MILWAUKEE – Cole Hamels swears he got the snot kicked out of him in middle school, and he says it with such conviction that it must be true, for only a brave few would confess to years spent as a punching bag. Such an admission seems a lot like a supermodel saying she was the ugly duckling as a kid, because the Hamels everyone sees now – the one who's more popular in Philadelphia than a Whiz Wit at Pat's, dates a reality star/Playboy model and looks like a surfer, tall and lean with long brown hair and dark blue eyes – does not exactly jibe with pocket-protector-wearing bully-bait.
"The guys who did it feel bad now," Hamels says. "They realize what they did. They become a better person. They learn something. I learn something. I think it got me to where I am today."
Which is here, standing in front of a locker with a bright blue Philadelphia Phillies jersey adorned with his No. 35 and in front of a clubhouse replete with believers. They saw Hamels' major-league debut last week – five innings, one hit, no runs and seven strikeouts against the Cincinnati Reds, one of baseball's most powerful teams – and the ensuing fervor around Philadelphia. In his next start Thursday afternoon, he faces the Milwaukee Brewers, which leads the major leagues with 60 home runs.
None of this, of course, fazes the left-handed Hamels, who, at the rate his legend is growing, might morph into a centaur by next week. There's already a Web site dedicated to him, www.colehamelsfacts.com, a cheeky spoof of the viral Chuck Norris Facts. An example: "Cole Hamels once struck a man out looking. Literally. Cole just gazed at him and the batter was retired on strikes."
Sorry to spoil the fun, but here are some real Cole Hamels facts: Until recently, he subsisted on spaghetti instead of steak because he wanted to bank his $2 million signing bonus. He doesn't like playing card games in the back of planes because he's convinced his teammates are going to hustle him. He promised to buy himself a set of rims for his Tahoe this offseason – and ended up with 17-inch wheels that are better suited for a Honda Civic.
As much as Hamels, 22, tries to play the normal-guy routine, he understands it flies only for so long when accompanied by unfathomable minor-league numbers and comparisons to Steve Carlton. Both of those things, particularly in Philadelphia, tend to draw attention.
In 2003, they heard Hamels' name for the first time. He was the Phillies' first-round pick a year earlier, 17th overall, and he'd taken a while to sign. Now, at 19, he had given up seven earned runs in 74 2/3 innings and struck out 115 at low Class-A Lakewood. Who, exactly, was this guy?
A klutz, actually. As a sophomore, Hamels ran into a parked car on the street while playing catch with a football. Hamels isn't sure whether it contributed to him breaking the humerus bone in his throwing arm three weeks later. Doesn't much matter. It was a devastating injury, the same one that ended the careers of Dave Dravecky, John Smiley and Tony Saunders.
"Sounded like a tree branch breaking," Hamels said.
Doctors slid a wire through Hamels' bone marrow and allowed the bone to fuse around it. Hamels didn't touch a baseball for eight months and didn't know if he'd be able to throw again once he did. He went to Dr. Tom House, the big-league pitcher turned guru, and built up his rotator cuff muscles. He worked with Mark Furtak, the pitching coach at Rancho Bernardo High in San Diego, to perfect his circle changeup.
Intrigued by his 6-foot-4 frame – Hamels had long outgrown his tormentors – impressed with his fastball that reaches 94 mph and mystified by his changeup, the Phillies ignored the injury history and went with potential.
"Hamels looks like a pitcher," says Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who scouted Hamels at Lakewood. "He's smooth. He's easy. The ball jumps out of his hand. I love the way he keeps his composure. He doesn't get rattled, doesn't get uptight, doesn't press, doesn't push it."
Not anymore, at least. In 2004, elbow problems shelved Hamels for most of the season. Last year, he broke his pitching hand in a bar fight, then missed time with lower-back issues that, he says, remain a struggle. To keep Hamels in warm weather, the Phillies started him at high-A Clearwater instead of Double-A Reading.
"I was totally against it," Hamels says. "I felt like they were holding me back again. Just another thing I had to prove to myself and everyone else."
By the end of April, Hamels skipped Double-A and moved to Scranton. In his first start there, he struck out 14 in seven innings. Next time out, he threw a two-hit shutout. When the Phillies summoned him last week, Hamels had started 35 games in the minor leagues. His ERA was 1.43. He struck out 273 in 195 1/3 innings. He gave up two home runs.
Hoopla bubbling over already, Hamels struck out Ken Griffey Jr. twice and worked out of a jam in which he walked the bases loaded. His five walks were excessive – in three starts at Triple-A, Hamels struck out 36 and walked one – but acceptable.
"We knew he had a chance to come quick," Manuel says. "He pitched good, helped us. And I think he's definitely going to be here a while."
While Hamels says he hopes so, his fingers flit subconsciously. He presses on his right hand with his left, and there's a noise. Well, how about that. Cole Hamels, so cool and composed, cracks his knuckles. He says he's a little nervous at the prospect of this all – the attention, the pressure, the "facts" – though he encourages people to laugh at his knuckle-popping or, for that matter, anything else they please.
"Who really runs the world?" Hamels says. "The guys who get picked on. I guess I'm on my way."