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Minor Role for Padres' Major Player : Hamilton's Elbow Problems, Slow Progress Are Concerns

March 07, 1992|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YUMA, Ariz. — He sleeps in a cramped hotel room and shares space with a roommate. He wears No. 44, but there's no name on his jersey. He's another anonymous face walking in and out of the Padre minor-league clubhouse.

One distinction sets Joey Hamilton apart.

The Padres have invested more money--$385,000--on this minor-leaguer than any other in franchise history.

"We're trying to treat him like anyone else," said Ed Lynch, Padre farm director. I think you do a disservice when you cater to players in the minor leagues, because that's not the way it's going to be in the big leagues.

"But obviously, there's a difference between a No. 1 pick and a 50th-round pick, and we're going to be very demanding of him."

It's also the reason the Padres are watching his every move.

But Hamilton reported to camp with a tender elbow and has yet to even pitch batting practice.

Hamilton, who was bothered by elbow problems at Georgia Southern last year, began experiencing elbow pain once again in January. The Padres sent him to see orthopedist specialist Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala.

They performed every test imaginable. They did arthrograms, CAT-scans, bone scans and MRIs. You name it, the test was done.

The results revealed a muscle imbalance in the elbow, Hamilton said, along with minor tendinitis. Yet they could not find any bone spurs or calcium deposits that would require surgery.

"That God for that," Lynch said.

Still, the Padres are apprehensive. This is the second time in the past two years that Hamilton has encountered pain in his elbow. Neither time could doctors find a conclusive reason.

"He's definitely got some elbow problems," said Larry Bryant, Georgia Southern pitching coach. "Seeing that he's a pitcher, I don't see that as a good sign."

Although certainly anyone can encounter elbow problems, Bryant believes that that Hamilton's overconfidence could be triggering the pain. Hamilton was coming off a brilliant sophomore season at Georgia Southern when he was 18-4 with a 3.07 ERA when he struggled his junior year with elbow problems. He was 1-3 with a 7.43 ERA in his first five starts last year before finally getting untracked. He became the eighth selection in the June Free Agent Draft.

"I think we might be in for a little repeat in history," Bryant said. "It's like, 'Boy, here we go again. God's gift to the mound.'

"He may not have done some things to keep in shape during the winter as he should have. I'm not talking behind his back, because I already talked to him about my concerns.

"This isn't the same as pitching against Division I talent. These guys are professionals. There are a lot of ifs, ifs, ifs whether he'll ever make it to the big leagues."

Hamilton realizes he's behind. Maybe he should have worked out a bit harder. Perhaps he should have not gone for months at a time without picking up the ball.

But he had other concerns. His father died of cancer Dec. 9 at age 44.

"It was pretty bad watching him suffer," Hamilton said. "The only thing that kept him hanging on the last 16 months was wanting to see his son sign a professional contract. That's the reason I signed.

"It wasn't for the money, because my agent (Scott Boras) told me not to sign. He wanted me to go back for my senior year.

"But I only hired him to help with the decisions. I make them. And I wanted to make sure I signed before my dad died."

Said Janet Hamilton, Joey's stepmother: "He definitely signed because of his father. It was Jack's dream to have his son be a professional baseball player. He didn't want to take that away from him."

Jack Hamilton was diagnosed with cancer when Joey was playing baseball for Team USA in Canada. Joey never knew his father was having half of his stomach and esophagus removed. Jack Hamilton didn't want to ruin his son's summer.

"Jack used to watch Joey pitch every game," Janet Hamilton said, "but he started to miss games. You could tell it bothered Joey. He'd look up in the stands, trying to find where his father normally sits, but he wasn't there a few games.

"He didn't know those were the times Jack had to go the hospital."

It was a difficult, long winter. Hamilton's friends say he dealt with his father's death by spending money. He bought a new Corvette convertible. He bought fancy clothes. He donned new gold jewelry.

"He didn't show much emotion after his father's death," Bryant said. "I think spending money was Joey's way of dealing with it."

Hamilton, 21, realizes this is not quite the impression he was hoping to make in his first professional camp.

"I'm pretty sure I'll be all right," he said, "but it's frustrating. I know what I can do, but I can't show it. I've got to take it nice and slow, because in the back of my mind, there's doubts it might happen again."

Hamilton will start the season in Class A Charleston, Lynch said, primarily because it's their best warm-weather site. They are hoping he'll stay for only five weeks, move to High Desert of the California League, and then perhaps finish the season with the double-A Wichita club.

"Barring injury, I think I could be up in the big leagues next year," Hamilton said. "I've been watching the (Padre) pitchers, seeing what they're doing, and I think to myself they're not any better than I am."

Said Bryant: "Maybe, but I just don't think it's going to be as easy as he thinks.

"We'll see."

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