When the Mobile BayBears face the Mississippi Braves on the road Sunday, July 26, manager Robby Hammock can’t be blamed if his thoughts occasionally drift to Cooperstown, New York, where the Class of 2015 will be attending the annual induction ceremony for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
It will perhaps be fitting that the Class AA Arizona Diamondbacks’ affiliate BayBears are taking on the Braves’ affiliate for Hammock, who undoubtedly will recall a wonderfully muggy night in Atlanta he shared with Hall of Fame inductee Randy Johnson. It was a perfect night, to be sure.
On May 18, 2004, Johnson pitched a perfect game against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field in Atlanta. Hammock, playing in his home state of Georgia, was the Diamondbacks’ catcher for that historic game.
“You kind of get caught up in the moment at the time, and then each year you kind of look back and realize how rare it is,” Hammock said in recalling the perfect game. “Each year, it’s a little more special, I think. Especially with him going into the Hall of Fame, it becomes a lot more special to me.
“[Johnson] meant a lot to me in my career. I admired him as a player coming up through the minor leagues, watching him pitch in the major leagues and then being able to cross his path. To get to catch an eventual Hall of Famer was a real thrill. And being able to catch a perfect game on top of it … You look back on it and realize how special it is each year. It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 10 years now. It seems like yesterday,” Hammock said.
Arizona won the game 2-0 and Johnson struck out 13 batters, including Eddie Perez, the last Atlanta batter he faced, who struck out swinging at a high fastball. As he received that pitch, Hammock thrust his right hand, clutching the baseball, in the air and then jumped repeatedly toward the mound where he embraced Johnson in celebration of the achievement.
“[I took] a couple of skips out there; I was just so excited,” Hammock recalled. “There were so many [of my] family and friends there. We couldn’t have been in a better place or better time … Everybody’s congratulating Randy and guys are telling me, ‘Kid, you have no idea what you just did. It’s incredible. You have no idea what you were just a part of.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Are you kidding me? Did you see me jumping up and down after the last pitch? I know exactly what’s going on. I know exactly what this means.’ Running out there, I was just stating the obvious, of course, but I was just yelling at him, ‘You were perfect, tonight you were perfect.’ That’s what I remember before everybody mobbed us.”
Eleven years later Hammock, who played six seasons in the major leagues after being a 23rd-round pick by the Diamondbacks in the 1998 draft, recalls that single game and Johnson’s abilities throughout his career quite clearly.
“There’s no doubt that I caught different guys over different periods of time that had the 100-mile-an-hour fastballs and the wipeout sliders,” Hammock said. “What set him apart was definitely his length, where he released the ball two feet closer to home plate than everybody else. He could keep up that same pace the entire game, which is special. His competitiveness, his fearlessness and his desire to win and never, ever be complacent is what set him apart from everyone else, by far.
“I was an intense player — I was never happy with my accomplishments, and I would come across other guys who were like that. But Randy is above and beyond everybody else in that category. You combine that with all his stuff, and it’s unstoppable,” Hammock said.
As the game unfolded, Hammock said he didn’t give much thought to the fact he was catching a perfect game. He said he was thinking about getting the win. But he said he was aware Johnson was pitching as well as he ever had.
“Randy was 40 years old and he would try to pace himself,” Hammock said. “His mentality all the time was different than it is now with this generation of pitching, which [now] is ‘Let me get through five innings and get out of here.’ He wanted to finish games. If he was coming out of the game, he wanted us to have the lead.
“In my head, at any time someone could get a broken-bat hit off the handle and then someone could hit a home run and we’re tied. That’s the thing I’m thinking about. But to be honest, I didn’t think about [the perfect game] until Eddie Perez swung at the last fastball, up and right through it. That’s when it was real.”
Today, it remains a great memory.
“I went back and watched the game again for the first time two off-seasons ago,” Hammock said. “There were a lot of times when — he didn’t shake me off but he would just stare, and there were plenty of those. To be honest, it didn’t matter that night. Everything was sharp, everything was crisp and he was throwing it where he wanted it. There were no secrets.
“He was in town about a month ago and we chatted a little bit about it. It’s something we both know is so incredibly rare and it was a special night. It was awesome fun to be a part of. [BayBears’ players] know about it, but they don’t ask too much about it. They know about it. They respect it.”
Hammock said he learned a lot from that particular game, but learned more from Johnson and his approach to the game. They are lessons he said he uses today as manager of the BayBears.
“I had a great relationship with Randy and still do,” he said. “He’s a really, really funny guy when you get to know him. He has a dry sense of humor. I’m excited for him and I appreciate what I learned from him, just from being around him and catching him. It helped me in my career, but beyond that, it helped me for where I am now to understand mentality and competitiveness and what it takes.
“There’s still no one I can compare him to,” Hammock said. “There’s no one even close to him. It doesn’t matter, mentality-wise you can get to that point. Stuff, physique, talent, maybe not, but mentality, yes, you can do it. That’s something I understand now.”