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Baseball Draft

Prospect with All the Tools

Josh Hamilton hits, fields, pitches and is the darling of this year's draft

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Posted: Wednesday June 02, 1999 01:27 PM

By Jeff Pearlman

  Josh Hamilton Hamilton could be a big leaguer as a pitcher or a hitter. Jim Gund
Sports IllustratedBecause humility is a commodity highly prized in Raleigh, N.C., no one in the Hamilton household will say what seems obvious: They knew. Tony and Linda Hamilton knew, of course. Heck, their baby boy, Josh, was just seven years old the first time one of the rockets he launched from shortstop left a maroon welt on the battered palm of an unsuspecting tyke first baseman. Parents would complain to Linda, call her son a bully, a freak of nature. Finally, when nobody on Josh's team would play first anymore ("They all started ducking when the ball came," he recalls), Linda got her boy moved up to Little League.

The teammates changed. So did the opposing players. The maroon welts did not. The Hamiltons knew. No doubt about it.

In Raleigh, at Athens Drive High, everyone tells Josh Hamilton tales, save for the boy himself. John Thomas, the Jaguars' baseball coach, remembers seeing Josh a couple of years back at a skills camp at North Carolina State. "I didn't know who he was," says Thomas, "but he was 6'3", 190 pounds, and I just knew -- from his size, from the way he shook my hand, from his demeanor -- that this kid had something special."

Joey Bell, one of Thomas's assistants, flips the reverse button to three seasons ago, when, as a sophomore, Josh suffered such intense growing pains that his whole body felt as if it were coming apart. He could barely swing the bat. He never pitched. In the playoffs, against Lee County, he took the mound. "The kid threw four shutout innings without having thrown all year," says Bell. "That doesn't happen. It just ain't supposed to be."

Consider this: Josh Beckett, the highly touted righty from Spring (Texas) High, throws his fastball in the mid-90s. He has scouts drooling. Eric Munson, the Southern Cal catcher, hits for power to all fields and is a defensive standout. He has scouts drooling. Josh Hamilton, the probable No. 1 pick in the June amateur draft, is 7-1 with 83 strikeouts in 47 innings this season and ticks 96 mph on the radar gun. He is batting .556 with 11 home runs, 34 RBIs and, most astonishingly, only four whiffs in 63 at bats. He hits for power to all fields. In centerfield he's an instinctive defender with a phenomenal arm and a smooth, quick stride that helps him cover the alleys with ease. Thomas says, "Can you imagine someone so good at so much that he could be a lefthander throwing 96 miles per hour -- and not be wanted as a pitcher?"

Imagine. If the Tampa Bay Devil Rays select Josh, who is 17, with the top pick, he will become the first high school outfielder drafted No. 1 since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1987 -- and not the first pitcher since Brien Taylor in '91. That just ain't supposed to happen. Precocious lefties with lightning arms don't pop up often. When they do, you snatch 'em. Josh, however, is as complete an amateur position player as they come.

"He's better at this game than anyone else I've seen in high school or college," says Thomas, a former outfielder at East Carolina. Josh's swing, honed with years and years of in-season BP, off-season BP and backyard BP, is creamy-smooth. A slight lift of the front leg, a cock or two of the high left elbow, then -- whoooosshh! -- the perfect flow of aluminum through wind.

Recently, following an Athens Drive game, a couple of scouts asked Josh to stick around and hit. He did. About 20 pitches were thrown at him. Eight went over the outfield wall. "He has every tool we look for in a position player," says Dan Jennings, Tampa Bay's scouting director. "The best thing is his intensity. He's shown us a true passion for the game. You don't always find that."

Relaxing in the school gymnasium on a recent rainy Wednesday, size 19 feet propped up on an empty chair, Josh, who is now 6'4" and 205 pounds, looks every bit the Athens Drive BMOC. He's approached by men, women, boys, girls. Hey, Josh. Wassup, Josh? Young women pass by, give him the once-over. How're you doing, Josh? He doesn't seem to notice. He dates regularly but will not be attending the senior prom. "I can't have anything bad happen to me now," he says. "If I'm put in an awkward situation ... there's too much on the line."

He is handsome, with chiseled features, blue eyes, a short crop of light brown hair that never seems out of place. He's quick with a self-deprecating story. "My mama, sometimes she tells people about this pin she keeps with her," says Josh. What's it for? "So she can do this" -- he takes an imaginary needle, pokes it in his head and makes a deflating pfffff.

Linda Hamilton, a former amateur softball player who was good enough to make the boys' varsity baseball team at nearby Cary High in the late '70s, laughs softly. She is proud of her son. Not surprised, proud. In 12 years she has missed only one of his games (in 1998, with a harsh case of the flu). Wherever Josh goes next season, she promises she and her husband will follow. (Josh's older brother is 21.) If he is starting for yooouuur West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx, the Hamiltons will be the newest residents of Jackson, Tenn. If the Billings Mustangs become his destiny, well, there are worse places to live than Montana. Right? Right.

"We've always been there for each other," says Linda. "Wherever he's been, whatever he's had to do, we've made sure to show support. He's still just a boy. I don't feel comfortable yet sending him out into the world by himself." The Mahoning Valley Scrappers? Says Linda, "If we have to move to Mahoning...." A moment of thought. "Where is that?"

The Hamiltons' aw-shucks, down-home humility makes Josh all the more appealing. He does not want to pitch. But if, let's say, Tampa Bay reverses strategy and plucks him as the next Nolan Ryan, there will be no J.D. Drew II: I'm Too Good for You. Josh says that he'll be happy with a fair offer. Specifically, something slightly higher than the $8 million over five years that last year's top selection, first baseman Pat Burrell of the University of Miami, got. "It's like my dad sometimes says," Josh says. "We're not lookin' to take anybody to the cleaners."

Late last year, the Hamiltons were besieged by about 20 agents pitching to represent their son. One by one, the suits found their way to Raleigh. One by one, they were turned away. "One guy, he was polite the whole time -- very friendly, courteous, all that," says Josh, who has an adviser from IMG and plans to sign with the agency after he gets drafted. "The minute we told him no, he turned mean. I was like, Doggone, why be like that?"

Josh catches himself. "I'm sure they were all fine," he says. Of course, they weren't all fine. Josh sees that. But the kid from Raleigh also recognizes this: Mean folks make no difference. One day he'll be a major leaguer. Trust us -- he knows.

Issue date: May 17, 1999

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