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Phillies Pitcher Cole Hamels: Up Close with the World Series MVP

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Photo by David Sacks
Friends say that if Cole Hamels had been financially capable, he would’ve left home at age 12. That goes a long way toward explaining why, last July 21, the pitcher wasn’t sweating the prospect of that blazing Saturday afternoon being his last home start for the Phillies. Mostly, he was pissed that he gave up a third-inning home run to San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain. “Eventually, it’s going to happen,” Hamels said at the time about surrendering the bomb.

That’s baseball. Pitchers hit home runs. In fact, Hamels went long for the first time in his career off Cain in the same game. Players also get traded. Hamels just wanted to beat the Giants and help his struggling team crawl into the wild-card race.

It was a futile cause on both counts. The Phils lost 6-5 and finished out of the playoffs. With two outs in the eighth and a career-high 128 pitches extracted from that gifted left arm, Hamels finally handed the ball to manager Charlie Manuel. With the game tied, he steered his six-foot-four frame into the Phillies’ dugout for what many thought would be the last time.

The 29-year-old former World Series MVP’s contract was up after the season, with no visible evidence of a new deal’s arrival before the July 31 no-waiver trade deadline. In the meantime, he’d devoted almost three hours to a contest that was neither neat nor successful. But it was pure—and its grit registered with fans, who rose from their seats at steamy Citizens Bank Park and doused Hamels with applause. Perhaps Hamels really wasn’t some flaky Southern California interloper, after all.

“It was great to feel a part of something and to know the fans appreciate what I do,” he says now. “I really noticed it.”

Four days later, the Phillies announced Hamels’ six-year, $144 million contract extension, ensuring that Hamels and his wife, Heidi, would remain in the Newtown Square home they share with their three children. It was also good news for the Hamels Foundation, an organization that provides at-risk Philadelphia schools with playground equipment and other educational supplies while also making a mark in the Third World.

Hamels has been with the Phillies since leaving San Diego’s Rancho Bernardo High School. Yet, he’s felt mostly out of place here. Part of the disconnect has been his fault. There was the
episode in the 2007 playoffs when he blamed a shirt for his trouble on the mound, plus he whined about being underpaid in 2008.  A year later, he pouted on the mound in the National League Championship Series against Los Angeles, then publicly expressed a desire for the season to be over in the subsequent World Series versus the Yankees. That kind of behavior won’t earn you raves from the corner boys in our city. “I wasn’t relatable earlier on,” Hamels admits. “I was just this young guy from Southern California, and I had to learn and grow up.”

You could argue that Hamels has indeed grown. He’s a workhorse in the starting rotation. He hasn’t complained about anything in quite some time, even during the tense final few weeks before he signed his contract. He even hit Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper with a pitch—and copped to it.

“You chase something, and you do every-thing right, and you wonder, ‘What else do you need me to do to prove that we want to be a part of what Philly is?’” Hamels says. “We were always out to prove and prove and prove, and when do you finally get accepted?”

Now, maybe?

“I think there’s been the sort of acceptance of, ‘We do want you, and we do like everything that you bring to the table and to the city.’ We’ve been able to incorporate our family into Philly’s family.”
 

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Cole and Heidi Hamels, photographed at the Hyatt at the Bellevue on Feb. 6, 2013. (Photo by David Sacks)To this day, there are a few people in Hawaii who aren’t too happy with Cole Hamels. While vacationing there after the 2011 season, he found a fence, grabbed a tennis ball and started firing away. It was no different from what he’d done the year before on a Bahamas tennis court—or when he used to throw for hours as a kid at a dot on his garage door.

“They thought he was denting the fence,” says pal Scott Lonergan, who’s known Hamels since the two were 13. “They told him to quit throwing.”

Like that was going to happen. Great pitching isn’t just showing up every fifth day and letting it fly. It means finding somewhere to build arm strength, even when you’re on the Big Island. “He keeps himself in tremendous shape,” says Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee.

Hamels works out on Thanksgiving and Christmas. He puts the kids to bed and goes outside to throw by the car headlights. “One of the best things that’s happened to him was [pitcher] Roy Halladay coming to the team,” Lonergan says. “Cole said, ‘I’m going to outwork this guy.’ I don’t know if he has, but he’s tried.”

Hamels may have been confident when he came to the Phillies as number 17 in the 2002 draft, but it wasn’t until he started listening to people like Dubee and ex-Phillie Jamie Moyer—one of the game’s most thoughtful hurlers—that he began to pitch seriously. The great ones set up hitters and make them uncomfortable. His magical arm was just the starting point. “The toughest part is to apply what you hear,” says Dubee of Hamels’ numerous conversations with Moyer. “It’s one thing to know what you need to do, and another to apply it—especially when things get tough.”

According to Dubee, Hamels is now a better pitcher than the guy who won the MVP awards in the 2008 NLCS and World Series. He’s started to get more of a downward angle on the ball, inducing more grounders. That lowers his pitch counts and will serve him well as he ages and loses some velocity on his throws. During the past two seasons, Hamels has established himself as one of the game’s top pitchers, going 31-15 with a 2.92 ERA, throwing more than 215 innings both years, and nailing a personal best with 216 strikeouts in 2012.

“With a lot of high-profile high school guys, you’re hoping they can fit the role of a number one or two in the rotation on a championship club, and [Hamels] has accomplished that,” says St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak.

Hamels has had his struggles. He battled through the opening game of the 2007 National League Division Series against Colorado, starting slowly and surrendering three runs in six innings as the Phils lost en route to being swept by the Rockies. After the game, he said a long-sleeve shirt had made him sweat profusely, hindering his ability to grip the ball. In 2009, he followed up his heroics from the previous postseason with a 7.86 ERA in four starts and petulance toward his teammates’ supposed ineffectiveness in the field. Public disdain for Hamels peaked during the World Series loss to the Yankees, when he told reporters he couldn’t wait for the “mentally draining” season to end, touching off an avalanche of questions about his toughness and dedication.

To his credit, Hamels has acknowledged that he hasn’t always said the “best things or smartest things” and that he’s committed to learning and improving. In hindsight, he believes that Phillies brass held off on re-signing him partly to make sure he was ready to handle the responsibilities that come with such a contract. “I think they were waiting to see if I was going to be that type of person who would take a leadership role,” he says. “Am I that type of person to stay and be a role model, instead of just letting things get to my head and being out the door? That was something I had to grow into. I always had those qualities—I think the team knew it. They were just waiting for those moments to finally see it.”

Investing huge money in someone who isn’t committed to improving and growing is a big risk—the kind that can bury an organization. But Phillies GM Rubén Amaro Jr. isn’t concerned about Hamels. “He’s proven that he’s a top-of-the-rotation guy,” says Amaro. “He’s been a World Series MVP, so he knows what it’s like to be successful. He’s learning how to handle things day to day and year to year. He’s maturing, and hopefully he can continue to do so.”

Amaro’s confidence carries over to the team. “He’s obviously a great pitcher, and he’s done a lot for this organization,” says Phillies second baseman Chase Utley. “He has the advantage of being left-handed; he has the advantage of being tall. He throws 91-95 miles per hour. He has a great changeup, curveball and cut fastball. He wants to succeed.”

Phillies pitcher Kyle Kendrick concurs. “He has some of the best drive I’ve seen,” says Kendrick. “He wants to win like the top-tier pitchers.”

Cole Hamels is grinning from ear to ear as Jon Dorenbos joins him in front of photographers and TV crews before the Hamels Foundation’s Diamonds & Denim fundraiser at Center City’s Crystal Tea Room. With his white T-shirt, denim overalls and matching cap, the Eagles’ long-snapper looks like an outcast from the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. And, wait, is that woman wearing painted-on overalls and nothing else? (Look away!)

With its unorthodox mix of sports superstars, reality-TV personalities, media types, close friends and diehard fans, last August’s third annual Diamonds & Denim event was a late-summer soiree like no other. Away from the body paint, lavish auction items and massive duffel bags filled with gifts, a table in the back of the ballroom was reserved for teachers from Philadelphia’s Bayard Taylor Elementary School. Earlier that month, a $300,000 grant from the Hamels Foundation went toward renovating its playground, building a greenhouse, and painting a mural. Before dinner, Taylor’s student chorus entertained the likes of Cliff Lee, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, the Flyers’ Scott Hartnell, WMGK’s John DeBella, and a slew of other faces you might recognize but can’t quite place.

The well-mannered mayhem found its focus when Cole and Heidi Hamels spoke about the foundation and its work in Philadelphia and Malawi, Africa. “We always use the word hope in Africa,” said Heidi. “We provide hope. Hope can save a life … It can. That’s what keeps you going. If we can provide the same hope here, maybe that’s what keeps them finishing high school.”

If Hamels provides the star power, it’s his wife who drives the foundation’s engine. A sixth-season contestant on Survivor, she’s also a marathoner and a savvy businesswoman. She’s helped her husband handle the media, dress better and, as longtime Hamels friend Matt Reid says, “look at the big picture.”

“Heidi’s got a fire and purpose that keeps her going,” says Reid. “She’s a small person, but she can take charge. She has more ambition than anyone I know.”

Lest you get the wrong idea, Hamels is also driven—and grateful. “He’s living a fairy tale,” Lonergan says.

And his wife is a huge part of that dream world. Hamels is her perfect commodity, and when they’re out together publicly, it’s all about keeping the brand strong. “It’s funny,” says Heidi. “We both pump all this energy into who Cole Hamels is. Whatever’s left after pumping what we can out of Cole Hamels, that’s what’s left of our marriage and left in our life. So now, after he has this contract with the Phillies for a more substantial amount of time, I can just relax a little bit and let him shine.”

It makes sense that Heidi would be the one nurturing her husband’s public persona. After all, she’s done a pretty fine job with her own image, from her well-publicized Survivor appearance, to a Playboy spread that left more to the imagination than is typical, to her tireless work with the Hamels Foundation.

When she first met her future husband, Heidi was the famous one. In 2004, his minor-league team, the Clearwater Threshers, asked her to throw out the first pitch at a game. Cole was on the injured list at the time, so she didn’t even know he was a player when he introduced himself. The two married in December 2006, after Cole’s first season with the Phillies. “It’s not that all this money made him secure,” says Heidi. “It’s that people finally recognized that he worked his butt off to be where he’s at. That’s what it really came down to—at least, for me. The Phillies recognized how great an athlete and person he is, on and off the field. It’s the acceptance.”

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Cole and Heidi Hamels with new addition Reeve and sons Braxton and Caleb at the Hyatt at the Bellevue’s XIX Restaurant. (Photo by David Sacks)
As a teenager, Hamels spent hours on the beach at Torrey Pines State Reserve, surfing and playing volleyball. Invariably, he and his pals would head to a nearby San Diego institution called Roberto’s for an addictive mass of grilled beef, guacamole, sour cream, cheese and shoestring potatoes.

“That’s why Philadelphia people will always crave that cheesesteak, because that’s their memory,” says Hamels. “Mine was going to the beach with my buddies and getting some carne asada fries.”

Hamels had an uneventful childhood. Gary and Amanda Hamels were active in his life, but they were hardly what you’d call “crazy sports parents.” They made sure he got to games and practices on time, but they were equally invested in the success of his younger siblings, Mitchell and Jillian. The signature moment of his young pitching career came during his sophomore year in high school, when his humerus bone simply snapped. A doctor told him he’d never pitch again. By his senior year, he was back on the mound, pitching well enough for the Phillies to take notice.

Without a doubt, Hamels has had to work to escape the clutches of his SoCal upbringing. Traces of it will never leave—the easy smile, his laid-back center of gravity, that unaffected way of making strangers feel like they’re on his level, even when they’re craning their necks to look him in the eye. “Off the field, you’d never know he’s an athlete,” says Lonergan. “He would blend in with the crowd, if he could.”

Around here, it’s not often that he can. Lonergan recalls showing up with Hamels at a tailgate party before a 2010 Eagles game. “Someone yelled, ‘Oh, my God. It’s Cole Hamels!’ and a crowd of about a thousand people formed around us,” he says.

But Hamels has been known to go against type. When the Phillies visited Washington in early May 2012, they still had every reason to consider themselves the National League East alpha males, a state of mind that changed quickly. Playing on a Sunday night in front of a national TV audience, Hamels decided to show the upstart Nationals who owned the division. Without provocation—and with two already out in the first inning—Hamels proceeded to drill the rookie outfielder Bryce Harper in the back. “I said to him, ‘You’re a left-handed pitcher, and he’s a left-handed hitter. Just say it got away from you,’” Lonergan recalls. “But he told me, ‘Yeah, but it didn’t.’”

The admission cost him five games and a start, but he wasn’t about to lie. “In the bigger picture, that’s what I want to teach my kids,” says Hamels. “We are human beings. We’re not going to do everything perfect. So, when you do something wrong, you have to stand up for it, take the consequences and learn from it.”

Back in 2005, when Hamels was still a minor-leaguer, he broke his hand punching someone outside a bar. When asked today about the incident, he has some advice for that young kid who risked his career in a brawl: “Go with the other hand.”

Seriously?

“I’ll take the responsibility,” he says.

Heidi knows the whole story. “His best friend got jumped,” she says. “Cole sticks up for what’s right.”

Not surprisingly, the Phillies organization was furious with him. When back troubles sidelined him for the rest of the season, some wondered whether the team had made a mistake. But Hamels rebounded to make 23 big-league starts in 2006.

More recently, Hamels had elbow surgery after the 2011 campaign and reported some shoulder stiffness during this past off-season. But he was back to his normal throwing routine well before the start of spring training.

During the past five years, Hamels has made between 31 and 33 starts every season—the 21st-century definition of durable—and he’s been among the top 10 in innings pitched the past two seasons. “To me, a Philly guy has to have a sense of toughness deep inside,” he says. “You have to endure. Life’s not easy. Even if you do it right and do it well, somebody might say you didn’t.”

A Missouri native and friendly to a fault, Heidi has nonetheless adopted her own Philly edge. Driving with her father over the holidays, she refused to yield to a car trying to merge in front of her. Her father was adamant: “No daughter of mine won’t let people in front of her,” she recalls him saying.

When Heidi relented, and the driver didn’t wave, her dad changed his tune. “He said to me, ‘Well, don’t do that again,’” she says, laughing.

Late last year, the Hamels adopted a 5-month-old girl from Ethiopia, naming her Reeve. Turns out, they have a serious Superman obsession. In fact, when she checked into the hospital to give birth to the first of their two other children—sons Caleb, 3, and Braxton, 1—Heidi registered under the alias, “Lois Lane.”

“Cole gets compared so much to Superman,” says Heidi. Aside from the lack of sleep, bringing Reeve into the fold has gone smoothly. “Caleb wakes up and asks, ‘Where’s my sister?’” Heidi says.

After years in a home office, the Hamels Foundation just opened its official headquarters in Bryn Mawr. It features a store stocked with Cole Hamels merchandise for sale, with all proceeds going to the cause.

Life is settling down quite nicely for the Hamels. Pretty soon, it will be time to pick schools for the boys and introduce Reeve to the game of golf. Dad is fairly adept at the game, and Caleb swings a pretty mean club, too. The contract has been signed. The commitment has been made. Like it or not, Cole Hamels is here to stay.

Visit thehamelsfoundation.org.
 

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