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