Tonight, as Cole Hamels is set to pitch against his first team, the Philadelphia Phillies, I am reminded of the truth of the major league journey.
It was Phillies spring training in 2004 when I sat in the dugout and saw Hamels pitch for the first time. I was the aging veteran, a role player hanging on to what would be my final season of my career. Hamels was the young gun, the slick left-hander that fooled some of the best players of my era with his dynamic change-up.
In fact, I watched him strike out three Yankees in a row (Jeter, A-Rod, Tony Clark) with that one magic pitch and in turn, witnessed the birth of the legend of Cole Hamels.
As any young player vaulted into legendary status, the challenges were not far behind as he battled an elbow issue shortly afterwards and the following spring training, a broken hand. The normal health concerns always swirling around the maturation of a talented pitcher. The Phillies still knew they had a star in the making and like any organization, you hope injuries, when they occur, will be the exception in his career.
He would back that faith up with a fantastic career, complete with World Series credentials, all-star appearances, and an asset to every community he would touch.
Now, he is the aging veteran and he is going home, at least for a few days. So far, not being slowed by a decline in velocity, but fighting the body’s signs of wear and tear. Still, when he is out on the mound, he competes like never before.
Ironically, Hamels hit the same three major league destinations that I would hit in my career. Philadelphia, Texas, Chicago. If you put a second Chicago in front of Philadelphia then he also followed the same order. I know those places well.
In particular, I know Philadelphia well. Four years of college, six years of big league baseball and it was clear in my post-career that Philly fans loved what Hamels brought to their city, which they also know will make it tough for their team to win tonight.
These homecomings are the moments when a player has to pause to embrace what time does in this game of baseball. You blink and find yourself home, but years have passed in between, the hair is a bit thinner and your opponents are a lot younger. Then you exhale realizing that you still have a ball in your hand if you are lucky.
There was a time when I knew that feeling. It was shortly after I was traded from Chicago to Philadelphia and returning to Wrigley as an opposing player. It was not off of a World Series championship, but as the rising outfield prospect. It can be disorienting.
I grew up in the Cubs system which was my introduction to what it meant to have the dream take off. It also was a place where I learned how to be a professional from the wisdom of coaches in the Cubs family. From Billy Williams, Tom Gamboa, Sandy Alomar, Jimmy Piersall and so many more, to the whispers of advice of Ryne Sandberg, Shawon Dunston, Mark Grace, Lance “One Dog” Johnson. My mind was fertile ground, trying to not just make it, but stay, and it was part of baseball’s important ritual to listen and learn from those who had done it before, then pass it on.
In those lessons are time itself, coaches and even teammates that I watched growing up as a child. The people who helped spark the love of the game, Mike Schmidt, Garry Maddox, Steve Carlton were my childhood baseball heroes. They gave me the passion, the batting stances, the memories.
When you arrive to big league camp for the first time, in a flash, these icons now had lockers next to yours or are your manager or coach. In my first spring with the Cubs, I walked in the locker room and I saw that my locker was right next to number 23. What?!?! I remember seeing the glisten of Sandberg’s name on the back of his batting practice jersey and deciding that it is time to re-focus and be a big leaguer. From Sandberg, I learned from watching.
With that first big league organization, the dream hits the ground and not only does it keep pinching you, it pushes you to be your best, in fact, you don’t have much choice if you plan to play for a long time. You have to take the stars out of your eyes and see yourself amongst the stars even if for a while, it is hard to believe and even harder to achieve.
This starter organization became your teacher. Showing you that you belong, embracing the mentorship that existed between generations of players. I would step into the box against Fernando Valenzuela and wonder if I had somehow fell into my TV set from when I was 12. But then the screwball would come and I realized that I actually needed to hit it.
The purity of those moments happen with that original baseball family. For Cole Hamels, it was the Philadelphia Phillies. He built relationships, he proved himself with supporters and against detractors. He learned from great players, he would ultimately teach great players. All in one short baseball lifetime in one city he would call home until 2015.
Today he wears a Cubs hat, he is proud, he is a competitor and he will go out and try and beat his old team to a pulp. But it is like having bragging rights against your brother, more than it is to destroy an enemy. I competed tooth and nail against my brother in years of Wiffle Ball in our front yard, but we hugged it out after leaving nothing left on the driveway. You can love with respect and still want to fiercely win.
For any veteran knows that he is the sum of his past even as he is trying to hold on to the present and write his future. Humility reminds you to be thankful for every single stop during the major league ride, especially that ones where you spent significant time honing your skills, and hoisting the hardware of a champion.
In a twist of fate, Hamels’ 2008 World Series manager, Charlie Manuel, has just returned as the Phillies hitting coach which will bring out some special feelings about his championship season. Another strong memory that will surely hit him. He can say a toast with Charlie later.
But first, he has a game to pitch.