- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — The last time — and the only time — Jeffrey Hammonds spent Opening Day in the minor leagues, he was a 22-year-old phenom in the Baltimore Orioles’ system and less than a year removed from being drafted fourth overall.

Twelve years later, Hammonds will find himself back in the minors on Opening Day. Demoted by the Washington Nationals on Tuesday, the 34-year-old outfielder said yesterday he will report to Class AAA New Orleans, determined to work his way back to the majors before the end of this season.

“I wouldn’t be going down if I didn’t think I could do it,” Hammonds said as he packed his bags at Space Coast Stadium and shook hands with teammates.

Though he has battled injuries throughout his career and has not played in more than 56 games in a season since 2002, Hammonds said he has no intentions of retiring. His exit meeting Tuesday with Nationals manager Frank Robinson and general manager Jim Bowden reinforced his belief he can still play.

“If I didn’t have it, I know Frank and Jim would have been honest with me,” he said. “They gave me some very constructive criticism. They told me I need to go down, work on some things and just play. I plan on doing it.”

Hammonds signed a nonguaranteed contract this winter with an invitation to spring training and knew he faced long odds with the Nationals. He hit just .211 in 40 games with the San Francisco Giants last year, never recovered from a broken right thumb suffered during spring training and was released June 3.

The Nationals welcomed him this spring, though, and Hammonds welcomed the opportunity to reunite with both Robinson and Bowden, two key figures from earlier in his career.

Robinson was still working for the Orioles’ front office when Hammonds was drafted in 1992 and played a key role in signing the former Stanford star to his first professional contract. Six years later, Bowden (then the Cincinnati Reds’ general manager) acquired Hammonds from Baltimore for third baseman Willie Greene.

Hammonds arrived in Viera with a chance to compete for a reserve spot in the outfield, and early on it appeared he had a legitimate shot. But his lack of at-bats the last two seasons seemed to catch up to him once the exhibition season started, and he struggled to a .208 batting average in 14 games. He hurt his chances even more with some shaky play in the field.

Hammonds said he felt like things were starting to come together in the last week or so, but he doesn’t begrudge the Nationals for deciding to cut him now.

“I understand coming out of spring training, you’ve got to put together a team of whoever the best players are at that time,” he said. “For me to help this ballclub, I have to be sharper. I can’t be looking at playing every once in a while at the major league level. The best thing for me is to go down and play and get better. That’s what I aim to do.”

It’s not easy for a player of Hammonds’ age and baseball pedigree to accept a demotion. This is, after all, a man who made the National League All-Star team only five years ago with the Colorado Rockies.

Hammonds, though, is a realist. He understands he’s not worthy of a major league roster spot right now.

“I would have loved to come in and shake up everything and come out of camp at the top of my game,” he said. “But I knew that wasn’t going to be the case. Honestly, I knew I wasn’t ready. So it wasn’t a hard thing to swallow.”

He will spend the rest of the spring working out at the Nationals’ minor league camp, mingling with 18-year-olds fresh out of high school instead of 30-year-old millionaires.

In two weeks, he will report to New Orleans, where he expects to play regularly among a projected outfield rotation of Ryan Church, Tyrell Godwin and Matt Cepicky.

And one day this summer, he plans on walking into the home clubhouse at RFK Stadium, donning a Nationals uniform and officially completing his comeback.

“I’ve been to the All-Star Game. I’ve been to the League Championship Series. I’ve seen both sides of it,” Hammonds said. “I would consider shutting it down if I felt it deep within me. But if I didn’t want to go to Triple-A, I wouldn’t have signed up in the first place. That’s why I committed myself to these guys, to put myself in a position where I can help these guys this season. I know I’ve got work to do, but I plan on doing it.

“It’s a long season. It’s not how you start but how you finish. I know what I’ve still got left. I’ll be back. I’ll be back.”

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