Mike Hampton grew up dreaming of one day pitching in the major leagues.
On those days when he could picture it just perfectly, he'd always find himself standing on the mound, a winner, when the championship was secured.
Last month, the former Crystal River standout athlete and current Houston Astros pitcher was on the mound when the Astros clinched the Central Division title.
Now Hampton knows what most who fantasize never actually find out: The dream can never, ever match the reality.
"I used to always dream about it, but it can never be as good as actually doing it," Hampton said last week from his family's home in Citrus County. "To be on the mound when we clinched was probably the best feeling I've ever had in sports. When that last out was made, everybody on the team exploded. We had been working so hard and we had finally gotten it done. To reach the post-season for the first time in 11 years, there are just no words to explain it."
After a season that can be described as both tumultuous and triumphant, the 25-year-old Hampton is spending his days during the off-season at a more leisurely pace.
He's playing charity golf tournaments, traveling, visiting friends and family.
Last Friday night, he was the center of attention at Crystal River High when he participated in the field-goal kicking contest that is held at halftime of each home football game.
Hampton, at the game to watch his younger brother Cody, kicked the ball from midfield and narrowly missed sending it through the uprights to win a 1997 Ford truck.
"I tried coach," Hampton later told Crystal River coach Earl Bramlett.
The past few months have been good for Hampton, both on and off the field. But there was a time early in the year when the left-hander questioned whether he wanted to continue playing the game he has loved all his life.
It happened in a game at San Diego shortly before the All-Star break. His overall record was 1-5, but he had made it through four innings, the Astros led 6-0 and things were looking good.
Then he gave up five runs and couldn't complete the fifth inning.
"It was the lowest point I ever had in baseball and it was the low point of my career," Hampton remembered. "I wasn't having fun anymore. There are times you go through ruts and you're not doing well, but it had been going on for almost two months. It got to the point where I almost erupted. I thought I couldn't handle it."
Hampton's wife, Kautia, knew differently. When he arrived home after that game, Hampton took some time to play with his 2-year-old son Gage, then had a long talk with his wife.
"She said when you're not happy, we're not happy, and the only way you'll be happy is out there competing and doing well," Hampton said. "Then she told me to go out and forget about everything else but baseball. That's the way it's got to be. She's probably one of the biggest reasons for my turnaround."
Hampton finished the season 15-10, second on the team to Darryl Kile. He said he considers himself fortunate to play on a team whose players are like family.
But whether Hampton gets to go to the park with the likes of Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell again next season remains to be seen. His contract was through 1997, so he will spend the winter in negotiations.
Published reports in Houston say contract negotiations have begun with Kile, whose market value is estimated at about $28-million over four years. Those same reports indicate that because Hampton has proven to be a dependable starter, management might consider starting pitcher Shane Reynolds expendable because he's scheduled to make more than $3-million next season.
Whatever the case, Hampton said he won't spend his off-season worrying about it.
"I won't worry about that until January," he said. "I know I'm not their first concern. They are going to try to sign Kile and they have the expansion draft and players to protect. It always seems to work out for the best."