I know Justin Morneau won the Home Run Derby, but is there any question who the people's champ is in this one? A year from now, most people outside Minnesota and British Columbia will have likely forgotten who won this year's derby. However, nobody who watched tonight's slugging exhibition will forget Josh Hamilton's performance.
Despite all the over-the-top Hollywood tales spun, there are still real life stories that are even more unrealistic. Josh Hamilton is one of those people with one of those stories. He wasn't supposed to be one of those people, which to a certain extent is precisely what makes him one of those people. Ask any baseball scout ten years ago if they could see Hamilton bashing balls around the yard like he did tonight, and they would probably ask you how you could not. Hamilton had it all - the size, the bat speed, the raw power, a cannon for an arm, foot speed. He was an athlete. He was a ballplayer. He was everything. In 1999, the Devil Rays made him a first round draft pick. First overall to be exact. They picked him over Josh Beckett, who went second overall to the Marlins. Both were can't-miss prospects.
So, in 2003 while the Marlins stunned everyone by taking the World Series from the Yankees in Yankee Stadium, at least on some level it was not all that surprising. After all, it was Josh Beckett, the can't-miss prospect, who took the ball in game six for Florida (on short rest no less), and never handed the ball to anyone else. It was Beckett, the can't-miss prospect, who came of age with the baseball world watching, on baseball's most hallowed ground.
But what about the other guy, that Hamilton kid? What was he up to as Beckett became a bona fide star? Well, he was not playing in the World Series. No post-season at-bats for him either. Of course, it did not help Hamilton that the Devil Rays did not make the playoffs. But, Hamilton didn't even trot out on a major league field at any point that year, or a minor league one for that matter. While Beckett was blossoming, Hamilton was self-destructing. He was completely out of baseball thanks to drugs.
Baseball has had its share of drug abusers and alcoholics, even quite successful ones. But they had not quit baseball like Hamilton to deal with their problems. His were serious. Hamilton's problems were not career-threatening; they had already finished off his career. His days were numbered, period. His story was one of complete tragedy, made even more glaring by Beckett's simultaneous ascension to stardom.
By 2006, the story of these two can't-miss prospects had been written. Josh Beckett had been traded to the Red Sox for every top prospect Boston had outside of Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon, and Josh Hamilton was still completely out of baseball. To Hamilton's credit, he was still alive. Considering the path to stardom Hamilton had been on, it was not exactly a good ending, but given where he seemed to be heading, it was better than expected. The only problem with the ending was that Josh Hamilton did not accept that it was the end.
Like many athletes who fall from grace, not necessarily because of off the field issues, Hamilton had his eyes set on making a comeback. Still just 26 years old, Hamilton had youth on his side, a powerful ally few athletes who try to come back have in their corner. Still, there were those pesky three years away from anything resembling competitive baseball. Those were three strikes against Hamilton, in a game where three strikes means you are out.
However, for Hamilton, that third strike must have got past the catcher. Against all odds, after nearly four years away from pro ball when it was all said and done, Josh Hamilton appeared in a New York-Penn League game for the Hudson Valley Renegades. I doubt Hamilton had dreams about the Renegades back on draft day, but this was a dream come true now. This was the kind of story Hollywood looks for, with at least a hint of reality. It is still Hudson Valley after all.
Truth be told, there was not much hope of making the big leagues for a 26-year-old who batted .260 in the New York-Penn League. The only hope was that Hamilton still had to shake off rust. But, after almost four years away from the game, battling the demons that he had, there was good reason to believe that he was a shell of the player he used to be.
This is where the story gets so unrealistic it has to be real. As fate would have it, Josh Hamilton ended up being eligible for the Rule 5 draft after the 2006 season, a draft actually designed for good players stuck in the minors with one organization for whatever reason. Surprisingly, baseball has not thought much about highly-touted players who nearly kill themselves with drugs and come back to the game years later, right at the beginning of what should be their prime. Needless to say, Hamilton did not quite fit the mold of Rule 5 player, yet he was still eligible. The Cincinnati Reds decided to take a chance on him. Any Rule 5 draftee must stay on a team's 25-man roster, so Josh Hamilton had finally made the major leagues. Just like that, he had a chance he seemed to have no chance at, all things considered.
Nobody knew what the Reds were getting in Josh Hamilton, probably not even Hamilton himself. What few stats he had accumulated in the minor leagues were utterly meaningless at this point. There was always the chance that he could go back to drugs too. There were plenty of reasons to expect Josh Hamilton would fail, even after beating all the odds to make it to Hudson Valley. Still, a Rule 5 draft pick is a pretty cheap price to pay to try to catch lightning in a bottle.
There must have been lightning in that bottle, because there was certainly thunder in Hamilton's bat. He started the year as a bench player, which was remarkable enough, but he forced his way into the lineup with a barrage of home runs that never seemed to stop. Scouts and players alike were talking about the shows he put on in batting practice too. Now, the comeback was truly complete. He had made the major leagues, and he was turning heads left and right. On the other hand though, wasn't this all how it was supposed to be? What if some scout had bunkered themselves down for Y2K and just come up for air? Beckett's exploits would not have been a surprise, and neither would have Hamilton's. Both of them were can't-miss prospects, and surprise surprise, they had not missed.
Tonight everything came full circle. Experts inside baseball knew of Hamilton's power, but there still was the public perception that this year's derby field lacked star power. As fate would have it, Hamilton batted last in the first round, and everyone before him had put on modest displays by derby standards. Before Hamilton, it looked like it would live up to its lackluster billing. This was hardly the way Yankee Stadium should be sent out. Then, with a few swings (28 to be exact), Josh Hamilton made the world right again.
Congratulations to Justin Morneau for winning the derby, but with all due respect this was Josh Hamilton's night. He came of age with the baseball world watching, on baseball's most hallowed ground, kind of like some other can't-miss prospect. If that was not enough, Hamilton's pitcher in the derby was Clay Counsil, his brother's American Legion baseball coach. What was this night like for Counsil? He surely watched Hamilton develop into the future star the Devil Rays drafted, probably from behind a b.p. screen much of the time, and there he was again as Hamilton finally reached his destiny. How did he Counsil it all together? He took the Yankee stadium mound in front of a sell-out crowd on national television (feeling any butterflies yet?), and then pitched to a player that must be unlike any other he has ever been around on so many levels. Then again, Counsil is a long-time coach, and it was just glorified b.p. It must have been surreal, like something he had done so many times before, yet never done before.
Above everything else, what was it like for Josh Hamilton when a sold-out crowd at Yankee Stadium started chanting his name? All he had to do was look down at the tattoos on his right forearm to remember where he had been. All he had to do was look out to the mound to remember what he had been destined for. All he had to do to was step out of the batter's box and listen to soak in where he is now. A smile could not be wiped off of Hamilton's face.
Hollywood would never dare to write a story like this. Only reality does.