Veteran lefty Hampton decides to retire
Former All-Star pitched for 16 years with six clubs
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Mike Hampton spent much of the past decade undergoing multiple medical procedures and passionately fighting for the opportunity to continue pitching. But after enduring regular battles, the veteran left-handed pitcher has decided to end a career that provided him both heartache and jubilation.
When Hampton left D-backs camp Thursday, he informed general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson that he was leaning toward retirement. The 38-year-old returned Saturday morning to tell them and his teammates that he has indeed opted to retire.
"It just wasn't there," Hampton said. "In fairness to them and fairness to myself I'm just done. It's not a decision that's easy to make. It's not one you make overnight. It had been two weeks that different thoughts have been creeping in my head. Then all of the sudden I felt, I think this is going to be it."
Hampton's teenage boys seemed comfortable with their father's decision to spend more time with them. It was a little tougher for Hampton to explain his decision to his father Mike Hampton Sr., who had seen his son escape obscurity in their hometown of Homosassa, Fla., and enjoy a successful 16-year career in the Majors.
"He was disappointed because he said, 'Man, I just thought you would play forever,'" Hampton said. "I wanted to. We just went back to a lot of the days of playing catch in the backyard and him coaching my Little League teams and high school teams and All-Star teams. There was a lot of effort that both of us put into it. So we just reminisced about that."
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Closing the book on this long career wasn't easy for Hampton, whose determination to continue led him to return to the mound as a D-backs reliever last September, just a little less than a year removed from having his torn left rotator cuff surgically repaired.
Still motivated, Hampton signed a Minor League contract with the D-backs in December and arrived in camp optimistic and excited about the opportunity to continue playing. But in the process of allowing 18 hits and issuing eight walks in the 9 2/3 innings he's completed this Spring, the 38-year-old southpaw steadily moved closer to his decision to retire.
"More and more it was just a battle," Hampton said. "It was tougher this year than any other year to get it going."
During his long career which included stints with the Mariners, Astros, Mets, Rockies, Braves and D-backs, Hampton went 148-115 with a 4.06 ERA. The 3.30 ERA he produced from 1997 through 2000 ranked third-best in the Majors, trailing only Randy Johnson and Tom Glavine.
Hampton will also be remembered for what he did at the plate, hitting .246 with 16 home runs. He collected seven of those homers in 2000, when he won the third of five consecutive Silver Slugger Awards.
"I want people to remember me as an athlete," Hampton said. "I wasn't just a pitcher out there. I was someone who was going to give it everything he had, whether he was on the mound, at the plate or on the bases. I just played the game hard. I think I played the game the right way."
Hampton completed his most impressive season in 1999, when he went 22-4 with a 2.90 ERA for the Astros and finished second to Johnson for the National League Cy Young Award.
After the Astros traded him to the Mets in December of 1999, Hampton enjoyed another strong season, going 15-10 with a 3.14 ERA and helping set up the Subway Series that New Yorkers celebrated that year.
Hampton was named the 2000 National League Championship Series MVP after holding the Cardinals scoreless over the 16 innings that encompassed two starts. During his lone start against the Yankees in that year's World Series, he allowed four earned runs in six innings.
Having posted a 3.35 ERA in the 160 starts he had made over the previous five seasons, Hampton exited the 2000 season as an attractive piece on the free-agent market. He reaped the benefits when the Rockies gave him an eight-year, $121 million contract.
Hampton's contract stood as the most lucrative contract ever given in the history of Major League Baseball. It also served as a catalyst as Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter all signed slightly larger deals just a short time later.
Because Hampton struggled during the early portion of the contract and was injured throughout most of its second half, the deal also still stands as one of the most scrutinized and criticized in the game's history.
"It's unfortunate," Hampton said. "I've thought about it quite a bit. Shoot, when I sign a big contract, I want to be underpaid, not overpaid. Even though I wasn't as successful as I would have liked to have been, it wasn't from a lack of trying or lack of work or lack of want. I did everything in my power to be on the field and help my team win a World Series. I can look in the mirror and face the guy looking back and know he's telling the truth."
When Hampton went 5-0 with a 2.34 ERA in his first seven starts of the 2001 season, the Rockies obviously felt good about their investment. But after he went 16-28 with a 6.27 ERA over his next 55 starts, they got the Marlins and Braves involved in a three-team trade that allowed them to erase some ($72 million) of the money they still owed him over the next six seasons.
Hampton landed in Atlanta courtesy of the three-team trade and revived his career when he went 14-8 with a 3.84 ERA in 2003 with the Braves. He struggled out of the gate the following season, but posted a 2.81 ERA in his final 13 starts of 2004.
When Hampton posted a 1.96 ERA in his first eight starts of 2005, it appeared he had picked up where he left off the previous year. But he experienced some forearm discomfort during his May 14 start in Los Angeles and eventually underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in September.
This marked the beginning of the most frustrating span of Hampton's career. When he was attempting to return at the start of the 2007 season, he suffered an oblique strain in early March. His problems multiplied in early April, when he felt more discomfort and learned he needed to undergo another season-ending elbow surgery.
Hampton strained his hamstring while making a start in a Mexican League game in November of 2007 and then encountered greater frustration on April 3, 2008, when he strained a pectoral muscle while warming up in the bullpen before what would have been his first start in three years.
This injury forced him to wait until July to make his long-awaited return to the mound.
"I know in my mind and my heart what I gave this game," Hampton said. "I'm really proud of that and happy about what the game gave back to me. It gave me a chance to compete and gave my family security. I owe a lot to this game."
After staying healthy for the remainder of the 2008 season, Hampton took advantage of the chance to return to the Astros, the organization that acquired him from the Mariners before the start of the 1994 season and nurtured him through his first six full seasons.
Hampton made 21 starts for the Astros in 2009 before his left shoulder discomfort proved too painful. Doctors then discovered he had been pitching with a fully torn left rotator cuff.
Instead of simply saying goodbye to the game, Hampton endured a grueling rehab and returned in time to make three relief appearances for the D-backs in September. His hope to return to that same role this year slowly vanished and took him to this point, where he determined it was time to walk away.
"I'm a small kid from Homosassa, Fla," Hampton said. "Whoever thought I would have made it. Nobody had ever heard where I was from, let alone was able to point it out on a map. I think with the talent and the body type, I think I pretty much got as much out of my body as I could."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.