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Pitcher Hampton likes coming home

By CAREY FREEMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 2000


Born in Brooksville, raised in Homosassa and educated at Crystal River High School, Mike Hampton recently signed an eight-year, $123.8-million contract to pitch for the Colorado Rockies. Though this local hero and All-Star left-hander has made it to the big leagues and World Series, his roots remain firmly grounded in Citrus County. Last weekend, Hampton, his wife, Kautia, and their sons, Gage (5) and Griffin (16 months), were in town as Mike visited family and friends and made appearances for charity. Hampton took time out of his schedule to chat with staff writer Carey Freeman about issues ranging from his favorite food to his high school sweetheart to the hoopla (some good, some bad) surrounding his decision to sign with Colorado.

A lot of guys from small towns can't wait to get out, but that doesn't seem to be the case with you.

Basically, it has to do with family and the way I was born and raised. I built so many relationships growing up, very special relationships and ties that are hard to give up. I love coming back because this is a good place to live.

Is this place a bit of a refuge for you?

I'm going to be myself regardless of where I am. But this is a place where I can come to get away from the grind of everyday life and just get away for a while. When I come here, I can relax.

Is life that bad?

It's a great life I have. But people see you on TV and think, "Man, he's got the greatest life.' But it's not that easy. There is a lot of pressure. You get paid to win and paid to perform, and when you do a bad job, it's magnified. I wish people could be in my shoes for one day, just so they could see what it's like. But, don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. I get paid well and I'm still playing a game I love to play.

What is the first thing you do when you get in town?

I hunker down. I go to the couch, sit and talk with my mom and dad and just hang out. There is no agenda and no schedule to keep, and that's part of the attraction. When I come here, I just kind of veg and get ready for some of mom's cooking. Something I always look forward to when I come home is eating some of my mom's fresh fried seafood and just hanging out. Three out of five meals will be either fried chicken, shrimp or grouper, plus my mom's cabbage and macaroni and cheese. I'd like to market her sweet tea -- it's the best in world.

Is there anything you tend to crave from home, stuff that you can't get in places like Houston, New York and now Denver?

They have different types of seafood in places like that. Here, we eat mullet and grouper and stuff like that. In Texas, they'll tell you that mullet is a trash fish. They've just never had it cooked right. They also don't know what really fresh seafood is like. They'll tell you it's fresh, but I can tell if it really is because I've been eating fresh seafood for so long.

Your father is the owner of Cedar Key Fish and Oyster Co. Is fishing something you and your father do together?

Actually, I really didn't fish. We did that for a living and we eat a lot of seafood, but we don't fish.

What is your favorite thing to do when you have off time? Spend time with your family?

Yeah, that's it. That's why this move to Colorado is so important. I'm at my best when I'm with my family and my kids.

So, you're planning to move the whole family to Denver?

That's the plan. But I don't think I'll have to twist their arms much. I'd like to just move Citrus County out there if I could. (On moving the family) there are still discussions going on, and I'd like to make it work. I'd like to own a ranch. That's always been my dream. Any favorite television shows or channels?

My life revolves around SportsCenter, Barney and Nickelodeon with the kids. I'm also a big-time movie buff and like to go to the theater. My oldest son loves to go to the movies with me, and it's a great way to relax for a couple of hours. Me and my father used to go to theater in New Port Richey, and we'd stay there from 3 until dark. I enjoy that kind of stuff. I took my kids to see the Grinch and really enjoyed that.

Do you follow other sports?

I like NASCAR and football. I like the Dolphins and FSU and Jeff Gordon in NASCAR.

You were an all-state football player in high school. Ever consider making a career in that sport?

Oh, of course. It was tough to make that decision, but it came down to the fact that I had a chance to live a dream. When the Mariners gave me that opportunity, I made the decision one night and, fortunately, things have worked out.

Did you have any football offers?

Quite a few. I went to every UF home game my senior year and also had letters from FSU, Rutgers and Notre Dame. People ask the question, "What would you be doing if not for baseball?' and I'd like to think I could have made it. I know that my size would be a tough factor to overcome, but they said that about me and pitching as well. But I think I have what it takes inside to be one of those guys.

You were at last year's playoff game (between Crystal River and Daytona Beach Seabreeze) to watch, I presume, your brother and your former team. Were you just there to watch Cody? Or do you still follow your alma mater?

I do like to keep up. But the first few years it was tough to watch because you still have that fire burning and still want to hit. But I'll leave that to the pros. I know how hard it is on the body. In the long term, baseball is the easier choice. You see all the time people who've played the game (football) for 8-10 years, and they are so sore they have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Those are tough guys.

Your car is a Chevy Yukon. It's a nice car, but not what one tends to see prominent athletes driving. Any fancy sports cars in your future?

I really don't enjoy things like that. My last two cars have been a Yukon and a Suburban. I don't need a fancy sports car. I don't need to spoil myself. I'd rather spend the money on other people.

As if I have to ask, but what is the upside to signing a big contract?

For me, the upside is being able to help out people who are close and dear to my heart. I can't stress enough how fortunate I am. I'm a lucky, lucky person. Not only do I get to play the best game on the planet, but I get paid to do it. Plus, I have a beautiful wife and two beautiful kids. It's like something a script producer would have written. You know, the good guy gets the girl and wins in the end. That's how my life has been so far.

Your decision to play in Colorado seems to be the talk of talk radio, especially a certain host who has said negative things about you and Denny Neagle signing with the Rockies. Do you have any kind of response to such criticism?

That's fine. A lot of the media's job is based on speculation, and a lot of times a message gets out and people view it as fact and truth. They have bad things to say, but they don't know me or the reasoning behind my decision. But it doesn't hurt me. There were a lot of factors in my choice of Colorado and the biggest was my family. People who really know me know that. There could not be a more right decision or right place to be, and that's how we felt as family. The ownership, the town and the right system..

What is the most misunderstood aspect of your decision to sign with Colorado?

The thing that gets lost in the shuffle is that people don't know how good this team is and how much of a chance to win it has. I think they're taking us a little light, but when we win the West, I think those views will change. I take it as a challenge. If they want to say our team isn't good, fine. I'll take that as a good thing because it will just help motivate everyone.

Obviously, you've pitched in Coors Field before with the Mets and Astros. Is the hype surrounding Coors Field overblown?

I'm 4-1 there. Yes, it is a tougher place to pitch and your ERA will suffer a bit. But who cares? This is about winning. What would you rather have: A team that goes 111-51 and has the best record in baseball but has a team ERA of 5.5? Or, do you want 81-81 with a team ERA of 1.5? I don't think ERA matters. We have the right group of guys, and we've put together a staff and a team that can win every day.

Talk about the Mike Hampton Foundation.

We've been thinking about this for some time and it's something we wanted to do once we were firmly planted and knew where were going to be. I've been so fortunate with everything. Based on the way I was raised from childhood, the money gives me the opportunity to give back to those who are not as fortunate. I wanted to help out charities, especially those that are really geared toward youth. They are our leaders of the future, and the people that get the scholarships (which the Foundation will award next year) could turn out to be the next President of the United States. The Boys and Girls Club has a huge place in keeping kids out of trouble and off the streets. So I feel like the money is being put to good use.

I hear you and your wife, Kautia, were high school sweethearts. Is that true?

We met during my freshman year when she kept score for the J.V. baseball team. We started dating seriously that summer, and we were married in 1992.

Are you fortunate in that you found Kautia before you became famous?

I think I'm pretty grounded being with someone I've known since I was 13 years old and got married to 7 1/2 years later. My priorities are straight, and they're set. My parents also married at a young age, so I guess I've kept the tradition. I was lucky to meet the right person early. Now I can really focus on having successful career.

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