They are opposites now, yet five years ago genetic cloning could not have produced two more similar ballplayers. Both were 18 years old with close-cropped hair, well over six feet tall. Both were Southern outdoorsmen with soft twangs, classic good looks and swaggers reminiscent of John Wayne. Both possessed magnificent baseball skills, the likes of which come along maybe once or twice a decade. One, a tobacco-chewing righthanded flamethrower off a ranch in Spring, Texas, was named Josh Beckett. The other, a five-tool lefthanded outfielder from Raleigh, was named Josh Hamilton. And, boy, could they play.
Throughout the winter and spring of 1999, the brain trusts of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Florida Marlins—the clubs that had finished with the two worst records in the major leagues in '98 and thus had the first two picks in the June 2 draft—internally debated the merits of the two Joshes, weighing every conceivable attribute. They pored over scouting reports. They interviewed friends and foes, parents and coaches. The pressure was on the Devil Rays, who had the No. 1 pick; whichever Josh was not picked first would surely be grabbed by the Marlins.
In the 34-year history of baseball's amateur draft, many a team had dramatically influenced its future course with a good or bad No. 1 pick. Imagine, for example, if the New York Mets, holding the top choice in 1966, had taken Arizona State outfielder Reggie Jackson instead of California high school catcher Steve Chilcott. Or what if in '87 the Seattle Mariners, picking first, had followed the advice of numerous scouts and taken Mark Merchant, a switch-hitting outfielder from Oviedo ( Fla.) High, instead of 18-year-old Ken Griffey Jr.?
In this case, it seemed, Tampa Bay couldn't go wrong. "Both Joshes were just fantastic baseball players, as equal as you could find," says Dan Jennings, the Devil Rays' director of scouting at the time. " Josh Hamilton was one of the two best high school position players I'd ever seen, and the other was Alex Rodriguez. But Josh Beckett was an incredibly poised, polished pitcher who was destined for great things. It was heads or tails, odds or evens. You pick one, and the other is just as good."
Tampa Bay picked Josh Hamilton.
Florida took Josh Beckett.
How could Chuck LaMar have known? True, little has gone right for the Devil Rays in his eight-year tenure as general manager, and yes, you can blame him for some horrendous decisions (trading Bobby Abreu for Kevin Stocker, signing over-the-hill free agent Greg Vaughn). But do not fault him for picking Hamilton over Beckett.
In some respects it was an easy decision. No righthanded high school pitcher had ever been taken with the first pick of the draft. Aside from the inherent risk of arm injuries to pitchers, there are always plenty of hard-throwing righties available later in the draft. Sure, the 6'5" Beckett, who had gone 10-1 with a 0.46 ERA and 155 strikeouts in 75? innings as a senior at Spring High, was special. He had a J.R. Richard-caliber fastball and a knee-melting curve. But there would be others down the line—others who weren't, like Beckett, demanding a $9 million major league contract.
Plus, Hamilton was a 6'4" statue of perfection, who threw the ball 96 mph and batted .529 with 13 home runs in 25 games as a senior pitcher-outfielder at Athens Drive High. (He also went 7-1 with a 2.50 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 56 innings.) This was not by accident. Hamilton, the younger of two brothers, was raised by doting parents who put the baseball needs of their prodigious son above all other family priorities. From the time Josh was five his father, Tony, coached his teams, often leaving his job at a construction company early and driving upwards of 200 miles to arrive at a game before the first pitch. Josh's mother, Linda, a former amateur Softball player, missed only one of his games in 12 years (because of the flu). As she told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in 2002, "Wherever Josh has been, whatever he's had to do, we've made sure to show support."
Jennings, now the Marlins' vice president of player personnel, glowingly recalls one of his first trips to watch Hamilton play. It was a home game at Athens Drive in the spring of '99, and 60 scouts surrounded the back-stop. In his first at bat Hamilton blasted a home run that seemed as if it would never come down. "But that wasn't the amazing thing," Jennings says. "After he returns to the dugout, he comes back out and serves as the batboy for his teammates. And there was this little mentally challenged kid, and Josh was treating him like his best friend.