The legendary tales of Josh Hamilton (cont.)
She doesn't feel comfortable sharing the story. But Susan Mobley can't resist. Because, she says, it is just so Josh.
Mobley, Hamilton's 12th grade English teacher, will never forget the day that Hamilton cut class. It was during his senior year and Mobley couldn't ever remember Hamilton cutting class before. In fact, he was paranoid about getting into trouble. Hamilton was Yessir and No, ma'am. He didn't smoke or drink alcohol. He was the kid who would give his grandmother a peck on the cheek before every game. The kid who chose not to go to his senior prom because it might put him in a compromising situation. But this day was different.
"One afternoon a female student of mine was having a personal need emergency," Mobley begins. "There was an item that a woman would need and she didn't have it and couldn't get it. It was very obvious that she needed to go home and change clothes, but for some reason she could not reach her family. Then she ran into Josh. As soon as Josh saw her, he didn't hesitate. He drove her home. He cut two classes and that was not a good thing for Josh to be doing. When he got back to school, he was called into the office and our principal Walt Sherlin asked him, 'Why did you leave school without permission to take this young lady home?'
"Well," Hamilton said, "she asked me."
"It was so typical of Josh that someone asked him for help and he gave it without thinking twice about the consequences to him, to his reputation as a baseball prospect or that he might get suspended," Mobley says. "I remember our principal called me in afterward and asked for my advice on how to punish Josh. It was a very touchy issue to handle, because Josh was doing the right thing and it was just so precious."
Mobley acknowledges that Hamilton was hardly her best student, but that nobody tried harder. He was quiet and many of his schoolmates had no idea who he was. "Josh could have been a big man on campus, but he didn't have that personality," Mobley says. "He was just a very unassuming young man. The kind of kid who made everybody feel like they were his best friend."
Before many home games at Athens Drive, Hamilton invited Ashley Pittman to his grandmother's house for cheese sandwiches. Pittman was a special education student. He had Down syndrome. He was also a manager for the baseball team. Hamilton sat beside Pittman on the bus during road trips and the two often led the team in singing, "Oh Happy Day" from the movie Sister Act 2. They became so close that Hamilton often spent his free periods in the special needs classroom.
After the Jaguars lost in the state playoffs during Hamilton's senior year, Hamilton heard that Pittman was sitting alone crying on the team bus. Hamilton immediately left his teammates to console Pittman.
"What's wrong, Big Ash?" Hamilton said.
"I'm sorry, Hambone," Pittman said. "It was my fault we lost the game."
"No, Big Ash," Hamilton said. "No one person ever wins or loses the game. We win as a team and we lose as a team."
"Does that mean I'm part of the team, Hambone?"
"Of course it does, Big Ash. You know that."
Big Ash hugged Hambone. Pittman smiled the whole drive home.
After the season, Athens Drive awarded the inaugural Ashley Pittman Award to honor the athlete who best exemplified character and sportsmanship. The winner was Josh Hamilton.
When Josh Hamilton was a young kid, he and his family attended an Indians game at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. After the game, Josh waited outside the ballpark hoping to get an autograph. He didn't get a single signature that day. Linda Hamilton told her son that that if he ever made it to the big leagues to never forget how he felt.
Hamilton has not forgotten his roots in the red clay of west Raleigh. After Mark McKnight helped make Hamilton the first pick in the 1999 draft, the scout stayed connected with Hamilton even after Hamilton had been suspended for drugs and had left the Devil Rays organization. The two spoke regularly during Hamilton's suspension and McKnight promised Hamilton that he'd be there to see it if Hamilton ever played again. Sure enough, McKnight was in Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark on Opening Day in 2007 tearing up as the crowd gave Hamilton a standing ovation.
Ronnie Powell has watched the two former Little League teammates, Josh and Landon, square off numerous times in the big leagues and he is always amused at how the two tease each other when they meet at home plate during one of Josh's at-bats.
Stan Mozingo spoke to Hamilton a few years ago at a sports banquet and they laughed together about how Hamilton still so hates to take pitches that he swings at the first pitch more than any other player in the majors.
Cameron Mitchell ran into Hamilton at the Raleigh airport recently and the two old teammates still found themselves talking about girls, only this time it was Hamilton's four daughters.
In recent years Hamilton has been known to sneak into Athens Drive High to surprise Susan Mobley and her English class.
Tim Stevens has interviewed Hamilton dozens of times over the years and Hamilton has answered every question candidly, no matter how painful those memories might be.
They all watched Hamilton hit a record-shattering 28 bombs in the first round of the 2008 Home Run Derby. Clay Council was on the mound at Yankee Stadium that night. Yeah, right.
Over the years since Hamilton left Raleigh, he has had no bigger fan than Ashley Pittman. Pittman followed his early career through the minor leagues and doesn't totally understand why Hamilton took a long break from baseball. Even through the dark days of his suspension, Hamilton always stayed in touch with Pittman. He attended Pittman's 25th birthday party and has phoned him on other birthdays since. Pittman has a closet full of gear signed by Hamilton. He wears a different Texas Rangers T-shirt every day and watches almost every Rangers game on television.
Last summer the Pittman family took a vacation to Arlington, Texas. Ashley attended six Rangers games as Hamilton's guest. Texas won them all. On July 4, Ashley watched postgame fireworks on the field with Hamilton. Then in Ashley's final game in Arlington, the Rangers trailed by a run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. With Ashley sitting directly behind home plate, Hamilton blasted a walk-off home run. "You're my good luck charm," Hamilton told Ashley after the game. "You need to come stay."
"It was the best time I've ever had with Josh," Ashley says. "We're still best buddies. He told me, 'I love you, Big Ash.' Nothing has changed."
They all knew Hambone.
They all know Hammer.
Tim Crothers is a former senior writer for Sports Illustrated whose most recent book, The Queen of Katwe, will be published by Simon & Schuster in October and is available here.