Billy Hamilton is late. But heâ€™s coming, apparently.
Fifteen minutes go by. Tick. No Hamilton. The amiable Louisville Bats media relations inform us that heâ€™s definitely coming. Tock. Heâ€™s in batting practice. Getting settled in. On his way.
â€œBillyâ€™s a great guy,â€ offers Chadwick Fischer, Director of Media and Public Relations at the Louisville Bats. â€œHe just hates interviews. Heâ€™s the guy who everyone wants to talk to, gets the most interview requests and they always ask the same things.â€
Hamilton eventually walks into the dimly lit interview room in the lower bowels of Louisvilleâ€™s Slugger Field. No eye contact. Glove in hand, ball repeatedly thrown into glove. He slouches into his chair â€“ the expression of an arrested suspect, fully aware of the questions the police officer is about to throw his way. Heâ€™s heard this before.
â€œSo apparently you hate interviews? Iâ€™m guessing you know what Iâ€™m going to ask you. Stealing bases, the record.â€
The glare continues.
So the tape-recorder is moved aside and notepad discarded.
â€œWell letâ€™s not talk about that. Letâ€™s talk about you. No questions on stealing bases. Just on you.â€
The dissipation of tension is palpable. A smile streaks across the 22 year-old center fielderâ€™s face.
It must be hard being Hamilton, the center fielder for the Louisville Bats and ranked as one of the best prospects in baseball. You train and strain for an all-round game â€“a well equipped arsenal ready for any eventuality. Yet as a â€œfreakâ€ and â€œphenomâ€ in sport you get asked about one thing â€“ the thing you naturally do better than everyone else. A peg for one hole, even if you try to fit in several.
Hamiltonâ€™s niche? He steals bases â€“ a lot. He stole 155 of them last season in the Minor Leagues breaking a 29 year-record of 145 set by Vince Coleman. An eye-brow raising season for any other player would be 50. So for the past year, thatâ€™s what Hamilton has been asked and heâ€™s patiently answered. Why is he so good at stealing bases? Whatâ€™s it like being a one man time capsule â€“ a throwback to the baggy pant wearing days of the 1920s? Finally, when is he going to the majors?
If the Batsâ€™ star attraction is to be defined by one thing, itâ€™s not stealing but running. Itâ€™s all Hamilton remembers from his youth spent growing up in Taylorsville, Miss., a town of 1,300 people.
â€œMy town is small and there is nothing to go and do,â€ explains Hamilton. â€œThere are no malls, no stores so all you could do is play sport. Everyone from Taylorsville is an athlete because thatâ€™s all we did. Whatever the season, thatâ€™s the sport weâ€™d play. Running is just something I love to do. Most guys hate, I love it. It feels so good. Even just running sprints.â€
So while media focus on Hamiltonâ€™s base stealing, it seldom shines on his rare, raw athleticism and unadulterated love of running. Rarely is the Hamilton who relief pitched in high school at 92 m.p.h mentioned. Nor the fact that he turned down a wide-receiver scholarship at Mississippi State to follow his baseball dreams and attempt to emulate his childhood hero, Derek Jeter. In the minors he has quickly started turning singles into scored runs, making doubles into unexpected triples.
But there are other stories of Hamiltonâ€™s almost Paul Bunyon-esque escapades. Like the time he was clocked running from the plate to first base in 3.78 seconds. More remarkable was the episode when playing at shortstop, Hamilton decided to sprint across the diamond to make a diving catch for a ballÂ on the foul side of the right-field line. The ball was locatedÂ safely in his glove, while he landed midway between the first-base bag and the foul pole. If that wasnâ€™t enough heâ€™s been notching inside the park home-runs (that involves rounding the bases) in 13.2 seconds – the beluga caviar of baseball. Itâ€™s no surprise then that in 2009, he was drafted in the second round for the Cincinnati Reds with a $623,000 signing bonus to boot.
â€œI remember I played on some summer teams in high school with the guys from the same area and when we played we would go and beat everyone,â€ recalls Hamilton. â€œI remember the scouts kept calling my dad when I was in high school. No one in Taylorsville would go and watch our games but by the end of the year, the stands were just full of scouts they kept pouring in.â€
Today though Hamilton realizes that itâ€™s up to him to realize the potential that the scouts saw all those years ago. There are whispers he may go to the Majors before the end of the season. But Hamilton has yet to get the call. He knows his own weaknesses even though others choose to overlook them. Right now the most obvious is that he needs to up his average. After all,Â â€œyou canâ€™t steal first base,â€ as goes the old adage in baseball.
â€œEverybody in Taylorsville is looking up to me, I feel like kids there realize that itâ€™s now possible to be spotted. They know Iâ€™ve been through it too. But I need to become a better bunter. I can hit a little bit, but I know if I can become a better bunter then I think my game will be okay.
Later that balmy Friday evening the Bats took on Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Railriders. As the scoreboard flashed bottom the tenth inning, the score read 6-5. Two outs and Hamilton made his way to the plate. Strike. What was once a boisterous crowd had grown restless, fewer in number too. Strike. Hamilton had the chance to win the game. The ball blurred through the air, cascading at Hamiltonâ€™s bat. But a slither of air resided between the ash bat and the leather of the ball. Strike.
Hamilton knows he canâ€™t steal first base. But he wants to get to The Show – thatâ€™s why heâ€™s trying so hard.
Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune