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Chad Hermansen: Another at-bat

After a miserable start and a demotion to the minor leagues, Chad Hermansen is getting a reprieve with the Pirates

Sunday, July 09, 2000

By Ron Cook, Post-Gazette Columnist

Looking for a nice, safe investment?

Take a buck and give it to Chad Hermansen. Ask him to buy a lottery ticket.

Chad Hermansen had trouble making contact in his first stint with the Pirates, striking out 32 times in 94 at-bats. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette) 

The man is on a roll.

It started a week ago Friday night in a Nashville hospital. Hermansen's wife, Bracken, gave birth to their first child. There were complications and an emergency cesarean section, but mother and daughter are doing fine. Tyllre Rae weighed 9 pounds, 6 ounces at birth and is getting stronger every day.

"It didn't hit me until I held her in my arms that first time," Hermansen said. "What a miracle. We're so blessed."

What happened to Hermansen Thursday night in Oklahoma City was far less important but significant nonetheless. Nashville Sounds Manager Richie Hebner called him aside in the clubhouse and told him he was going back to Pittsburgh. He rejoined the Pirates Friday and was in the starting lineup in right field against the Minnesota Twins last night.

"This is a good opportunity for Hermie," Pirates Manager Gene Lamont said. "Adrian Brown probably won't be able to play this weekend because of his hamstring, so Hermie will get to play against a couple of left-handed pitchers. We don't need a fifth starter for another 10 or 12 days so he should be here at least that long. If he plays well, he'll be here a lot longer."

That's pressure. But it's nothing compared to what Hermansen felt during his first stay with the Pirates this season. He knew the expectations on him. The Pirates had just traded Al Martin to open a starting spot for him. He knew the expectations on the team. Owner Kevin McClatchy had gone public and said 90 wins were a reasonable goal.

"I tried to do too much," Hermansen said, looking back. "I tried to impress too many people instead of just playing the game hard and having fun ...

"It was pretty tense in that clubhouse. I know I felt like if I made a mistake, I was going to get my ear chewed off. I've talked to some of the other guys. It seems like everybody felt that way. That's no way to play. There just wasn't much relaxation going on."

Hermansen hit .181 with two home runs and eight RBIs in 29 games and was sent back to Class AAA Nashville May 20. But he wasn't the only young player to wilt under the heat. Aramis Ramirez, who opened the season as the starting third baseman, batted .167 with one home run and four RBIs in 18 games and was sent down April 28. Jimmy Anderson, the fifth starter in the rotation, went 1-5 with a 5.93 ERA in 11 starts and was optioned out June 15.

"This wasn't like when they gave jobs to Carlos Garcia, Al Martin and Kevin Young in '93," said Nashville infielder John Wehner, who played with those Pirates. "That team was rebuilding. This year's team was supposed to win. They expected a lot from Hermie, Rammie and Jimmy. Too much."

Ramirez made it back June 19 and is playing much better -- offensively and defensively. Going into last night, he was hitting .298 since his return.

Anderson made it back June 28 and was the winning pitcher against the Chicago Cubs Wednesday. Although the Pirates sent him to Class AA Altoona to make room for Hermansen, he is expected back again when the team needs a fifth starter next week.

Hermansen wondered when -- if -- he was going to get another chance? As recently as last week, players in Pittsburgh called him and told him he should be glad he was in Nashville, so depressing was the atmosphere in the clubhouse. But he didn't want to believe that. He knew the big leagues was the only place to play, even in Pittsburgh in a summer of disappointment.

"When you see other players go up ahead of you" -- Ramirez, Abraham Nunez, Emil Brown, Tike Redman -- "you start to wonder if you're still a part of the organization," Hermansen said.

"I feel I am. I don't think they've given up on me. If they have, they're crazy. People forget that I'm still only 22. I feel I can be a good player for them."

Hermansen isn't the only one.

"Of all the guys I've seen here in Nashville in the past year-and-a-half, he has the best chance of being an All-Star player," Wehner said.

Better than Ramirez?

"Hermie has better overall talent," Wehner said. "He has great speed and plays great defense. He has more power ... "

Wait a minute. Haven't we heard the accolades before? Bradenton Manager Woody Huyke once said Hermansen "can walk on water." Former teammate Dale Sveum compared him to Alex Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro and predicted he will hit 30-40 home runs in the big leagues.

"I'm telling you, I still see him as a 30-home run, 30-stolen base guy," Wehner said. "You just don't understand the power this kid has. He hits the ball a mile. And he's effortless when he does it."

You wouldn't know that to look at Hermansen's numbers this season at Nashville. He hit .270 with 32 home runs and 97 RBIs with the Sounds last season. But he was batting just .243 with six home runs and 23 RBIs when he was called up. He had struck out 46 times in 152 at-bats.

"One day, he's terrific. The next day, he's not so good," Hebner said.

If you think that inconsistency frustrates Hebner and everyone else in the Pirates' organization, consider this.

"One game last week, he hit a tremendous home run," Hebner said. "Then, he struck out the next three times up."

"There's no question he needs to become a more consistent offensive player," Pirates General Manager Cam Bonifay said, adding that no one in the organization -- absolutely no one -- has given up on Hermansen.

"He still has everything he had when we drafted him No. 1 [in 1995]. Plus, he's stronger, more physically mature."

Hebner rattled off all of Hermansen's tools.

"A good arm. Great power. Can steal bases. Can go from first to third ...

"He has a lot of the things that a lot of players wish they had."

But ...

"I'd like to see him be a little more fiery," Hebner said. "I'd like to see him a little more cocky. Even in center field, he allows the right fielder or left fielder to catch too many balls. You have to take charge out there.

"There are times you just want to grab him and shake him a little. Maybe having this new baby will change him, I don't know. I'm sure if you ask him, he'll tell you he has fire. But I'd like to see it a little more."

Hebner was right about one thing. Hermansen said his passion for the game is just fine.

"I'm a low-key guy, but that doesn't mean I don't care. Breaking bats isn't going to do me any good. I don't believe in that stuff. I try to keep my emotions inside. I think you have to do that in this game because you're going to fail a lot more than you succeed. You can't let things eat at you."

A lack of fire wasn't what caused his problems in Pittsburgh that first time, Hermansen said. It was the low-and-away slider. It was the pressure of having to produce as a first-time starter. Maybe more than anything, it was the mechanical changes the Pirates asked him to make with his swing.

"I was pretty confused," Hermansen said. "No one in the organization had ever said much to me about my hitting. Then, after I finally made it to the big leagues, they wanted to change me."

The Pirates wanted Hermansen to cut down his strikeouts. He's always been a big strikeout guy, although he did reduce his total at Nashville from 152 in 458 at-bats in 1998 to 119 in 496 at-bats last season.

"It stands to reason you'd like to see a guy cut down his strikeouts," Lamont said. "I'm sure the Florida Marlins want Preston Wilson to cut down his because when he puts the ball in play, good things happen."

Wilson had struck out 117 times in 326 at-bats through Friday night. He also had 18 home runs and 61 RBIs.

"I could be wrong, but I don't think that's the reason Hermie struggled the first time," Lamont said.

"It kind of felt like I was learning to hit all over again," Hermansen said, politely disagreeing. "I must have tried five different stances with my hands in different positions. They wanted me to use more of an upper cut in my swing. But that backfired on me. It just made my swing longer."

Hermansen struck out 32 times in his 94 at-bats with the Pirates this season.

"That swing just wasn't right for me. After I struck out three times in a game at Albuquerque two weeks ago, I went back to my hotel room and said, 'That's it.' I've gone back to the way I hit last year. I had a pretty good stroke going. I hit the ball hard to all fields. I've opened my stance a little again. I've raised my hands some. I'm trying to get on top of the ball and hit down on it. Even in batting practice, I feel like I'm hitting the ball harder."

Hermansen is convinced that will be his ticket to success.

"I've had almost three months in the big leagues. I know I can play here."

There seems to be growing sentiment in town to stick with Hermansen the rest of the season. The Pirates are going nowhere. The season is all but lost. Why not let Hermansen work through his growing pains with the big club? The team is doing it with Ramirez. It might pay off next season.

"I look at the White Sox as an example," Hermansen said. "They built around Paul Konerko and some of their other young guys. They stuck with them even when they struggled for two or three years. Now look at them. They're in first place.

"I'd like to see the Pirates be that patient with us."

The two situations are different. Hermansen knows that. There's no room for patience on the Pirates. They need to start winning games now. Forget Lamont's tenuous status. Even Bonifay, who has a contract through 2003, must be feeling heat from McClatchy. He knows McClatchy wants to build some momentum before the team moves into PNC Park next year.

"Sure, I feel bad for not coming through for those guys," Hermansen said. "I understand why they sent me down. Even my grandma could have figured out I wasn't producing.

"But that's behind me. All I can do now is worry about myself. I've just got to keep working hard so things will be different [this time].

"And they will be different."

People forget that I'm still only 22.

"He's got a ton of talent," Wehner said. "I'm not going to say he'll be a superstar. But he will be an impact player.

"I just hope it's for the Pirates."

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