December 23, 1999 was a sad day for me. At that time, left-handed pitcher Mike Hampton was my favorite player on the team. Thirteen years ago today the Astros traded Hampton, along with outfielder Derek Bell, to the New York Mets for Roger Cedeno, Octavio Dotel, and Kyle Kessel. Hampton was coming off a 22-4 season in which he finished second in the N.L. Cy Young Award voting.
For those of you who are too young to remember, Hampton was a special player. I say player because not only was he a great pitcher, he was also an outstanding hitter and a gold glove caliber defender. He was the type of all-around athlete people went out of their way to see. In addition, Hampton was a fierce competitor. Those skills and traits are what made Hampton one of my favorite Astros of all time.
Houston entered the 2000 season having won three straight division titles under manager Larry Dierker. The loss of Hampton would prove to be costly in their quest for a fourth. The Astros tried plugging Dotel into the starting rotation to replace Hampton. This was an experiment that would fail miserably. Dotel went 1-5 in 16 starts before the Astros decided to move him to the bullpen. Jose Lima, who had won 21 games the previous season, also struggled in the Astros new ballpark. Lima went 7-16 with a 6.65 ERA and the team finished in fourth place with a 72-90 record.
Cedeno, the focal point of the trade from the Astros point of view, failed to live up to expectations. Outplayed by a rookie named Lance Berkman, Cedeno was traded to Detroit the following offseason. Pitching prospect Kyle Kessel never made it to the big leagues.
Meanwhile, Hampton continued to thrive in his only season with the Mets. Although he got off to a rocky start to the season (He had a 6.52 ERA after 7 starts) Hampton was able to right the ship. Mike finished the season with a 15-10 record and a 3.14 ERA, helping the Mets reach the post season. Hampton hurled 16 shutout innings in two NLCS starts to earn series MVP honors and lead the Mets to the World Series.
Hampton lost his only World Series start against the Yankees and the Mets fell in five games. After the season Hampton became a Free Agent. That winter he signed an eight-year $108 million contract with the Colorado Rockies. At the time, it was the most lucrative contract in the history of professional sports. That’s the type of athlete Mike Hampton was, a big money athlete.
In his first season with the Rockies, Hampton got off to a 9-2 start and made the All-Star team. But he struggled in the second half of the season and ended up with a 14-13 record and an ERA over five. Hampton’s second year at altitude was even worse. He went 7-15 with a 6.15 ERA and his days with the Rockies came to an abrupt end.
Hampton was traded twice during the offseason, ending up in Atlanta. Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone helped get Mike’s career back on track. Hampton went 27-17 over the next two seasons, helping the Braves earn two more division titles. But in 2005 Hampton was struck by the injury bug. He underwent Tommy JohnSurgery in August and elbow troubles cost him all of the next two seasons. After experiencing further setbacks, Hampton didn’t return to a big league mound until July of 2008.
After appearing in only 25 games in the last four seasons, Hampton was once again on the Free Agent market. The Astros took a chance on their former star, inking him to a one-year $2 million contract with another $2 million available in incentives. It was great to have Mike back with the ‘Stros even though he was no longer the dominant pitcher he was the first time around. Hampton went 7-10 with a 5.30 ERA in 21 starts with Houston before blowing out his rotator cuff. He did have a nice year with the bat though, hitting .324 in 41 plate appearances.
Hampton worked his way back to the big leagues ahead of schedule, making ten relief appearances for the Arizona Diamondbacks the following season. But the injuries had taken too big of a toll on the lefty and he was forced into retirement at the age of 37. Hampton finished his career with a 148-115 record and a 4.06 ERA.
What seemed like a bad trade at the time actually ended up saving the Astros a lot of money and heartache in the long run. Still, I will always remember Mike as one of the most outstanding players of his time. In 2003 Hampton became the first pitcher ever to win the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards in the same season. He could do it all.
Last month the Angels hired Hampton as the pitching coach for their AA affiliate, the Arkansas Travelers. Although the Angels are our new divisional rivals, this Astros fan would like to wish Mike the best of luck in his new career as a coach.