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Perfect Pitch


For what seemed like a long time, Cole Hamels was the ace-in-waiting on the Philadelphia Phillies pitching staff. Young and often injured, he was seen as physically fragile—soft even. Then, last fall, he helped end our world championship drought. The 17th pick in the 2002 amateur draft went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five postseason starts, hastening his arrival as a franchise pitcher.

Now, at 25, what more could a guy want? He’s already won two postseason MVP honors, a World Series and the newly minted devotion of the nation’s most demanding fans. He’s married to Survivor alum and Playboy model Heidi Strobel; he inked a new three-year $20.5 million contract in the off-season; and he just bought a ritzy new penthouse in Center City—though he’ll keep his townhome in West Chester, a place he still loves. In February, he even landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Is he confident? You bet. Fragile? Forget it. Has he matured? Enough to speak intelligently about his own past, while enjoying the present and contemplating longevity and ultimate baseball immortality. Can he—along with a diverse cast of talented, (finally) well-paid cohorts—embark on the creation of a dynasty? We sure hope so. For now, let’s just be thankful we have Hamels (and the Mets don’t).

MLT: In the off-season, a sports radio station in New York coaxed you into calling a certain Eastern Division rival “choke artists.” So what do you really think of the New York Mets?
That was truly a comment that occurred without me realizing it was occurring. I have a lot of respect for a lot of their players. They’re talented. I love New York City, and our games are very competitive, which is fun for fans. It helps baseball in general. But I learned my lesson. I like to speak with my actions on the field, not with my actions in the off-season.

MLT: Of the Phillies’ success, you’ve said the team’s winning ways “will turn the city red a little bit more than it is [Eagles] green.” Are you speaking the truth—a truth most people can’t handle?
I try to be honest. If you’re honest, you won’t usually get hurt. You get hurt worse with lies. I’m confident that I can do my best, but cockiness isn’t an attitude I have off the field—though confidence is what I have on the field. I don’t toot my own horn off the field. I still think I have a lot to learn if I’m ever to get big like the [players] I grew up admiring.

MLT: Immediately after the World Series, you put off a request to appear on the Late Show with David Letterman.
It was a great opportunity. I never imagined that in my wildest dreams. Now it’s part of a cool chapter in my life. But at first, I did say, “No, I don’t want to go up there. I’m tired. But if you want me to come, I’ll come.” I wish it wouldn’t have taken so much convincing.

MLT: In dominating the postseason and proving you can be a workhorse and a go-to guy, you’ve finally earned that opening-day start.
CH: I hope I’ve earned it—and that’s all I ever wanted was to earn it. I didn’t want to be given it; that’s not the way life should be. I think I’ve earned it, and it’s a great moment and a great honor. But I still wanted to earn it in Spring Training. I couldn’t walk in and say I wanted it. That’s not the way [Phillies manager] Charlie Manuel wants you to work, and that’s why we respect him.

MLT: Will winning the World Series make Philly fans even more demanding?
It’ll make them hungry for more—but for good reason. The fans shook us in a good way. None of us really understood what it meant to play for a city that appreciates you with a full heart. But the impact—the parade and all those people who were so excited—just blew all of us away. We’re on the floats and we’re all saying, “OK, wow!” Until then, we didn’t know how great a city this is. But it’s a crazy city, and a city that really cares.

MLT: Do you guys talk about a dynasty? Can there be such a thing in the modern game?
We never really have [talked about a dynasty]. But you don’t want to win, and then never again. You want to win, win, win—everyone does. What’s good is that we’re winning now. But it’ll take a couple more years—three or four, not just two—to be a dynasty.

MLT: How did you end up calling West Chester home?
Heidi was finishing a second master’s degree (at West Chester University), so we bought a townhome there, and we just fell in love with the place. We’ve met phenomenal people. There are good golf courses and restaurants. We support the local businesses; we have our favorite places for lunch and dinner, and so we really take it in. There aren’t places in San Diego where we feel as comfortable. We just like to go down the street and sit with everyone else, and just be normal. It’s civilized and easier in West Chester. It’s fun, and most people leave us alone and respect that we have to eat just like everyone else.

MLT: So what are your favorite hangouts in West Chester?
Spence Café for lunch, dinner at Limoncello Ristorante or Pietro’s Prime, and bars like The Note. They all have 25-and-under crowds—though there are all kinds there—so we can sort of relate. I like that crowd. It’s kind of like college for me, because I never went to college.

MLT: When you bought the townhome in West Chester, the realtor told you Citizens Bank Park was a 20-minute ride. It’s really not. What’s the story?
It takes me 45 minutes there and 45 minutes back. It can wear on you, but sometimes it’s nice to relax, listen to some music and just drive. Sometimes I want to get home real fast, but I can’t. We’re going to try out the city this year, too, so that should be interesting—but we’ll keep the West Chester place. Wherever we live, I’m just a guy who likes to go to the movies with my wife and play a little golf. I don’t like to attract a scene—and in West Chester, we can slide in and slide out.

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MLT: Back in high school at Rancho Bernardo in San Diego, even your coaches called you scrawny. You went 4-3 with 4.23 ERA in nine games on the freshman team before emerging that summer and going 11-1 with a 2.81 ERA as a sophomore. Did you ever think you’d make it to the big leagues?
I really didn’t believe I’d go as far as I have. I thought I’d play in college, get an education, and that would be good. With everything that’s occurred—it’s beyond my wildest dreams. At Rancho Bernardo, most guys are built like brick houses, but I was the skinny guy doing what they were doing. They all thought I was a freak, but I kept performing in ways no one could’ve imagined. I’d say my success has been 25 percent gift, and 75 percent hard work. There are lots of guys who can throw 96 miles per hour who aren’t in the big leagues.

MLT: Rancho Bernardo is called “The Factory” because of its reputation for producing Major League talent. Was that an advantage?
There are 3,500 kids in the school, so over 150 try out for the freshman team. It made it nerve-wracking, but it also made you compete at a higher level. I had to quit soccer just to make the baseball team. None of the coaches put up with shenanigans; if you weren’t putting out 100 percent effort, you sat on the bench. Competition makes you a better player—well, that and being able to practice and play year-round.

MLT: Baseball Prospectus once compared you to “Fabergé eggs, china dolls and ice sculptures.” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has given you as much rest between starts as you’ve requested. Are the questions and doubts about your stamina behind you?
I hope so. If you have one year when you’ve been extremely healthy, you pass the bug—the label—right? I kind of want to get rid of it. I never wanted to be known as a guy who was fragile, because that’s not cool.

MLT: The summer before your junior year, you shattered your pitching arm in a summer league game. In a new surgical procedure, the San Diego Padres’ team doctor inserted two coat-hanger-like rods inside your humerus and ran them from your elbow to your shoulder. It took a calendar year to recover. What do you remember about your surgery?
They drilled a hole into the bone marrow and threaded the rods through. It still kind of grosses me out. I know part of the rod was sticking out, so I had this big bump and wore a protective bandage in case I was bumped in the halls.

MLT: How hard was your rehab?
It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do—but because it was so hard, it’s helped me through every injury since. It looked like all my dreams were shattered in a second. I saw my chances of going professional or playing in college slip through my fingers. I definitely went through a mood of depression. I thought I had all the paths aligned, then I had to have a new perspective. I had to work hard at something I didn’t think I was going to have to work hard at (pitching).

It was a year before I threw a pitch again, and it was a long, long year—but I had faith. I did everything correctly. After all that, I thought, “If I throw and it breaks again, then that’s the way life is going to be.” If not, then I figured things could go well. But I didn’t want to have any regrets and say later, “If I’d only worked harder those three months …” And so, for one year, I worked as hard as I could.

MLT: Your mom, Amanda Hamels, saved the rods that saved your arm. Might they be donated to the Hall of Fame one day?
They’re collecting dust somewhere—but that would be pretty cool [to install them in the Hall of Fame]. It would be quite unique—it’s not like you can get Tommy John’s ligament and put it in the Hall of Fame.

MLT: You ended your senior year with a 10-0 record and a 0.39 ERA, striking out 130 in 71 innings. What was the effect of missing your junior year?
With everyone—even friends and coaches—if you miss a year, it’s easy to forget about you. Man, I didn’t want to be forgotten. But obviously my performance blew people away, and then they couldn’t forget me. I shocked even myself. I built a stellar year, and it made me get drafted in the first round when all I really wanted was to be healthy and go to college.

MLT: How did you decide to forego college and enter the amateur draft—especially with parents who are educators (Gary Hamels is an assistant superintendent of schools)?
It was a very tough sell, even with all the money. My parents still say that money can disappear fast but an education can’t. They still talk to me about college. They ask if I will go, and if it’s still in my head. My wife has two master’s degrees, so I have to keep up with her.

MLT: Did you ever fear you might not endear yourself to this market?
I want to be old-school. I would like to be a tough guy, but at times you have to shut it down. I didn’t want to end my career before it started. But, yeah, I would like to be a tough guy—because, if you are, this is a good city to play for.

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MLT: Are you, or can you become, what Phillies legend Steve Carlton was to the club?
He was phenomenal; he was the best in his era. So to be compared to Steve Carlton is kind of cool. I didn’t grow up watching him, so it was hard to know who he was and what he did. But now that I know, it’s an honor. Plus, we’re both left-handed, so we’re both kind of kooky.

MLT: Why can’t pitchers win 27 games a year like Carlton once did?
We don’t have enough opportunities. Plus, the competition is so much steeper. Now, we have closers, setup men, long-relief men. I guess we’ve all become more fragile—especially with the amount of money we’re paid. We’re playing in an era where you protect your investments.

MLT: Can a pitcher dominate in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park?
It’s the hardest park to pitch at, but I never pitch differently here. If a guy hits a home run, he’s going to hit a home run—and I’m always among the leaders in home runs allowed anyway. As long as it’s a solo home run, they don’t hurt as much.

MLT: Did you have as much fun throwing your changeup in high school as you’ve had in pro ball?
Maybe more so. If you fool a high school hitter, he looks absolutely ridiculous. In the big leagues, you can fool a guy, but he doesn’t look as fooled—and you might only fool him once. In high school, you can throw the same pitch, tell him it’s coming, and he’ll still miss it. In the majors, it goes 450 feet.

MLT: How about the six straight changeups you once threw to strike out Barry Bonds?
That was a mind game. He probably figured no one would ever do it, so I thought I’d be the one to do it. If he hit it 450 feet, then he could shake his head at me and say, “I told you not to do that.” To actually succeed against a guy that good is like achieving an ultimate goal. Some guys only get to do something like that in a videogame. I did it in real life.

MLT: Can you describe how you grip—or throw—your changeup, or is that a secret?
I hold it like a circle change, but I roll it over more than most. It’s all about turning your arm over. I twist my hand inward. It’s kind of like a screwball-change, and that creates more spin. It also makes me a little more sore, but it’s a good sore. The doctors say I can’t get hurt throwing the changeup.

MLT: How does it compare to fellow Phillies starter Jamie Moyer’s changeup?
Jamie has a completely different grip. I’ve tried it, but it doesn’t work for me. He still turns it over, but he holds it differently. Like him, I’ll be fortunate to play longer. Today, a lot more pitchers know, if they want to succeed, they better have that pitch. It puts a lot less stress on your arm than the curve or slider, so it’s safer. Having success with it at the Major League level creates media talk. Then others believe the pitch can help them, too.

MLT: What about your pitching mechanics, and that 6 o’clock leg kick? How did that happen?
I don’t know where that comes from. My parents say I was born with it. I’ve done it ever since I picked up a ball. It worked, and I’ve stuck to it. Really, I don’t know how my hips and knees handle it. I hope I don’t need hip surgery when I’m 30.

MLT: With regard to your early success, has it come too soon or right on time?
It’s a confusing thing. I think about it and wonder, “Was this the right time to win these awards, and what will be expected of me now?” I wonder whether it prevents me from trying to achieve goals in the future. At 35 or 40, though, I know I’d hate if I hadn’t won a World Series. Now that I have, everything else is icing on the cake. But I’d love to be in Derek Jeter’s shoes—and he’s still fighting for more, so I love him for that.

MLT: Are you ready for the responsibility the new contract may require? Has your role changed?
I don’t want anything to change. I like where we’re at. And [on the pitching staff] I still have Jamie Moyer as a role model. He has the experience that I don’t have just yet.

MLT: Why do they call you “Hollywood?”
Ryan Howard came up with that in the minors one day when I strolled in before a game in sandals with a backwards hat and the longer hair. It was like I just walked off a beach, or out of a movie set. Then I married my wife, and now they put me in all these magazines. If there was any last item on a Hollywood checklist, it’s that I have a 4-pound dog. A Teacup Maltese isn’t exactly a manly dog, but we’ve really bonded.

MLT: With everything you’ve accomplished, what does Cole Hamels still want that he doesn’t already have?
You want to max out the awards, but there are only so many you can win. I do have one goal in mind: Orel Hershiser’s 59 consecutive scoreless innings record. I’d also like to win 300 games, which means you’ve been healthy and always on a winning team that you’ve helped. The Hall of Fame, too, means you’ve been around a long time, and you’ve been kept around because you helped your team do well.

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