The phone call came during a shift at K-Mart. Just days after Christmas. The voice belonged to his stepmother.
“You got to come home,” she said. “Something happened to your dad.”
Jason Hammel was 17 then, a high school senior preparing for the next move. He held down a job as a retail cashier to make extra cash. He pitched on the baseball team at South Kitsap High School in Port Orchard, Wash. He thought about heading south and trying to walk on at Arizona State. They had a good arts program. Hammel wanted to major in graphic design. He loved to draw, to use his mind. Maybe he could find a way to keep pitching.
“If not,” he says, “baseball would just kind of go in the past.”
But then came the phone call. Hammel rushed home. He saw the paramedics in the driveway. His father was upstairs.
William Hammel III was in his late 40s. A blue collar steel man from western Pennsylvania, he came home from work one day and laid his head down to rest. Moments later, his heart began to fail.
“He was kind of a workaholic,” Hammel says. “He just didn’t eat right, didn’t sleep, just worked too much. He just ended up working himself to death.”
On a quiet morning this season, his first in the Royals’ starting rotation, Hammel told the story of his father, how William moved across the country to chase work, how he introduced Jason to baseball, how he inspired Jason to pursue his dream. Hammel, a 34-year-old right-hander with a flowing head of hair and dark beard, still thinks of his dad daily, he says. In the moments before starts. In the quiet days on the road. On the night last October when he became a World Series champion. How stunned would his dad have been to see that?
There it is again, of course. That feeling. It never goes away, Hammel says. But what’s left still drives him.
“I don’t think either one of us has really ever truly had closure or processed losing Dad,” says Bill Hammel, Jason’s older brother. “I think it’s still there.”
There are many stories that William Hammel would not believe about Jason. Twelve seasons in the big leagues. Six teams. Trips to the postseason with his first five.
But perhaps it is best to start with one story from last fall. In the months after his father’s death, as Jason Hammel mourned the loss, he found solace in the music of Pearl Jam, the iconic Seattle rock band. In some ways, it made sense. He had moved from Pittsburgh to the Seattle area in the early 1990s, just as the grunge phenomenon was taking hold. As a teenager, he immersed himself in the catalogs of Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Soundgarden. They were, he says, the soundtrack of his childhood. But when his father died during his senior year in high school, he gravitated back toward Pearl Jam. There was something about it. He learned that Eddie Vedder, the group’s singer, had met his biological father just once before the father’s death. Hammel found comfort in the song “Release”, a story of a man remembering his late father.
“Oh dear dad, can you see me now? I am myself, like you somehow.”
“It was my favorite song,” Hammel says. “It spoke to me through the lyrics about my dad.”
Sixteen years later, on an October night in Chicago, Hammel stood inside the Chicago Cubs’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field, popping champagne and spraying beer after the team’s first National League pennant since 1945. Hammel was the No. 5 starter on the best team in baseball. On his shoulders sat Vedder, smiling and laughing amongst the wild celebration. Vedder, a lifelong Cubs fan, had spent much of the last two seasons at Wrigley Field, following the Cubs’ successes and making friends in the clubhouse. The second or third time they met, Hammel told Vedder about his father and the song, how it had helped soothe the heartache.
“We had a little bit of a connection,” Hammel said. “The music, and then the creativity and the sincerity. It was kind of special to me.”
William Hammel III was a steel man. This much, his sons know. He was stern and strict, old school in manner and discipline. When one of his children stepped out of line, they heard the same phrase: “That’s NUTS”, short for “Not Up to Standards.”
His dad was a perfectionist, Hammel says, dedicated to his work in the steel industry. When his parents divorced when he and his siblings were young, his father chased jobs across the country, eventually landing in Seattle. William had dreams of starting a steel erection business. He was consumed with the idea of providing for his family. That was the most important thing to him, Jason Hammel says. When Jason and his brother moved across the country to live with their father in the early 1990s, they would watch him rise before 5 a.m. and return home for dinner, exhausted by the day.
“There were not many soft moments with him,” Hammel says. “He was a very strict, ‘do your job’ kind of guy.”
Hammel smiles at the memories. There was good, and there was bad. His father showed him what hard work meant. He extolled virtues like carpe diem, the Latin motto for “seize the day.” Hid dad also offered a template for what he didn’t want to be. As kids, Hammel and his brother were sports obsessed. Hammel idolized Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, a Pittsburgh native. Football was his first love. On most days, Hammel and his brother would set up some kind of game in the backyard. One day, his father came out for a game of catch and asked his sons what they wanted to be in life.
Hammel told his father he wanted to be a professional baseball player. His father listened for a moment, then told him that the odds were minuscule, that he better find a backup plan.
“In one way, he was protecting us,” Hammel says. “In another way, I felt like he was motivating us, too.”
The conversation would stick with Hammel for years. And yet, there was something strange about what happened next. In the months after his father’s death, Hammel began his senior season in high school, guaranteed one more year of baseball and little else. But then one day that spring, a local Mariners scout saw Hammel tossing a fastball in the high 80s. Hammel was 6 feet 6 and 180 pounds, and the Mariners saw some potential. They selected him in the 23rd round of the baseball draft and planned to follow him for the next year, under the old draft-and-follow rules. Hammel landed at Treasure Valley Community College in Oregon and pitched for two seasons. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays would select him in the 10th round, betting on his size and skill set.
“After my dad passed, things really started to pick up baseball-wise,” Hammel said. “It’s almost like it was meant to be … or he was doing some work from up above.”
Hammel would debut with the Devil Rays in 2006. He would establish himself as a major-league starter in Colorado. He would develop a two-seam fastball, add a slider and make an opening day start for the Baltimore Orioles.
Hammel views his career like a “fine wine.” It took time for him to develop, to refine his craft and understand the art. But once he did, he found a home in Chicago, jelling with the city and the team. In parts of three seasons with the Cubs, Hammel posted a 3.59 ERA across 78 starts. Last October, he celebrated a world championship after an epic Game 7 in Cleveland.
“I basically learned the mental side of pitching,” Hammel says. “How to set up hitters, how to execute pitches, what to look for, instead of just going out and throwing. I more or less just learned how to pitch.”
On an afternoon in May, Bill Hammel sat inside a dugout at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., and watched his younger brother shag fly balls before a game against the Tampa Bay Rays. Bill had joined the traveling party for the Royals’ annual Father’s Trip. For a week, the brothers had bonded over meals and old memories. As they headed to the park one afternoon, Bill watched as his brother went through his normal pregame ritual: Pearl Jam.
“Our dad was just that figure in our lives we both looked up to so much,” says Bill, who followed his dad’s career path. “We still feel like there’s a lot of him in us.”
In the offseason, Hammel was granted free-agency by the Cubs and signed a two-year, $16 million contract with the Royals, filling out their starting rotation after the death of right-hander Yordano Ventura. In his first 10 starts, Hammel posted a 6.18 ERA, a turbulent start in his new surroundings. Frustrated by the struggles, looking for answers Hammel thought of his father, the workaholic perfectionist.
“I think that’s also my Achilles’ heel when I’m struggling,” Hammel says. “I’m trying to be the best and make everything the way I want it to be.”
In early June, Hammel tried to relax. He tweaked his delivery, opening himself in the stretch. He focused on commanding his fastball. He stopped trying to execute the perfect pitch. He started to see progress. In his last three starts, he has allowed just five runs in 20 1/3 innings, helping the Royals climb back toward .500.
“He’s a tremendous competitor,” Royals manager Ned Yost says. “He never wants to come out of a game — ever.”
On a recent afternoon, as he prepared for another Father’s Day, Hammel thought about the 17 years without his dad. He has his own family now. His wife Elissa gave birth to their son Beckett in 2011. Their daughter Colby came along three years later. They can make him think about his dad in a different way. He remembers his dad, the tough love and strict rules, the emphasis on hard work. Sometimes, he says, he’ll sit around with his siblings, drink a few cold ones and share old stories.
“Just laugh,” he says, “and sometimes cry.”
The memories cannot fill the hole. They can’t mend the loss. But they can offer inspiration. So sometimes Hammel thinks about what his father would think of all this. How can he not?
“It’s like: ‘I did this,’ ” Hammel says. “ ‘I hope I’m making you proud.’ That’s kind of the story how baseball became so deep to me.”