But the question remains: Why is he so good?

"Of course, he has tremendous power," Boles said. "From an offensive standpoint, he has upper-deck power. He's patient. All that combines to make him a tremendous prospect. He's worked hard defensively. He's an accomplished first baseman now. And he has great work habits.

"There's no reason to think Bob won't be a big league star."

Cox, a 32-year-old from West Covina who was a coach at Eugene last season, leans back in his chair in the Chicks' clubhouse and searches for the right words to describe Hamelin.

"He has a short, quick, powerful swing," Cox said. "He has tremendous power potential. For a power hitter, it's not usual to have such a short swing. He has such a knowledge of the strike zone. He has such an intense desire to progress as quickly as he can. Desire, drive, dedication. It's a rarity."

A rarity, indeed.

"You'll probably not see another player like that at the community college level again," Sneddon said.

Despite his success at Rancho Santiago, Hamelin was never satisfied with his play.

"He hit 31 home runs for us and he wanted to hit 45," Sneddon said. "You could just see him. He'd go four for four and be mad because he didn't pull two of the balls. Or he'd hit a home run that went 375 feet instead of 400."

His play has grown into legend. The stories, Sneddon swears, are all true.

In a game against Riverside, Hamelin swung so hard at a pitch that all the buttons on his uniform top came undone.

After another Riverside game, in which Hamelin hit two long homers, one of the Riverside players asked Hamelin to sign a couple of balls.

"He wanted him to sign them now so he had them when Hamelin became a star in the majors," Sneddon said.

In a game at Ventura, where the center-field fence is 430 feet from home plate, Hamelin hit a towering drive.

"The ball went so high," Sneddon recalled. "It went up in some low clouds hanging over the field and just disappeared." The fielder lost the ball and it fell in for an extra-base hit.

And here's the topper.

Just beyond the right-field fence at Rancho Santiago, there is a television tower that was a favorite target of Hamelin during batting practice.

"He kept hitting these dishes," Sneddon said. "It sounded like 'The Gong Show.' There were complaints that he was disrupting cable service in Santa Ana."

Talent and temperament seem to go hand in hand in Hamelin's case.

"I'm self-confident," Hamelin said. "I don't want to get too high or too low. If you've got talent, you're going to make it."

Later, Hamelin amends that statement.

"You've got to have steady improvement," he said. "You've got to be able to improve. You can't stay on one level."

Improving, staying injury free and getting a little luck would seem to be the keys to Hamelin's advancement. Cox thinks it's only a matter of time, though.

"So many players come into professional baseball with tremendous ability, it's the intangibles that make or break a ballplayer," Cox said. "Sooner or later, Hamelin will force the people in Kansas City to make a move."

Hamelin's desire to be a major league first baseman burns deep inside him, deeper than hitting a certain pitch in a certain game for a single or even a home run.

Each pitch, swing, at-bat, game is just another step toward the major leagues.

"It's not a life-or-death thing," Hamelin said. "It's not that big of a deal. It's something I want."

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