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

June 20, 1989|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | Times Staff Writer

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — 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.

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