Feeling for the Unluckiest Man Alive
- All Mike Hampton has ever wanted to do is throw a baseball from a major league mound. Apparently, the forces of nature, God, or whatever is in charge of his destiny has made that virtually impossible to do for any extended period of time.
It was beginning to look like Hampton's hard luck was through, but now at age 37, Hampton is approaching the end of what could have been an amazing career. Signed this season by the Houston Astros, he went 7-10 with a 5.30 ERA over 112 innings, which is considered leaps and bounds since he hasn't made that many starts (21) since his 29 appearances with the Atlanta Braves in 2004.
But this is as good a time as any to reflect upon what might have been.
In his early 20s, Hampton established himself as a pretty good starting pitcher with the Astros, but he didn't throw hard enough or strike out enough hitters to rank among the National League's elite. And then, suddenly, he did. In 1999 and 2000 -- first with the Astros, then the Mets -- Hampton upped his strikeouts while giving up very few home runs, and the combination did make him one of the league's best.
Then came the Rockies, and the eight-year, $121 million contract that still probably ranks as the biggest waste of money in major league history. Then came the injuries. After averaging 32 starts per season from 1997 through 2004, Hampton has started only 46 games in the five seasons since. Throughout -- and despite some decent enough ERA's -- Hampton has never looked anything like the pitcher who scored that $121 million.
Could his career have been amazing, really? Sure. But I don't know that the underlying skills were ever the sort to support a sustained level of ultra-high performance. I think that when we look at Hampton's career in retrospect, it will seem quite amazing indeed, because of all the things having nothing to do with what could have been. But rather with the things that, amazingly enough, actually were.