Pizza, baseball and no punching on the throwing arm — the Hammer family has its priorities in order

Pizza, baseball and no punching on the throwing arm — the Hammer family has its priorities in order

When Jason Hammer found out he was going to be a dad 25 years ago, he was — naturally — elated.

He wished for all the usual blessings, a healthy pregnancy for his wife, Sindi, and, of course, a happy, healthy baby. Boy, girl, it didn't matter. He just wanted five fingers, five toes and one of those big, toothless smiles — all the things any parent would want.

But deep down inside, Jason Hammer had one little wish.

He really wanted a boy.

You see, Jason didn't have a brother and his family would often give him the ol' wink-wink that it was up to him to one day have a son to carry on the name they all loved.

There was another reason Jason wanted a little boy.

He loved baseball. He had been a shortstop at Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho and couldn't wait to someday coach his son in the game he loved.

On July 12, 1994, Jason and Sindi Hammer got their wish when young John Dale arrived.

The little boy was named for both his granddads, but a little more went into the name than that.

We told you that Jason loved baseball.

He had plans for this kid.

"We were young and poor, you know," Jason said with a laugh. "We'd sit at home, watch TV and talk about names. Baseball names. 'What sounds good? Now batting, J.D. Hammer.' We liked the way that sounded. So he was J.D. right from the start."

Jason and Sindi Hammer spent last week in Philadelphia. They did all the touristy things, from the Rocky steps to lunch at Reading Terminal.

And, of course, they caught a Phillies game.

And when public address man Dan Baker announced, "Now pitching for the Phillies, J.D. Hammer," it sounded as good as it had all those years ago when they were sitting on the couch back home in Colorado.

"It's a dream come true," said Jason, 50. "You can't even describe it."

Jason and Sindi have four children, sons J.D., Garrett and Kalen, and a daughter, Brenli. All are skilled on the diamond and their accomplishments are displayed in an area of the basement that Jason has playfully dubbed "the Hammer Hall of Fame." Brenli will pitch at Colby Community College in Kansas in the fall.

The Hammer household must have been a great place to grow up. The family owned five pizza franchises in the Denver area until selling last year. All the kids worked part-time in the family business, making pizzas, delivering, whatever. And when they weren't helping with the family business, they were going to school and playing ball.

Baseball and pizza.

What a life!

But there were rules.

"You could not punch on the throwing arm," Jason said. "You could punch on the other arm, but not the throwing arm. They'd tell on each other. 'Hey, Mom, he punched me on the throwing arm.' It was pretty chaotic.

"All the kids played travel ball. There were times when all four were in different states and we'd be FaceTiming when one came up to bat or was pitching."

J.D. grew up playing shortstop. After high school, he enrolled at Navarro College in Texas. He struggled with the bat during his fall season — he would later find out why — and the coaches were leaning toward red-shirting him unless he wanted to pitch. The coaches at Navarro loved the way J.D. threw the ball across the diamond and thought he had a future on the mound. J.D. wanted to play immediately. He did not want to red-shirt. He'd pitched a few innings here and there in high school. He decided it was time to make the move to the mound.

Over two years at Navarro, J.D. pitched well enough to earn a scholarship to Marshall University in West Virginia and was drafted by his hometown Colorado Rockies in 2016. He was no bonus baby. (In fact, his dad said he's always been an underdog.) He was picked in the 24th round. His signing bonus was just $1,000. But it was a chance.

"I remember the draft," J.D. said. "I was sitting around waiting. The third day came, the rounds kept going and I hadn't been drafted. I thought I'd end up working at my family's pizza shop. When I got the call I was super excited."

J.D. spent his first summer of pro ball pitching for the Rockies' affiliate in Grand Junction, Colorado, about a 4½-hour drive from his hometown of Fort Collins.

Mom and Dad didn't want to get in his way, so they watched the games on the Internet.

Jason knew his son inside and out as a ballplayer and as he watched him pitch, he sensed something was wrong. J.D. would squint and peer in at the catcher for long stretches as he tried to pick up the signs. Occasionally, he would cross up the catcher.

That offseason, J.D. got an eye exam. It came too late to save him as a hitter. But not too late to help fuel his path to the majors as a pitcher. He returned to the Rockies' system wearing glasses in 2017. Later that summer, the Phillies acquired him in a trade for Pat Neshek. Hammer spent most of 2018 recovering from an elbow strain, but came back strong this season and blazed his way from Double A to the majors in May.

The last name instantly brings the hard-throwing reliever attention.

"I've heard it all," J.D. said with a laugh.

He has often entered games with MC Hammer's famous U Can't Touch This playing over the sound system. And not once has he ever requested it.

"I love my name," he said.

But J.D. has another distinguishing trademark — those large, black-frame eyeglasses that are part Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn, part Harry Caray.

"I tried contacts, but they bothered my eyes," he said. "I tried on a bunch of glasses and went big because I didn't want to see the frames when I looked in at the catcher."

In addition to a strikeout arm, J.D. has other skills. He put them on display in spring training 2018. The Phillies had invited him to big-league camp. As a bonding exercise, first-year manager Gabe Kapler planned a talent show one night during camp. Hammer wowed the crowd with his pizza dough flipping skills. The kid can still make a mean pie.

"If I had the ingredients, I could make one right now," he said in the Phillies' clubhouse one day last week.

Even the dough?

"Oh, yeah," he said.

His dad confirmed that.

"He can flip it," Jason said with a laugh. "All the kids can. But I can still do it better than all of them. It's probably the only thing I can still beat them in."

Sindi Hammer celebrated her 50th birthday last week. Her present was a trip to Philadelphia to watch her son pitch in the big leagues.

Jason Hammer, the baseball-loving dad who 25 years ago hoped to be blessed with a little boy, also received a nice Father's Day present.

"J.D. gave me the balls from his first pitch, his first out and his first strikeout," Jason said. "Pretty special."

He laughed.

"They'll go in the Hammer Hall of Fame back home," he said.

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Phillies beat Braves behind strong games from Jake Arrieta, Jay Bruce, J.T. Realmuto

Phillies beat Braves behind strong games from Jake Arrieta, Jay Bruce, J.T. Realmuto

Updated, 10 p.m.

Now that is the version of Jake Arrieta the Phillies need, the kind that can solidify a rotation. 

Arrieta pitched a gem and the Phillies hit two homers in a four-run fourth inning to beat the Braves 5-0 in Saturday's series opener at Citizens Bank Park.

The win gets the Phillies to .500 at 4-4. The Braves are 9-6.

J.T. Realmuto and Jay Bruce both homered in the decisive fourth. Realmuto's was a bomb to the last row of seats in the first deck in left field. It was his fourth already this season, in 73 fewer plate appearances than it took him last year.

"He's really turned into a premium offensive player over the last couple years," Bruce said of his teammate.

Bruce's came on the first pitch against Braves right-hander Kyle Wright. He started in left and Andrew McCutchen was the DH. The Phils have benefitted from Bruce's extra bat in the lineup with a couple of homers.

Arrieta cruised

It was a strong outing from Arrieta, who was locked-in and efficient and sounded encouraged after the game. He put only two Braves on base over his first five innings on a pair of singles. He struck out six and his sinker sat 93-94 mph. 

Arrieta pitched out of a potential jam in his final inning, finding fortune in the form of a Dansby Swanson line drive right at shortstop Didi Gregorius, who threw to second to double off Adeiny Hechavarria.

Through two starts, Arrieta is 1-1 with a 2.45 ERA. 

"What I've seen in the first two starts is extremely impressive in its execution," manager Joe Girardi said of Arrieta after the game. "He was really sharp tonight again. It's really encouraging. I feel really good about what he's going to do."

Arrieta pitched through an elbow injury last summer. He did not have the proper feel of his breaking ball and it affected his entire repertoire. There were nights when he didn't seem to know where the ball was going. 

Different story so far in 2020.

“I have more weapons at my disposal than I’ve had the last couple years," Arrieta said. "I feel like I’m gonna be able to maintain the feel of my stuff deeper into games.”

Gotta love those three-run dingers

Bruce's three-run homer in the fourth inning was the Phillies' fourth in eight games this season. Realmuto has two; Bryce Harper and Bruce have one apiece.

The Phils have hit 12 homers in their eight games. They entered Saturday night ranked first in the majors in on-base percentage, sixth in slugging and fourth in OPS. The offense would be receiving more credit if it wasn't overshadowed by the bullpen's early-season meltdowns.

J.T. is on fire

An inning after hitting his fourth homer, Realmuto flew out to the scoreboard in right-center, just missing another one. He lined out to sharply to center in his final AB. Even the outs are crushed right now.

Realmuto has been the Phillies' best offensive player so far. They needed him to start fast and he has. Last season, Realmuto was still hitting in the .250s in July with an OPS in the mid-.700s. He drove the ball over his final 200 plate appearances to finish with a solid offensive year.

Over his last 55 games dating back to last July 27, Realmuto has hit .305/.356/.634 with 17 home runs and 46 RBI.

"J.T.'s super talented. He does so many things for this team," Girardi said. "As good as he is offensively, he puts his heart and his soul in defense and calling games. J.T.'s a player you don't have to worry about being prepared. That's what every manager wants.

"I hope he stays really hot for like three months."

Bullpen holds up again

Jose Alvarez, Tommy Hunter and Deolis Guerra combined for three scoreless innings and allowed just one baserunner. The Phillies' bullpen has allowed two runs in eight innings in its last two games, two steps in the right direction.

Before the game, pitching coach Bryan Price talked about the need for the "second layer" of Phillies relievers to step up with so many doubleheaders on the schedule.

Harper does it with defense

Harper, who reprioritized defense prior to a strong 2019, continues to impress in the field. He made this diving catch in the fifth inning Saturday. He also went 2 for 4 with a double.

The Phillies' defense has not been an issue so far. They've committed just three errors in eight games, none from their new left side of the infield. Jean Segura bobbled a hot shot to third base in the first inning but recovered to get Swanson by a step at first base. It was the kind of play that could have altered the game early if it wasn't made, especially ahead of Freddie Freeman.

Twin bill on Sundee

The Phillies play a seven-inning doubleheader against the Braves Sunday beginning at 1:05 p.m. Game 2 will begin 40 minutes after Game 1. 

Vince Velasquez will start in one of the games and top prospect Spencer Howard will make his MLB debut in the other.

The four-game wraparound series ends Monday night when Aaron Nola faces Atlanta.

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What makes Spencer Howard such an exciting piece of Phillies' future?

What makes Spencer Howard such an exciting piece of Phillies' future?

Spencer Howard is coming. The Phillies said everything they could say Saturday without making it official that Howard, their top prospect, will start one of the two games of their doubleheader Sunday.

Manager Joe Girardi really left things up to interpretation before the Phillies' series opener against the Braves, saying the nod would go to a young right-hander with the initials S.H. A few minutes later, he said that he was "not ready to make an official announcement until tomorrow, but if nothing changes, you can expect it to be Spencer Howard."

Plenty of hype surrounds the 24-year-old Howard, the Phillies' second-round pick in 2017. He has the tools of an ace.

"Big fastball, really good slider-changeup combination, emerging curveball," pitching coach Bryan Price said Saturday in a 15-minute Zoom call that was almost entirely about Howard. "And he throws strikes, he competes well, controls the running game. He's a very polished young guy with a big arm. 

"Quite often when you find guys with velocity, it takes time for them to figure out command or how to sequence their pitches. I just think he's a polished kid. I think he's ready to come up and help us."

That description of the typical young pitcher with velocity who takes time to figure it out applies to the pitcher Howard is poised to eventually replace in the Phillies' rotation: Vince Velasquez. Velasquez, at 28, doesn't have much rope left. He has a 4.75 ERA in more than 100 appearances as a Phillie (93 starts). He's allowed 1.53 home runs per nine innings as a Phillie, easily the highest home run rate of any pitcher in Phillies history with as many innings.

The Phillies could still end up starting Velasquez throughout the 2020 season because they have six doubleheaders over the next six weeks, i.e. six instances when they'll need a sixth starting pitcher.

It will be interesting Sunday to compare and contrast Howard and Velasquez in the two starts. It would not be a surprise to see Howard strike out eight Braves over five scoreless innings. Nor would it be a surprise if he struggled in his first start against a potent big-league lineup.

"He has deception, he pitches with a high fastball but can also create good downward angle," Price said. "I think getting the first one under his belt — hopefully there are many more to come in Philadelphia — is something we're all excited to see."

Howard was a late bloomer. He did not start games until his junior season at Cal Poly. His freshman season, he was one of the last players to make the roster. In the span of just a few years, his velocity rose from the upper-80s to the 90s to the point that he touched 100 mph in the minors.

"One of the great things about the sport of baseball is that not everybody is a prodigy. Not everybody is Alex Rodriguez or Bryce Harper, on the map at 15, 16, 17 years old," Price said.

"I think in Spencer's case, he had to have that skill set in there. The aptitude and the feel. And so as the arm strength built, he had enough feel for pitching to make some really significant strides in a short period of time."

The next step: A start in South Philly against the NL East favorites.

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