Washington — Mia Hamm can't dribble at full speed, but she still has a fastball.
Hamm and goalkeeper Erin Fahey picked up their gloves and played catch on the RFK Stadium turf long after everyone else was gone following a Washington Freedom practice this week. It was a good energy release for a very competitive athlete dealing with a knee injury never mind that the baseball kept getting past her and rolling toward the old Senators dugout.
"She's a horrible fielder all rusty," Fahey said. "She's been out at the ballpark a little more than me."
The most famous women's soccer player in the country is dealing with her new role of patient and learning the patience that must come with it. Hamm hasn't played this season since having left knee surgery in February, and it's uncertain when she'll return.
"It's a fine line between motivation and frustration," Hamm said. "Toward the beginning of the year when I was out here, I was miserable, because it did stink watching those guys train every day, seeing how hard they work and knowing that I feel like I'm taking two steps backward.
"I soon realized that doesn't help them. It doesn't help me to be out here and be miserable. Do what I need to do, rehab, but have a positive attitude. It gave me a peace of mind to know that these guys are fine."
Even so, Hamm's injury comes at a bad time for both herself and the fledgling WUSA. Attendance is down 19 percent, although the average leaguewide attendance so far this season (6,552) is almost the same as the 6,556 average last season in games in which Hamm did not play.
"For us, it's a little different, because we had always had the Mia factor," Fahey said. "Everywhere we go, Mia was there, so it was a sold-out stadium. Now we don't have Mia there, so is it because of Mia or is it because it's the second season? It's hard to tell."
The Freedom, who led the league in attendance last year, drew a franchise-low 4,713 to their last home game, although it was played in driving rain. Summer weather and the upcoming school holidays will help and so will the return of Hamm. She knows this, and she's honest enough not to tease the fans by speculating on her return date.
"It's tough to put a timetable on myself," Hamm said. "If I say 'end of May' and I don't make it, I feel like I failed myself, failed these guys. But the last thing is that kids would come to a game and say, 'Well, she said she was going to be here.' "
Hamm started running last week and undergoes therapy almost daily. The best-case scenario has her returning for the Freedom's next home game, a doubleheader with D.C. United on May 18. Even if she takes another month or so beyond that, she would still have time to help the improved Freedom (2-2 entering Saturday's game at Philadelphia) make a playoff push.
"The most difficult part for her is she's never been in this situation before, where she's missed considerable time due to injury," coach Jim Gabarra said. "At the same time, she doesn't want to step on the field unless she's completely ready."
Hamm will also be out to prove she's still worthy of her superstar status or at least that she deserves a place on next year's U.S. team for what would be her fourth World Cup. She hasn't been the best player in the world for several years, but last year was probably her most difficult: She scored just six goals as the Freedom finished tied for last in the league. And she dealt with the personal turmoil of a divorce, along with the gossip column intrigue of her new relationship with Boston Red Sox slugger Nomar Garciaparra.
For soccer diehards, the head-scratching climax came when Hamm was voted the inaugural women's player of the year by the sport's world governing body, FIFA. The voters overlooked the world's best scorer and best playmaker American Tiffeny Milbrett of the New York Power and China's Sun Wen of the Atlanta Beat to recognize a player whose outstanding accomplishments came in the 1990s.
"First and foremost, they have to look at the fact that I didn't vote," Hamm said. "I never vote on those things. Regardless of the year that you have, I was extremely honored just to be nominated, but I think what it says most is that FIFA created an award for the women's game. We've been competing internationally since the mid '80s, and it's great that they're honoring the women's side of the game. That's the way I look at the award, and I was very honored to be the recipient."
Hamm was defensive last season when reporters suggested she had lost a step. It's obvious, however, that she hasn't lost any of her intensity even when it comes to rehab. After she put away her baseball glove, she was off to a physical therapy session.
"She does everything full force," said trainer Randy Rocha, who has been working with Hamm for about a month. "With rehab, it goes from depression to accepting. When I got here, she was probably in between those two. She's getting her confidence back, and that's the main thing."