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Another Homer Hero

By Paul Hendrickson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 1998

   


A baseball fable. No, not the one that's lately possessed us all. It's about another slugger, a hugely likable and earnest guy, a Middlewesterner, from a place called Council Bluffs, Iowa, who spent the season crushing homers and setting records, just like Mark and Sammy, only doing it down in the minors, where the world wasn't looking. He's getting a little old for a minor leaguer, 29, but just when he's sure he'll never get his shot, the call comes.

They summon him to the bigs in the middle of the night, the way it happens in the movies. He's so comically ill-prepared that he gets on the plane almost without a change of clothes, wearing his roomie's rumpled sports coat. And when he arrives in dreamland, he takes a cab to the wrong hotel, and then shows up late at the ballpark and rolls down the window of the taxi and says to the gate guys, "Uh, 'scuse me, I'm a player. Where do the players go?" He enters the clubhouse with sweaty palms.

You'd plug for a guy like this, right? A guy who'd spent nine years in the bushes, awaiting his chance. A guy who, last February, drove to spring training in Florida without a contract, having been given free agency and released two years in a row by ballclubs. Last spring, all the smart money in baseball was saying that this Iowa hayseed was washed up, finito.

It's a true story. It's Chris Hatcher's life, every bit you've heard so far. Only we don't quite know the ending yet. It's being written almost daily in the small print of some major league box scores as one of the most thrilling seasons in baseball history winds down.

Think of this as the shadow home run story of 1998.

Start with his altogether wonderful name: Chris Hatcher. It sounds right out of a 1950s boys' sports fiction series. Then consider his giftedness. By any measurement, except perhaps the cruel measurement of major league baseball, he is an extraordinary athlete. Maybe you were thinking: good guy, middling talent. No way. Decent talents don't make all-state in high school in three sports: baseball, football, track. ("I think I was honorable mention all-state in basketball," he says, as if to apologize.) Decent talents don't get named to high school all-America baseball squads, don't get honored as the Iowa High School Male Athlete of the Year, as USA Today's 1987 Iowa Baseball Player and Athlete of the Year.

The fact is, he was always the Natural, his hand-eye coordination belonging to that sliver of 98th or 99th percentile that high school and college coaches dream about.

Chris Hatcher, who looks about a decade older than he is, like many men who've played a game hard all their lives, went to the University of Iowa on an athletic scholarship. There, too, he became not just Big Ten all-conference but a two-time all-American. He almost certainly would've been a three-time, but the big man's collegiate career ended early: After his junior year, he got signed by the Houston Astros organization in the third round of the 1990 draft.

In a way, it's heartbreaking to read the list of his early honors: a promise that's never come fully to fruition. In the pro ranks, Hatcher has resided in that wedge just below the top echelons. Somehow, this exceptional athlete is missing a mysterious X-factor – or has been thus far. The precise whys of it are layered and murky, but part of the explanation seems to revolve around a quicksilver thing called confidence. Like the curveball, confidence has sometimes been the demon hooking and dipping through Chris Hatcher's life.

To study his athletic resume is to have a deeper appreciation for the otherworldly physical brilliance and self-assurance of a Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa. If Hatcher is this good, what stuff must they be made of to have done what they've done, are doing, under such a blinding season-long glare?

We just said: big man. Oh, this guy's a moose, McGwire-like big. He weighs about 240 and is a little under 6 feet 4 and is possessed of tremendous lower-body strength. But don't think he's slow: He stole eight bases for his manager in the minors this year. That manager, Ron Johnson – whose voice you'll hear, and who seems to be a large part of why Hatcher's now in the bigs – used to love giving his slugger the hit-and-run sign when he was on first in a tight situation. Only thing, Hatcher wasn't standing on first much this year. More often, he'd just hammered it into the stands. In 126 minor league games, through Sept. 4, he had 46 home runs. Maybe that doesn't sound titanic, next to McGwire's and Sosa's numbers, but it went into the record books as the most shots any minor leaguer has hit since 1982.

This was the year an Iowan exploded, for combinations of reasons.

The Day the Dream Happens

It happened in California, Sunday, Sept. 6, in the second inning of a game between the Kansas City Royals and the Anaheim Angels. It was an inconsequential baseball moment that meant everything to Chris Hatcher: It's when he got his first plate appearance in a big-league game. It was when he went into the books, when he became an official part of major league baseball history. And it was the art of the home run, in a year of home runs, that had made the moment possible.

This same night, McGwire was hanging at 60, having tied Ruth the day before, one swing away from equaling Maris. Sosa had answered with 58.

In one sense, there isn't much to tell: The batter struck out. He got sent down fast, on fastballs. "Whew, I didn't see anything," is the way he describes it now, with his characteristic modesty. He thinks the first one was low and outside, but the ump called it a strike. The next two strikes were split-fingered fastballs.

A career minor leaguer had come out of the Royals' dugout with a piece of lumber in his hand and the number 51 on the back of his new uniform. Less than 48 hours earlier, Hatcher had been wearing the uniform of the Omaha Royals, which is the Class AAA Pacific Coast League affiliate of Kansas City that he'd played for all season. The only thing the hitter was hoping as he walked to the plate in that huge stadium was that he wouldn't make a fool of himself – maybe swing so hard that he'd fall down. "I didn't want to do something dorky and end up on 'SportsCenter.'"

As a kid, in his bedroom after dark, looking at the ceiling, he used to imagine what it would be like, the first time he wore a big league uniform and walked to a plate. What city would it be in? "I used to dream and dream of knocking the first one out." His parents split up when he was very young, and he had three brothers who were much older, and so a fairly lonely kid dreamed a lot.

His wife, Lisa, his high school sweetheart, who has known him since seventh or eighth grade, was in an upper deck of that California stadium, talking into a video camera. She had flown in for this. She'd never gone back to bed, once her husband had called her in Council Bluffs to tell her the unbelievable news. At 4 in the morning, Lisa Hatcher had begun packing and calling airlines and making arrangements for the pets. She's an athlete herself and a native of Council Bluffs. She and Chris skipped their prom at Thomas Jefferson High to compete in an annual Midwestern track spectacle known as the Drake Relays. (He was a standout in the shot put and discus.)

Before the game, Lisa had rushed to both Kmart and Target in a rental car, trying to get the proper size videotape for the camcorder. She was bent on getting down every speck of the night. As she was climbing the ramps of the ballpark, she heard the announcer say: "And in left field for the Royals, Number 51, Chris Hatcher." It wasn't the last time she cried that evening. "If you could only know what that moment represented to both of us," she says. "February was terrible. He was so sure it was over. I remember how he used to just sit in the bathtub, reading his hunting and fishing magazines. . . . And I would say, 'How can you say it's the end?'" She hesitates. "And yet I want you to know: It's because he didn't give up. He did this."

Lisa was thumbs and pride and nervousness, trying to watch and to make the camcorder work, but she knew her nervousness was nothing compared with what was ticking inside Chris as he toed the dirt and did the twitchy, superstitious things batters do as they set themselves for the pitch.

He's got a low, stolid crouch, his feet spread pretty far apart. His swing is quick and fierce. His bat jiggles and he seems to be trying to wrap it behind his head. The jiggling is his trigger. He was batting sixth in the lineup.

"So, Hatcher," the catcher for the Angels said. "Your first time, huh?"

"Yessir," he answered, not looking back at the face mask through which the words had come.

"Well, then, good luck," the guy said, and Hatcher thought that was sort of friendly, fraternal. Although later he wondered if what was really being signaled was: "Here comes some hardball like you've not seen, buddy boy."

When it was done, so quickly, Hatch, as all his friends call him, walked back toward his new teammates, his head up, saying to himself: "Well, you got that one out of the way." And the night would get better, incrementally. Which is to say, No. 51 didn't manage a hit in his additional two appearances at the plate – but he got his bat on the ball. He grounded out to third, and then drew a walk, having fouled off a couple of pitches and having taken the count to 3-2. "By my second at-bat, I was focusing, I was laying off on some pitches, I was competing," he says.

One of the patterns in this athlete's life is that he gets better as he goes along. As long as there's enough time, as long as there's somebody around to believe in him.

$25,000 and a Job

What's hard to resist is his candor. He looks at you with a smooth, open face and pale blue eyes and struggles to say what's on his mind.

"What we got so tired of was trying to answer why we weren't up," he is saying. He means up, as in the big leagues. He is speaking about himself, but he's using the first person plural, because he's including Lisa in the pain. "We kept hearing it from people in the street. From people in the stands yelling it out. They'd be well-meaning, some of them, but they kept saying, 'Hey, why aren't you up?' I'd hear it from guys on other teams. I'd be on first, or standing on second, and somebody would say, 'Hatch, how come they haven't called you?' How do you answer it? It digs at you. It was digging at both of us."

In the grocery checkout line, someone was apt to say it. It wasn't in him to lash out at them.

It's Monday, Labor Day, the day following his first plate appearance in Anaheim. The Kansas City Royals have flown eastward in the middle of the night and are now in Arlington, Tex. This is an off day. Tomorrow, Tuesday, the team will start a two-game series against the Texas Rangers. The man who, the previous night, small-printed his name into a future edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia has come down from his hotel room, and the first thing you think when he steps off the elevator: linebacker for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Actually, Hatcher once dreamed of playing football for the University of Nebraska. Major league dreams were larger.

He's got a designer haircut. In the restaurant, he has very fine manners. He's very courteous to the waiters. He's still rubbing fists of sleep from his eyes.

"It's a humbling game," he says. "There are so many negatives. In the minors you're always thinking about what's keeping you out of the big leagues. You fail seven times out of 10 at the plate – and if you can do that, you're hitting .300 and you're doing really good."

When Kansas City called him up, he was hitting .309 in 485 at-bats. He had almost twice as many RBI as anybody else on the team right then. In bases-loaded situations, he'd hit .500. With a runner on third, with less than two outs (which is to say a major scoring opportunity), he'd hit .650. He was the clutch guy.

Only the year before, this clutch guy had been sliding between Class AA and AAA ball, trying to hang on, with tendinitis in one knee and a manager who didn't seem to appreciate him. His batting-average numbers were down in the .230 and .260 range. He'd had only 16 home runs between two Royals farm teams in '97, and at the end of that season, the Royals organization had released him and made him a free agent, just as the Astros organization had made him a free agent the year before that.

The Royals had paid him $35,000 in '97. When he came back, this past February, after he had wrestled with the decision all winter – and with no particular prospects for making the club – the Royals' front office wrote Hatcher a contract for $25,000. And he took it.

"If it weren't for her," he says, referring to Lisa, "we couldn't have paid our bills." Lisa works in the human resources department of a casino boat; she doesn't make a large salary, either. Lisa and her husband both say they've long wanted to start a family. It's been the dream deferred.

He started the season with a month or so of strikeouts. (Like a lot of sluggers, he's often had heavy strikeout numbers.) He was striking out almost 50 percent of the time. The manager kept him in the lineup every day. The magic started. "Hey, if I can just put the ball in play," he'd tell himself at the plate, jiggling. "I started taking almost a little swing. I've always been a power hitter, but I was swinging shorter and quicker. Then, it's like, 'Hey, it's going out.' And it kept going out."

By July 23, he had 29 homers, tying the Omaha franchise's record. That night he'd hit two straightaway to center field. Two days later he jacked his 30th. America was deep in its long-ball lunacy, but it didn't know anything about a journeyman from Iowa named Chris Hatcher.

Omaha and Council Bluffs knew. The two cities, rich in baseball history, face each other across the Missouri River. Hatcher grew up in Council Bluffs and in nearby Carter Lake, on the Iowa side. Until he got called up, his home ballpark, across the river, was six miles from his front door. The native son could cut the grass before a game. This home-grownness seems an important part of "The Ballad of Chris Hatcher," but it doesn't really explain why he happened in 1998.

'Call Him Up!'

A season of clouts kept on. Sportscasters at Channel 6 and Channel 3 in Omaha began making noise on their evening broadcasts that the parent club should call him up. The Omaha management pushed, too, especially Bill Gorman, the GM. But nobody seemed to be listening in Kansas City, three hours south, where the hard calculations are made, one of which almost certainly had to do with the slugger's age: young for almost everything but big-league ball, especially considering he'd never been up. Hatcher was a "non-roster player," which means he wasn't on the list of 40 ballplayers the parent organization always has its eye on. "Oh, hell, they don't even have my phone number," he'd say to his teammates. But he didn't sound bitter. There was more hurt in it than bitterness.

On Aug. 27, the Omaha Royals staged "Chris Hatcher Night." His high school coach, Lee Toole, who'd been so crucial to his early development, and had served as a kind of father figure, was the brains behind the celebration. Chris's mom, Elaine Hatcher, who had raised four children as a single parent, who'd once been deputy sheriff of Pottawattamie County, Iowa, was in the front row of the park, beaming. Chris was presented with a framed game jersey. The mayor signed a proclamation. At the mike, the hitter fumbled for words. He wasn't used to talking into microphones. He fought to keep back his tears. He wished he could be out on the river in his 16-foot johnboat, spin-casting for flatheads and channel cats. He told the crowd that just a few months earlier he'd been sitting in his lounger confronting the fact he might never play pro ball again.

Two nights later, Aug. 29, he slammed two two-run homers against the Salt Lake Buzz. A few days later, Kevin White, a sports columnist for Chris's hometown paper, the Daily Nonpareil, thundered: "HEY, KANSAS CITY! EVER HEARD OF CHRIS HATCHER? EVER CHECKED HIS STATS? YOU'RE 64-75 FOR PETE'S SAKE! CALL HIM UP! GIVE HIM A SHOT!" He added: "The guy is 29 years old and in his ninth season of professional baseball. He never shows up on the police blotter – he simply shows up every day and quietly does his job."

Two days later, after two more homers, as the team was finishing the last road trip in New Mexico, the call came.

The man at the big fine hotel in Texas, trying to understand all that's happened to him in the last several days, is talking about a moment last spring; it seems so far back now. "It was toward the end of spring training. I had all my stuff in my car this one day. I had it all planned out. I was going to just leave and go to the Bass Pro Shop in Springfield, Missouri, and spend a day there, sort of treat myself. It was a relief. It felt fine. But then I . . . told my manager that if I could just get one more chance, I somehow felt I was going to have a good year. So it turned out I wasn't done. I was willing to be done, but I wasn't done. I guess that's it. And now I'm here."

Sometimes, in order to have something, you have to be willing first to give it away. It's as close as he can come right now to piercing the mystery.

Letting Go to Hang On

Mystery. There was once a ballplayer named Howie the Howitzer Moss. He was a career minor league slugger for the Baltimore Orioles when they weren't a major league franchise. This was in the '40s. Moss once belted 53 homers for the Orioles. He was a thick, stumpy guy with a sunburned neck. He thrilled folks – he once put one in the hot-dog stand out beyond the left field stands in the old Municipal Stadium. That was the park before Memorial Stadium, which was the park before Camden Yards.

He had a couple of cups of coffee in the bigs. In '42, a war year, he played seven games for the New York Giants. He went 0-14 at the plate and fanned four times. Batting average: .000. In '46, he got another chance with Cleveland and Cincinnati. But once again, he couldn't hit the curveball. His major league history looks like this: 72 at-bats with seven hits, for an average of .097.

The moral? Maybe this: He was such a great ballplayer, but not at the level he aspired to. If only he could have remained in the place where his greatness was. But who among us can do that when fame is standing under the streetlight's glow, beckoning at us with a bawdy finger?

But is there another way to think about it? Better to have tried and failed on Broadway than not to have taken the dare at all. If you never try prime time, you'll never know. If anything's worth doing, it's worth doing badly.

One Hell of a Wake-Up Call

R.J. is yakking. R.J. is such a jacked-up guy, gotta love him. R.J. is Ron Johnson, and he's the pilot of the Omaha Royals. At the moment, Johnson's club is in Albuquerque. There's one game left on the schedule. Chris Hatcher, R.J.'s aging phenom, has just departed on a plane for the coast.

A massive man himself, more football-looking than baseball, Johnson, who's 42, had his own cup of coffee in the bigs. As a minor league manager, he's been around the circuit. He came to the Omaha club at the start of this season, and that made all the difference for Chris Hatcher.

"When it came down to the last two or three days of spring training, he was the 14th man on a 13-man roster. . . . I talked to him. I pushed for him. I plugged for him. I tried to showcase him, put him in a position where he'd be visibly successful. I played him in the outfield, I put him at first. I talked him up to Kansas City. . . . It was getting kind of freakish. He just started hitting home runs and home runs."

Is it possible Johnson was a kind of father figure? "Maybe."

A moment later: "I don't know what gives a player a magical year. I don't know why he just came out this year and went off."

A moment later: "I think he's going to go up, and I think he's going to have success. I'm not going to put a number on it. . . . Think about it. This guy's never walked on a big-league field! If he fails, so be it. Give him a chance! Maybe this is Roy Hobbs. I don't know. Hey, Robert Redford! 'The Natural.'"

In mid-May, when he had 11 homers, Hatcher told a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald: "I think he has more confidence in me than I do at times. There's no scale to measure what it does when the manager has the confidence to play you."

On the night of the call, Omaha had lost to the Albuquerque Dukes, 5-3. Hatcher had cranked No. 46. About midnight R.J. saw the message light on in his room. He wasn't in a great mood and didn't pick up the phone. He felt vaguely guilty about this, because maybe it was his wife, Daphne, back in Wichita. Johnson and his pitching coach went out to get cranberry juice at a 7-Eleven. The manager is so perpetually pepped he can't go to sleep unless he has his cranberry juice and water. When he got back to the hotel, he stared at the message light again. He picked up the phone. It was somewhere after 2 a.m.

The message was from the assistant general manager of the Kansas City Royals. Hatcher was to join the team immediately in California. There was a ticket waiting at the Albuquerque airline counter. There was a hotel room reserved in his name in Anaheim.

R.J., who weighs every bit of 240, linebackered down the hall at the Plaza Inn and pounded on the door of Room 417. Joe Vitiello, a first baseman, answered. "I gotta talk to Hatch," R.J. said, and before he could say anything else, Vitiello blurted: "He's going to the bigs!"

The whole floor woke up. They were bum-rushing Hatcher on the bed. Terry Bradshaw, an outfielder, cried a little. "Cripes, nobody deserves it more than you, Hatch," he said. Then Hatcher, who thought he wouldn't, started choking. "Oh, hell, yeah, practically everybody cried," R.J. says. "Hell, I thought I was gonna cry. Listen, we're all just kids in this game. Oh, I couldn't be more proud. I still get goose bumps as we're sitting here talking about it right now."

Before the sun was at noon, Hatcher was gone – wearing Vitiello's black sports coat, which had come out of the back of the roomie's travel bag, rolled in a ball. (They tried to smooth out some of the wrinkles, but the thing looked ridiculous on him.) Hatcher had some shorts and tennis shoes and T-shirts and a pair of cowboy boots; maybe he and Lisa could find a mall on the West Coast to buy big-league clothes.

For all the joy, there was an emptiness in the hotel after the cab took him to the airport.

A Major Leaguer

He's taking early batting practice in the Ballpark in Arlington. It's his fourth day in the majors, and you can tell he's becoming part of it. He's roping them out nicely: Three in a row go into the stands. On the way out of the batting cage, he holds his bat in front of him and studies it, as if speaking softly to it.

"Pick 'em up," hitting instructor Tom Poquette says to a half dozen players, and they begin stooping to pick up the balls. Some dog it. Hatcher retrieves balls and tosses them into plastic buckets as if there's a prize for the guy who gets the most.

In the dugout a little later, Poquette says: "You never know. He's very strong. I've been around the minors. I spent 10 years in the minors as a hitting instructor, so I know about Hatcher. It's going to be hard. But you never know. The makeup of the individual comes into play. I'm for anybody who comes out and works hard."

But is he too old? "He's old for not ever having been up."

On the phone, Herk Robinson, executive vice president and general manager of the Kansas City Royals, sounds the same hopeful notes. But you can hear other things under the words. He's speaking from his office in Kansas City.

"I think what we're hoping is that he defies some of the odds of the veteran minor league player who comes up," he says. "I know that sounds corny. If Chris was a 21-year-old player who'd been out three years and had hit 46 home runs in Triple A, you'd hear him touted right now as the next Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire rolled into one. But because he's been out nine, 10 years, well, the odds are against it."

He doesn't get into the game. But he looks so happy just to be here. Before it starts (the Royals will lose in the bottom of the ninth), a Ranger named Mike Simms comes over to bear-hug him. "Hey, dude. It's about time. What a year, damn!" They lean on bats and talk. "I played with him in Tucson," Hatcher says after Simms goes.

A reporter ventures that Hatcher looks very much like a big-leaguer, standing on this beautiful grass, in this falling Texas light. Is he feeling big-league inside? "I'm trying. I'm trying," an earnest, hugely likable man says.

Progress report: As of Friday, No. 51 has appeared in five games and has had 10 at-bats in the major leagues. He's 1 for 10, with a single. He's struck out five times. He's brought in one run. He's had one walk. He's batting .100.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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