LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - No one can land a joke in the Atlanta Braves' clubhouse like Mike Hampton. Ask former teammate Adam LaRoche or ace John Smoltz, a couple of Hampton's favorite targets.
But the Braves - and Hampton - are hopeful that the veteran starter will have far less time to work on his stand-up routine in 2007.
Because of chronic arm problems that eventually led to elbow ligament replacement surgery, Hampton has made just 12 starts since 2004. Several of those outings were cut short, and his last start before surgery came in mid-August 2005.
After more than a few punch lines, Hampton seems to again be ready to register punch-outs.
"I have every intention of being ready by Opening Day," Hampton said. "That's where my heart is."
But that optimism doesn't come without some natural caution. Hampton is and will be being brought along slowly throughout the spring, with the intention of being close to 100 percent by April.
He's thrown four times since arriving at the team's Disney World complex last week, and each session in the bullpen has gone well, Hampton and manager Bobby Cox have said.
"It's the only way I can approach it: Don't get excited, don't get too down," Hampton said. "I've never had this surgery before. Every day's a new challenge."
Being 34 and not, say, 24 perhaps gives Hampton that perspective of not expecting too much too fast.
He also said talking with those who've had the Tommy John operation - he mentioned teammate John Smoltz and Chicago's Kerry Wood - has allowed him to understand that there will assuredly be hiccups in working back to full strength.
"You know there's going to be some ups and downs and bumps in the road," Hampton said. "Everybody wants to say after surgery and a year that you're going to be OK and you're going to win 15, 16 games and everything's great. History proves that's really not the case. Not to say it can't be done, but I just have to take it a step at a time."
Those words come from a man who won 22 games in 1999, admittedly fell apart in Colorado and had just started to resurrect himself in Atlanta before the elbow troubles.
Certainly, no Brave wants to go on record as to how many games Hampton will win this season. But everyone seems to know that just how much the 2007 rotation is an improvement over last year's pieced-together group depends on Hampton's health.
If they're all on and healthy, just consider the possibility of a Smoltz-Tim Hudson-Mike Hampton weekend or playoff series.
"With the addition of - fingers crossed, knock on wood - a healthy Mike Hampton, that's like you're getting a number one," pitching coach Roger McDowell said.
Hampton has reasoned that pitching is far easier than rehab. That's the case especially because of the way Hampton rehabbed.
Second base hopeful Kelly Johnson, who was rehabbing a surgically repaired elbow himself last year, marveled at the length and nature of Hampton's workouts.
"Man, that guy is going after it," Johnson said late last summer. "He's crazy."
Turns out what was charging Hampton was watching his team falter without him. Having to sit on the sidelines and watch the Braves go 79-83 and miss the playoffs for the first time since 1990 was enough to get him going.
"I was out a whole year and couldn't help my teammates win. That's the motivator," Hampton said. "I need to get back out on the field and contribute."
The Braves would be just fine with that, too. No kidding.
Reach Travis Haney at email@example.com.