The legendary tales of a Carolina kid called Hambone
Josh Hamilton was a prodigy as a young baseball player in Raleigh, N.C.
All those who saw him, from coaches to teammates, remember his amazing feats
Hamilton, now a star with the Rangers, has not forgotten where he came from
Hambone, they all called him. Josh Hamilton preferred the nickname "Hammer" as he would come to be known in the big leagues, but these folks were all close enough to Josh back then that he didn't have much choice.
They knew him before. Before his rise. Before his fall. They knew him way before he was ever chasing the Triple Crown.
They all knew Hambone.
Ronnie Powell knew phenoms. Heck, there was one living under his roof. Powell had a phenom for a son. Landon Powell would grow up to become an extraordinary ballplayer, a strong-armed, switch-hitting catcher with an explosive bat, who would one day be a first-round draft pick of the Oakland Athletics.
But Landon, well, Landon was no Josh.
Alongside Josh's father, Tony, Ronnie Powell coached Landon and Josh through various youth sports. "I remember when Josh was eight years old in Pop Warner football and he looked like a weeble with that big helmet on," Powell says. "Josh would average about 30 yards every time he touched the ball. Nobody could catch him and nobody could tackle him. They either ran him out of bounds or he scored."
Powell recalls that in basketball Josh was a point guard, completely lefthanded, and his favorite move was to dribble down the left sideline, circumventing the entire defense and lay the ball in the basket, until inevitably he became the first kid his age who could dunk.
But most of Powell's memories of Josh as a kid revolve around baseball in the West Raleigh (N.C.) Little League. He remembers coaching Josh as a seven-year-old, when Josh played pitcher and shortstop, often at the same time. Eventually Josh had to be moved from shortstop to the outfield because his first baseman so feared catching Josh's bullet throws that he began ducking out of harm's way. Whenever Josh pitched, batters backed out of the box before he even began his windup and whenever Josh came to bat, all of the infielders retreated into the outfield, until finally complaints from opposing players' parents prompted Josh's promotion to a league of older kids. Josh and Landon played on a team sponsored by Mitchell's Hair Styling and wore purple jerseys. They won three state championships in a row.
In one of those state tournaments, Josh pitched a total of 24 innings and never allowed a hit. The next season Josh won a Home Run Derby against a bunch of boys nearly twice his size. At that time, Josh was still scrawny, but he was so athletic and coordinated that he could run backward faster than the other kids could run forward.
Mostly Powell recalls how much Josh loved to play. When Josh would see one of his teammate's shoes untied, he would tie it for him just to get the game going again. After his own Little League games, Josh would hang around the fields hoping that another team would fall short on numbers and he could volunteer to join them. If that didn't pan out, he and Landon would play Cupball, a form of baseball that involved a ball made of crushed soda cups from the concession stand. "Josh was always laughing and playing with this huge grin on his face," Powell says. "Baseball came so easy to him. The difference between Landon and Josh is that Josh was the thoroughbred that runs the race and Landon was the workhorse pulling the wagon around the track. Landon was a grinder. Josh was a freak."
Powell has never forgotten a conversation he had with Bob Sanderford, the father of one of Josh's teammates. "Bob was a former college basketball player who knew youth sports really well and knew sports at a high level," Powell says. "One day after a game when Josh had done something only Josh could do, Bob leaned over to me and he said, 'That kid's going to be the first player picked in the major league draft when he's a senior in high school.'"
Josh was 10.
When Jason Hamilton played for Clay Council's American Legion baseball team, his younger brother Josh liked to tag along to watch. "One afternoon at the end of baseball practice I said, 'Hey there, young fella, you want to hit some?'" Council recalls. "I didn't think Josh would. Most 12-year-olds would be intimidated around a bunch of 17-year-olds, but not him. He said, 'Yeah, man.' After a few pitches I looked at my other coaches and I said, "You see that kid hit? You see how that ball jumps off his bat? That kid's going to be something special.'"
Josh began to join Jason for regular batting practice sessions with Council. Afterward, Josh always asked Council to analyze his swing. "He would talk to me about his bat speed, his hip rotation, his weight shift," Council says. "Even as a teenager, Josh understood the mechanical part of the game. He was just programmed to be a major leaguer."
For many years, Council worked as a volunteer assistant coach at Cary High School. One afternoon he invited Josh to take batting practice with him at the school before his team's practice began. For 30 minutes Josh launched balls over the rightfield fence into a swamp where they could not be recovered. Finally, Cary's head coach, Jim Hourigan, came running onto the field yelling, "Get him out of here. Get him off my field. He's losing all of my baseballs."
Council told Hourigan that the balls belonged to him, but it didn't solve the problem. Josh eventually hit all of Council's baseballs into the swamp. Says Council, "I remember telling him, 'I can't afford to throw to you anymore. Every time I throw a pitch that's three dollars over the fence.' The next day Josh came back with four dozen new balls and he hit them out, too."
One summer day after a batting practice session, Council told Josh, "You really hit me good today, boy."
"If I ever get to the bigs and get in the Home Run Derby," Josh told him, "you're going to throw it."
Council replied, "Yeah, right."
How do you write a story about someone when you can't believe your own eyes?
When Tim Stevens, who has written about high school sports for the Raleigh News & Observer for the last 45 years, began watching Josh Hamilton play baseball, he kept seeing things he'd never seen before.
"Josh didn't just hit home runs, he hit them further then you'd ever imagine possible," Stevens says. "He hit one during the state finals into a light tower. It was like The Natural. He was bigger than life. It was hard to write about him sometimes, because it felt like his story was make-believe."
Stevens could believe because he was one of the few people who saw the ingredients behind Josh's success. He visited the Hamilton home and noticed the worn red clay path in the backyard, which led to a frayed net that struggled to contain the line drives Hamilton hit off his batting tee. He toured Josh's bedroom filled with home run balls, trophies, baseball cards and wallpapered with newspaper clippings about Josh. That bedroom struck Stevens as the perfect place to dream.
He interviewed Josh's father, Tony, so country strong that he claimed to have once bench-pressed 540 pounds, and Josh's mother Linda, a former college softball slugger, who first met Tony at a baseball diamond one night after she had clubbed a home run. Stevens also spoke to Jason, Josh's role model, who once hit in all 36 games of an American Legion season and later played college baseball. Stevens had never encountered such a baseball family.
After Josh's junior year in high school, Stevens recalls writing a story about local athletes and their summer jobs. One kid said he'd be lifeguarding at the pool. Another working at a fast food restaurant. Josh told Stevens that his summer job would be "baseball." Stevens once asked Josh what he did after a baseball practice or a game and he said, "I come home and I hit."
Says Stevens, "My favorite story about Josh from back then is how he went to the Walt Disney World complex nine or 10 times for different All-Star games and he never once entered a theme park. Josh was there to work. He was all baseball. That was his life."