Originally created 06/06/97

Shoulder scare helps ex-Eagle reform his ways



ATLANTA - Two weeks on the disabled list will affect major league ballplayers all different ways. Some sulk. Some goof off. Some get angry. Some play golf. Some use the time to think.

Count Joey Hamilton - yes, that Joey Hamilton - among the latter.

When pain in his priceless right shoulder caused him to miss several starts last month, the San Diego Padres pitching ace stepped back and took stock.

He thought about his gift - namely, the ability to throw a baseball at close to 100 mph. He thought about losing his gift. He thought about the things he should start doing to hold onto that gift.

Inflammation in the bursa sac and rotator cuff will make even the most carefree of pitchers think.

"It was real scary," Hamilton, 26, was saying the other night at Turner Field. "This is my livelihood. If I wasn't doing this, I really don't know what I'd be doing. I'd probably go back to school."

That would mean coming back to Statesboro, Ga., where he starred for Georgia Southern at the start of the decade. The Padres drafted him in the first round in 1991, and he left school after his junior season. Ask him what he majored in, and Hamilton grins behind his goatee.

"Eligibility," he says. "I started out with commercial recreation, then I switched to psychology. Health and P.E. was my final major - I think."

Pitching is Hamilton's meal ticket, and he knows it. That's why he finally decided to buckle down and became a master rehabilitator. He started spending long, tedious hours in the training room - stretching his troublesome shoulder, lifting weights and taking ultrasound treatments.

The stretches even had a name: PNF patterns. Which stands for?

"I don't really know," he admits.

He looks to his right and sees Padres lefty Sterling Hitchcock passing by in the clubhouse.

"Hey, Sterling, what's PNF stand for?" Hamilton says.

"Not sure, but I know it's something real long."

Hamilton tries again. He asks former Braves pitcher Pete Smith.

"Oooooh," Smith says, feigning fear. "It's a long one."

For the record, guys, those are Propreoseption Neuromuscular Facilitation exercises you're doing. And if Hamilton, for one, keeps doing them, he may one day siphon some attention away from the Fab Four.

Hamilton has won 34 career games, including 15 in a breakout season last summer. Not bad for someone who made his final 17 starts of '96 with lingering shoulder pain.

"I think when it's all said and done, Joey's going to be one of the better pitchers in this league," says Padres manager Bruce Bochy. "There's not too many pitchers that have his stuff. And he has the good makeup. He's a bulldog out there."

John Flaherty, Hamilton's catcher, speaks in similarly reverential tones.

"There's no doubt about Joey's arm or ability," Flaherty says. "You really don't see anybody that throws as hard as he does, with the kind of movement he does. I like to call it `electric stuff'. It's just amazing what he can do with a baseball."

But still there's another level out there for Hamilton, who has gone 3-1 since coming off the DL. Already he has transformed himself from a puffy-cheeked doughboy to a sleeker model. Now he wants to take the next step up the ladder. He's spent some time in recent weeks thinking about his potential and talking with Flaherty about how to realize it.

"In the long run, as crazy as it may sound, this shoulder problem actually may help his career," Flaherty says. "Joey's learning to do it without a 96-mph sinker. Now he's starting to pitch a little more.

"He's starting to mature as a pitcher and starting to realize with the kind of stuff he has, he really should be more dominating than he has been. Once a pitcher comes to that realization, it's kind of scary."

Almost as scary as trying to pronounce Propreoseption Neuromuscular Facilitation.