Two games in the big leagues, and Cole Hamels already goes by multiple nicknames, dates a Playboy cover model and has a Web site in his honor.
Two games, and much of the Northeast already knows that Hamels went to a high school in San Diego that produced six first-round draft picks in the past decade, that he developed his changeup watching Padres closer Trevor Hoffman on television, and that he once hit a batter who dared to try to bunt while he had a no-hitter going.
Such obscure biographical details often take years to become common knowledge, but Hamels's legend is traveling faster than his 93-mile-an-hour fastball. He broke his left arm throwing a pitch, and he broke his left hand in a bar fight, only to come back and prove himself unbreakable.
Hamels, a 22-year-old left-hander for the Philadelphia Phillies, is scheduled to start against the Mets tomorrow night at Shea Stadium. He will oppose Jeremi González, Alay Soler, or whoever else the Mets are able to muster as a starting pitcher in the next 48 hours.
The Mets have reason to be jealous of their turnpike rivals, whom they face in a three-game series beginning tonight. While the Mets comb their minor league system for a starter, the Phillies are showing off their 6-foot-3 future ace. In two starts, Hamels has given up four runs in 11 1/3 innings, and he struck out Ken Griffey Jr. twice in one game.
Fans call him King Cole. Teammates call him Hollywood. Minor league managers compare him to Steve Carlton and Randy Johnson. One Web site, colehamelsfacts.com, lists 235 fabricated tidbits about him, including: "Cole puts his pants on two legs at a time."
Whether the Mets can find a starter to counter Hamels could determine whether they hold off the Phillies in the National League East this season; they lead second-place Philadelphia by three games. Of course, the Mets had their version of Hamels — they picked Scott Kazmir two spots ahead of him in the 2002 draft — but they traded Kazmir to Tampa Bay for Víctor Zambrano in 2004. The Mets are hoping Mike Pelfrey can replace Kazmir, but he has been inconsistent at Class AA Binghamton.
The pitching search must be particularly trying for Omar Minaya, the Mets' general manager, considering he scouted Hamels at Rancho Bernardo High School and could see all this coming. "He came from a very good baseball background," Minaya said. "He was an impressive young kid. I think he is good for baseball."
Based on his background, Hamels seems like the kind of hard-throwing, hard-living prospect who can burn out in the spotlight. But he does not come across as that bar-fighting, head-hunting type. With his long brown hair, Hamels looks more like a surfer than a jock. His given first name is Colbert. He talks about being bullied in elementary school. He met his girlfriend, the former "Survivor" contestant Heidi Strobel, when he was in the minors.
Every winter, Hamels returns home and works out with other professional players from San Diego, who make sure to check his ego. During one workout at Mission Bay High School, Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Mark Prior told Hamels: "You're good and you're going to be really good and you think you know what hard work is. But you have no idea what it means to put in a full major league season."
Overhearing the conversation from the dugout that day was Tom House, the former pitcher and pitching coach, who has been tutoring Hamels since he broke the humerus bone in his left arm as a high school sophomore. Doctors performed a complex operation on the arm — they slid a wire through the bone marrow so the bone would fuse around it — then told Hamels he would never pitch again.
"He thought his career was over when he was 15 or 16 years old," said House, the founder of the National Pitching Association in San Diego. "He had to work like crazy just to get out there again. I know he looks laid-back, but there is a fire inside of him."
In his first minor league stint, Hamels gave up seven runs in 74 innings. In his last minor league stint, he gave up a run in 23 innings. Some of the statistics were cartoonish — this season at Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Hamels walked a batter and struck out 36. With holes in the Phillies' starting rotation, the clamor for Hamels was nearly as loud as it was for first baseman Ryan Howard last year.
Howard, the N.L.'s rookie of the year in 2005, welcomed Hamels to the Phillies' clubhouse two weeks ago. As Hamels strolled over to his locker, cameras following his every step, Howard bellowed, "Hollywood!"
Most players, even the top prospects, need a couple of weeks to get a nickname. The Web site follows after a few months, and a celebrity girlfriend after a few years. Hamels, from Day 1, was way ahead.