AP File Photo
Billy Hamilton hits a two-run triple during the third inning of the MLB All-Star Futures game in Kansas City, Mo., on July 8. Hamilton has a combined 113 stolen bases this season for Double-A Pensacola and Class A Bakersfield.
MOBILE, Ala. — From the top rows of Hank Aaron Stadium, the chorus of crickets and frogs is getting loud on this damp, slow night in the Southern League. Inside the ballpark, it’s pretty quiet in the late innings, with maybe 150 fans sticking around.
Until Billy Hamilton ambles to the plate.
“Here he comes!” bellows a beer-guzzling man in the box seats. “He’s going to the Hall of Fame!”
Well, we know this much: Hamilton eats fast, he talks fast and man, can he run fast. The Cincinnati Reds prospect is blazing around the bases this summer, on track to set the professional record for steals in a season.
The wiry, 21-year-old rocket went into the weekend with a combined 113 stolen bases for Double-A Pensacola and Class A Bakersfield. Come Monday, he’ll have 35 games left to swipe the mark of 145 set by Vince Coleman in 1983 for Macon in the South Atlantic League.
“I can’t be caught,” Hamilton says, nonchalantly.
OK, that’s a bit of an overstatement. He’s been nabbed 25 times, with pitchers trying all sorts of tricks to stop him.
But he keeps running, 90 feet at a time.
“That’s part of the makeup of a basestealer,” Coleman said Friday in a telephone interview. “Like a burglar breaking into a house. They’re not going to catch you, that’s how you think.”
“I haven’t seen the young man, I haven’t spoken to him. But I keep getting calls and emails about him. They say he has so much raw talent,” Coleman said. “I have no problems with him breaking my record.”
On this evening, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos and Mobile BayBears are tied at 6 when Hamilton leads off the top of the seventh. He’s in no hurry to reach the batter’s box. It’s the only time he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry.
Hamilton promptly lines a sharp single to center field. Even though he was caught stealing a few innings earlier, everyone knows what’s coming next.
“It’s freakish,” manager Jim Riggleman marvels. “He’s trying to do everything he can to steal a base.”
“He’s fearless. He’s a flyer,” the former big league skipper says.
From her seat behind the Pensacola dugout, Polly Hamilton leans in. She’s driven nearly 2½ hours from the family home in Mississippi to see her son. She left behind his favorite meal of shrimp, sweet cornbread and Mountain Dew — he had a root canal the day before.
“Everyone in baseball is talking about him,” she beams. “He says he’s going to get that record.”
The buzz really began to pick up this month at the All-Star Futures Game in Kansas City, when Hamilton already had 104 steals for Bakersfield — the team is named the Blaze, fittingly. He tripled in the showcase, then scored when the pitcher fielded a comebacker, got distracted watching Hamilton dance off the bag, and made a three-base throwing error to first.
When Hamilton returned to the dugout, Hall of Famer George Brett kidded him.
“He said I should’ve stopped at first base on the hit, then stolen second and third for fun,” Hamilton said.
More recently, there was the YouTube video of his inside-the-park home run. He circled the bases in 13.8 seconds and scored standing up in his first week with Pensacola; Los Angeles Angels speedster Peter Bourjos was clocked in 14 seconds on his inside-the-parker this year.
Hamilton’s dash also wreaked havoc for Pensacola play-by-play radio announcer Tommy Thrall. Once he saw the center fielder corral the ball, Thrall said he looked toward second base to spot Hamilton “and there was no one there. He was already rounding third.”
Thrall knew what to expect, too.
“I’d seen him in the Midwest League,” he said, “but that was before he was the legendary Billy Hamilton.”
On this Gulf Coast night, Hamilton is itching to run. He sheds his white batting gloves, slips on his gray sliding pair and stalks to a big lead past the grass cutout on the dirt.
The Mobile pitcher snaps a throw to first, Hamilton steps back safely. Another pickoff try, Hamilton dives in. A third pickoff, then a fourth. No chance.
When the big right-hander finally goes to the plate, he’s too quick. He never comes to a full stop and the three umpires all shout “Balk!”
Rattled, the pitcher is pulled. Moments later, Hamilton trots home with the tiebreaking run on a bloop single.
The next inning, Hamilton hits an RBI single and steals second without a throw.
“I don’t have to count how many steals I have,” he says after an 8-6 win. “The fans let me know. They tell me how many I have.”
He is, however, totally aware of how he makes other teams jittery. There have been dozens of wild pitches, balks and wild throws when he’s on base, plus bunches of bobbles when he’s hit grounders.
“I can see the guys in the other dugout coming to the top step when I get on first,” he says. “It’s not like they want me to get on base, but I can hear them ... ‘Run, Billy, run!”’
His mom says he was that way his whole life in Taylorsville, Miss., population about 1,400 and also the hometown of NFL quarterback Jason Campbell.
“He did everything fast,” she says. “At the dinner table, he’d take that last bite and then he gone!”
The Reds picked Hamilton in the second round of the 2009 draft, and he chose baseball over a chance to play wide receiver at Mississippi State. That summer in rookie ball, he stole only 14 bases in 43 games — hardly resembling anything close to all-time steals king Rickey Henderson, who also holds the single-season major league mark of 130.
Why so few?
“I didn’t know I was fast,” Hamilton said. “Where I grew up, a lot of guys were as fast as me.”
Hamilton credits minor league manager Delino DeShields, himself a former speedy big leaguer, with teaching him the art of stealing. Hamilton stole 103 bases at Dayton last year and got off to a better start this season under Bakersfield manager Ken Griffey Sr.
Along the way, Hamilton has made a name for himself, albeit a familiar name for baseball historians. In the late 19th century, “Sliding Billy” Hamilton stole more than 900 bases and reached the Hall of Fame.
“I didn’t know about him before,” Blazin’ Billy says. “I do now.”
Hamilton is hitting over .300 with an on-base average over .400. Some have speculated he could be a pinch running weapon for Cincinnati during a playoff push, but the Reds don’t seem eager to rush him.
Besides, there’s still a question of what position he might ultimately play. He short arms his throws from shortstop, contributing to nearly 30 errors, and could wind up at second base or center field. And at about 6 feet and around 170 pounds, his body can fill out.
“He is right on schedule in general,” said Bill Bavasi, the Reds’ vice president of scouting and player development. “In some respects, in a lot of people’s minds including mine, he might be ahead of schedule.”
“He’s competing really well initially in a really tough, tough level of baseball. There’s a high level of raw ability here at this level, and it’s almost all on its way up,” he said. “He’s holding his own so far and essentially played well. So he’s meeting a new challenge at a really young age.”
As for Hamilton’s frame, “nature’s going to take its course,” Bavasi said. “The idea that we would tell him to put on more weight — that’s a mistake we’re not going to make. He’s got plenty of strength packed in that body right now. Pound for pound, he might be as strong as anybody.”
His desire to keep running, no worries there.
Hamilton’s day in Mobile done, he goes into the stands for a quick visit with his mom. After a hug, he trots across the diamond toward the clubhouse behind the right-field wall.
The stadium is empty, only one more thing to do. He veers a few feet out of his way and steps on second base.
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