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When a Boy of Summer Suddenly Grows Weary

The life-changing decision was not made by Bob Hamelin after hours of soul-searching angst. It did not come to him as if in a cartoon, where a light bulb appears over a head. And it did not happen after long, soulful conversations with a wife, parent or coach.

No, this life-changing decision was made by Hamelin suddenly and strangely, in a way that both frightened and exhilarated him.

On a warm spring night in Toledo, Ohio, while playing baseball for a team called the Mud Hens, Hamelin, the 1994 American League rookie of the year for the Kansas City Royals, hit an infield groundout, jogged off the field, kicked a bat and told his manager, Gene Roof, “I’m done.”

The manager asked, “For the game?” and Hamelin answered, “No, for good,” and walked into the clubhouse for the last time.

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The Ottawa Lynx won the triple-A International League game, 7-5, Monday night, a result that will not stay with Bob Hamelin very long. His .221 batting average after 46 games will stick in his mind, though, and so will the sadness he felt in saying goodbye to his teammates, nearly all of them younger and so, so far away from believing it is possible that life can be better by not playing professional baseball.

After that game Monday night, Hamelin drove to Kansas City where his wife, Marie, and 1-year-old son, Jackson, live in the home Hamelin bought after he had been rookie of the year.

“I listened to the Royals-Cardinals game on the radio,” Hamelin says. “And I did a lot of thinking.”

It is four days later now, and Hamelin has taken dozens of phones calls from friends and relatives, and all of them ask pretty much the same question: “What are you, nuts?”

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Hamelin’s father, Robert, who lives in Irvine, where the Hamelins moved from Morristown, N.J., when Bob was 12, where he became a fine football player and star baseball player at Irvine High and went on to play baseball for Santa Ana College and UCLA, says he had no idea that his son would make such a dramatic exit from the game he had loved and played for 26 years, until Bob called home on Monday night and said, “Dad, I quit.”

“I was surprised,” Robert Hamelin said. “That’s not usually Bob’s style, something like that. He just told me, ‘When it hits you, it hits you.’ ”

“People were surprised,” Hamelin says. “I kind of surprised myself.”

In 1994, Hamelin hit .282 with 24 home runs and 65 RBIs for the Royals. At 26, he was old for a rookie of the year.

Hamelin had been a second-round draft pick of the Royals in 1988, an unbelievable high, he says. In the middle of his 1989 minor league season, though, it was discovered he had a stress fracture in his back that needed surgery.

It wasn’t until late in the 1993 season that the Royals called up Hamelin. In 1994, though, he burst out in a big way, with power and poise and seemed to stamp himself a big leaguer for good.

“Nothing is ever for good,” Hamelin says now and his voice becomes lower and softer. “That was a great season in 1994 but the next year there were expectations, mostly that I put on myself.”

Hamelin says he got off to a slow start in 1995, got sent down to triple-A Omaha for a while, “fell into a platoon situation, a little bit of DHing. In 1996, the same thing, I didn’t get a whole lot of at-bats and it was becoming a bit of a frustrating situation. After you’ve had a kind of success, that makes it a little bit harder to not have success.”

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In 1997, Hamelin signed with the Tigers, started the season at Toledo, then got called up in May.

“I became the everyday DH against righties and had a super year,” he says.

Hamelin played 110 games with the Tigers and hit .270 with 18 home runs.

“I had a lot of fun, the most fun, really, I’d had in baseball,” he says.

Then he was cut and sent into another off-season of scrambling for a job.

He hooked up with Milwaukee in 1998.

“I was mostly a pinch-hitter,” Hamelin says. “I’d hoped for more and it didn’t happen.”

He played in 109 games, hit .219 with seven home runs. He and Marie had a son and when Hamelin went into last off-season with no idea of where he would end up, Hamelin sent his family back to the home they’d kept in Kansas City.

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“It was getting hard,” he says. “But I still wanted to play.”

Off to spring training Hamelin went, with the Boston Red Sox. There was an opening at first base, Hamelin’s position, room for a man with some power, a big bat. Mo Vaughn needed replacing. Hamelin laughed at the irony. Mo living in Newport Beach, not so far away from Hamelin’s parents.

But Hamelin didn’t make it out of spring training with the Red Sox and signed a minor league contract with the Mud Hens. Marie and Jackson stayed in Kansas City.

“I was getting pretty miserable,” he says. “I’m living in an apartment in Toledo and I’m starting to realize that even if I got called up to the majors again, would that make me happy? I just didn’t think so. So I quit.

“I don’t hang my head down. I’m happy with how things went overall. I had a lot of fun, made a lot of great friends. But I put together some good years.”

Then Hamelin pauses for he wants to speak carefully. He does not, he says, want to sound like a spoiled, whiny, unappreciative jerk.

“But this life isn’t always great,” he says.

He is 31 with a wife and baby and a new home in Charlotte, N.C., where Marie grew up, and has absolutely no idea what he will do.

Hamelin never did get a college degree and he did not make the millions that would allow him to spend the rest of his life work-free. He knows what he doesn’t want to be--a coach. He has no idea what he does want to be.

“I guess I’ll find that out,” he says.

As the conversation ends, as call-waiting goes off, more people wondering what the heck happened, Hamelin says one more thing:

“This is a strange feeling. It’s definitely a strange feeling. I feel better since I’ve done it. But it sounds funny. Retired at 31. I think I made the right decision. Or maybe I’ll go play winter ball next year. If that’s the way it goes, who knows?”

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.


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