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Astros welcome back Hampton

Astros welcome back Hampton

HOUSTON -- Ed Wade's first order of business when he began his opening statement at Wednesday's press conference was to give Mike Hampton "his Astros jersey back," a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment that a Houston favorite was returning to his old team.

Hampton, who enjoyed the best years of his career while wearing an Astros uniform a decade ago, was reintroduced to the Houston media after signing a one-year deal worth $2 million, plus incentives. Buttoning up his new Astros jersey bearing the No. 11 his good friend Brad Ausmus wore for 10 years with the Astros, a beaming Hampton expressed his excitement to return "home."

"It's always been a place that I cherished wherever I went, whether it was Colorado or New York," Hampton said. "This place always held a special place in my heart."

That's not to say Hampton expects nothing to have changed since he last pitched here full-time. In fact, everything is different. His final year with the Astros was 1999, when Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio were in the prime of their careers. The Astros had won three consecutive division titles, and they also played in the Astrodome, where Hampton thrived, winning 38 games -- including 11 complete games -- while compiling a 2.91 ERA.

Now, Hampton's former Astros teammates are retired, the team hasn't been to the playoffs in three years, and Hampton will assume residency at Minute Maid Park, where he has made five starts as an opposing pitcher. He has one win, one loss and a 5.52 ERA.

"I know the park's different from where I pitched before," Hampton said. "People ask me what I think of that left-field wall, and I tell them, 'I'm a ground-ball pitcher. If the ball's in the air, I'm not doing my job anyway.'"

Hampton, a 14-year veteran, pitched for the Astros from 1994-99 and won 22 games in '99, finishing second to Randy Johnson in National League Cy Young Award voting. The left-hander has a career record of 141-105 with a 4.85 ERA over 388 games, including 334 starts.

Last season, after missing all of the previous two because of injuries, Hampton went 3-4 with a 4.85 ERA over 13 starts. He was strong in September, allowing 16 earned runs over six starts, spanning 38 innings for a 3.79 ERA.

"I made 13 starts and I wish I had another 20, because I was really going good," he said. "I anticipate things continuing, continuing to get better. I still think the stuff is there, and that it's quality."

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After reviewing Hampton's strong finish last season, Wade was convinced the veteran could likely give a full season's worth of starts, despite Hampton's injury history. That list is long -- a strained left oblique that kept Hampton out of action the entire 2007 season, surgery on a torn flexor tendon in his left elbow, a right hamstring injury and a strained left pectoral muscle.

"He just finished the season with Atlanta not missing a start down the stretch and the last nine starts were very solid," Wade said. "I don't think there's any reason, based on the performance at the end of the season -- based on medical information that we gathered and they physical that was done prior to the signing -- there's no reason to believe he's not going to be able to go out there and perform."

Hampton said his comeback bid was "the hardest thing I've ever had to endure, especially in baseball," but retiring wasn't a consideration.

"To be so close so many times, then getting to where you felt so good and strong having another [setback] ... I knew I was going to get there," he said. "I wasn't giving up. That wasn't an option."

Hampton expressed gratitude toward the Braves, who made a competitive offer to retain him. In the end, however, Houston won out, partly because of a desire to be closer to his Phoenix home and partly because his sons are comfortable here.

"I'm a little bit closer to my family, a little closer to my kids, and that was a big issue for me," Hampton said. "My kids love it here, I love it here and at the end of the day this was the right place for me.

"The Braves were great, and I called [general manager] Frank Wren and our trainers and talked to a bunch of guys. I thanked them for dealing with me and the way they treated me over the past six years. They did everything they could to sign me."

Familiar surroundings weren't the only reason for Hampton returning, however. He sees the Astros as a team with a chance to win, and on a personal level, he hopes 2009 will serve as a springboard for more healthy years in the future.

"I didn't come here as a final resting place," Hampton said. "I came here to help this team win, continue to pitch well and pitch as many years as my kids will let me."

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

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