Hampton prepared for challenge

Hampton prepared to take on the challenge

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As Mike Hampton sat at his locker in Disney's Wide World of Sports complex Wednesday morning, his elbow was wrapped in ice and his mind filled with both excitement and anxiety.

Two days away from officially beginning a journey back to normalcy, the veteran left-hander was unable to allow his vast confidence to mask the fact that the road back from Tommy John elbow surgery is often filled with potholes.

During the 16 1/2 months that have elapsed since he underwent the elbow ligament transplant procedure, Hampton has experienced the physical tortures of rehab and felt the despair that was created by his inability to quench his competitive desires.

Thus, just two days away from being able to participate in this year's first workout for Braves pitchers and catchers, it would seem Hampton should feel nothing but unbridled excitement. But apprehension caused by uncertainty prevents this from being a reality.

"It will be fun, but I can honestly say that there will be questions that I have to answer," Hampton said. "I don't think I'll be free and wild and jump around like a kid who's at his first big-league camp. I'll be excited to be out there. But I'll have some reservations.

"There will be some bumps in the road. It's not going to be smooth sailing from here on out. I know that I'm going to have to work to get to that point."

While it's been 16 1/2 months since the surgery, it's been 21 months since Hampton's left elbow allowed him to produce at his usual level. When he took the mound against the Dodgers on May 14, 2005, the veteran left-hander was on top of the world. In his previous 22 starts, he'd gone 15-2 with a 2.62 ERA and led many to forget about his two disappointing years in Colorado.

"I felt every time that I went out, there was a pretty good chance that I was going to win the game," said Hampton, who likened this confidence to the one he possessed during his 22-win season in 1999.

But in the third inning of that game played two years ago at Dodger Stadium, reality proved cruel enough to kill this immense confidence. It was at that time that Hampton felt the elbow stiffness that eventually led to the surgical procedure and a grueling rehab process.

Instead of having the opportunity to compete throughout the summer months of 2006, he found himself being pushed, prodded and stretched by trainers and therapists. Suddenly, former pitching coach Leo Mazzone's harsh jabs seemed rather tame.

"I think the most agonizing thing [of rehab] is the monotony of it," Hampton said. "When you go through these rehabs, you realize that you are working harder than you do when you pitch."

Now, barring any setbacks, those monotonous exercises will be replaced by those intended to prepare him for what will certainly be a momentous season. Showing the restraint that will be necessary to keeping his elbow healthy, Hampton isn't allowing himself to be overcome by expectations of immediately returning to his successful form.

"As players, we think we're tough and that we're going to be able to jump back in, win 18 games and have a sub-3.00 ERA," Hampton said. "That would be great. But I think history has proven that it takes a little while before you're back to your form."

While obviously realizing the importance of Hampton's return to the starting rotation, even always-confident Braves manager Bobby Cox seems to be looking at his veteran pitcher with guarded optimism.

"You never know about anybody coming off surgery," Cox said. "I feel good about him and I think Mike [feels good] right now. He is a big part of our team."

Conversations with John Smoltz and Doug Brocail, who both count Tommy John surgery as one of their multiple elbow operations, have helped Hampton prepare for any upcoming setbacks.

The conversations that Hampton has had with Cox and pitching coach Roger McDowell have given him the confidence that it may take some time before he's able to regain his top form. History has shown that pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery often struggle in their first season back.

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"Talking with Bobby and Roger, I get the feeling the Braves are going to be really smart about how they bring me back," Hampton said. "They are going to bring me along. They aren't going to expect me to come right out of the chute and throw shutouts. I think they're reasonable in their expectations.

"I'm just going to take it one day at a time. On those days that I'm not feeling great, I'm going to have to take a step back. And on those days that I'm feeling great, I'm going to have to pull back and not overdo it."

Even though he's well aware of the significant improvements the Braves have made to their bullpen, Hampton won't allow himself to take the mound feeling that he only has to pitch five or six innings.

As Cox slowly brings him along, there may be many occasions early in the season when Hampton hits the showers before the seventh inning. But he insists that he won't take the mound with the mind-set that he only has to do so much.

"I've never really thought about the bullpen being good or bad," Hampton said. "I've always just tried to take care of my stuff, and then the rest is on them. ... They get paid to do their job, just like I get paid to do mine."

No matter what he does in the final two years of its existence, Hampton's contract will be always be viewed as one of the worst in sports history. Since signing an eight-year, $121 million deal with the Rockies before the 2001 season, he's notched just 53 wins and 32 of those have come in the four years that have followed his trade to the Braves.

Hampton admits that there are times that he's tried to prove worthy of the hefty contract. But with just two years left on the deal, he has much greater, immediate concerns about his return to the mound.

These next six weeks during Spring Training will allow Hampton the chance to gain further confidence in his reconstructed elbow. And if all goes well, there may soon come a day when that anxiety is completely erased by the unbridled excitement of a pitcher who has taken full advantage of a second chance.

"It's just been a long time since I competed," Hampton said. "I know that, endurance-wise, I still have a long ways to go and I'm pretty honest about that. It's just nice to have the opportunity and be in position to get out there again."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.