Published: Jun 03, 2008 01:09 PM
Modified: Jun 03, 2008 01:25 PM
The big catch
Josh Hamilton hopes to reel in a major league baseball contract
Editor's note: This story orginally ran May 5, 1999.Josh Hamilton straightens up and gives his target a sidelong glance.He tugs down a bit on his baseball cap Â— a battered, much the worse for wear, dark blue one with the letters "AD" stitched on the front in orange, an orange paw print in back Â— and pulls his left arm straight back.Leaning forward a bit, every bit of his lanky 6-foot-4-inch, 205-pound frame poised, head down, he peers once more at the target, his right arm held casually down by his side.His left arm pulls back and whips around.Plunk. The end of the fishing line drops into the water a few feet out from the dock.Catfish, bass and brim. Those are the targets this evening, as the sun begins to go down over a small pond in southeast Cary.Fishing can be awfully slow work. Watching and waiting for something to happen, for the crucial moment.The night is warm and peaceful, and Josh is patient. He's been going fishing for as long as he can remember, does it whenever he gets a chance.Once, he fished for about 17 hours straight, off a pier at Wrightsville Beach with his mom."We were pulling 'em in left and right, mmm hmm, sure were," he recalls, nodding his head. "Daggone, they were biting that day."He knows something else about waiting, these days, and about keeping his eyes trained on a target.A lot of people regard Josh Hamilton as the best high school senior baseball player in America.Last spring, the Athens Drive High left-handed pitcher and outfielder broke the North Carolina high school record for season batting average, hitting .656 with 12 home runs for a team that finished as the state 4-A runner-up.His fastball has been clocked at 96 miles per hour. He can run the 60-yard dash in 6.7 seconds. He holds the Athens school record for strikeouts in a game, sitting down 15 during the playoffs last year. This season, in 55 at-bats in 21 games, he's hitting .600, with 33 RBIs, 11 homers (one grand slam), 20 stolen bases, 24 walks and four strikeouts. He's 7-1 on the mound, with 29 walks and 78 strikeouts in 48 innings.In the fall, Josh signed with N.C. State, but he will probably never play ball there.Four weeks from today, when Major League Baseball opens its first-year player draft in New York, Josh Â— those who know these things say Â— will almost certainly be selected in the top half-dozen spots or so.The week before last, Baseball America magazine predicted he could be picked No. 1.The Phenom. The Natural. The Star. The Best High School Baseball Player I Have Ever Seen. For weeks, months, people have been calling him things like that and telling him that he will be a millionaire.Around the field, they just call him Hambone Â— a nickname inherited from his older brother."I really don't think Josh cares where he's picked, if he's picked," said his mother, Linda Hamilton. She still adds the "if," but these days, some people snicker when she does. "Josh just wants to play baseball."Josh Hamilton is a 17-year-old who has lived his whole life in Wake County, a growing teenager "on a two-hour feeding schedule," his mother likes to joke. He is a 17-year-old with a well-known sports management company, IMG, as his family financial adviser, and one who last week was interviewed and photographed by Sports Illustrated for an upcoming story on the draft.If you bring up June 2, draft day, to Josh Hamilton, he might tell you that he's supposed to be taking his final high school exams that day, in preparation for graduation June 6. And he'll probably tell you, as well, that June 2 is his father Tony's birthday.Cows must dieJosh dredges a few pieces of chicken liver up out of the bait container. With that familiar fluid throwing motion, he quickly chunks them all the way down the other end of the dock, so they arc over his fishing partner's head and splash into the water.This makes it seem as though the fish are really jumping, and his fishing partner exclaims as much.Josh accomplishes this by cutting his eyes slightly sideways, his head turning only the tiniest bit, and almost succeeds in keeping the crooked grin from spreading across his face as he looks ahead again, in the increasing shadows.Almost. The grin, and the ever-mobile facial expressions, are as much an unmistakable part of Josh Hamilton as the fastball or the swing.It's almost like he read the definition of "josh" in Webster's Â— "to tease good-naturedly, to engage in banter" Â— and patterned his personality after it. It isn't always easy to tell if he's kidding.Josh tells you that he does alright in school Â— about a 3.1 grade-point average Â— and that his favorite class is earth science. If he wasn't a ball player, maybe he could be an archaeologist. Or a weather man, maybe he could point with a bat. Oh, but maybe not, he'd have to do math.He doesn't have a very good memory, he'll suggest. Ten minutes later, he'll be reciting the order in which teams will pick in the first round of the draft.He jokes about "the big 19's, " his feet. Dress shoes, he said, are hard to come by."A couple of cows have to die," he says. And here comes the grin.Eating comes up"Eat, how about cook. I can break down on some cooking," Josh says, smacking his lips the tiniest bit. "Mmm hmm. What did I cook the other day? Oh, some spaghetti. It was good, too."He "daggones" and "naaahs" his way through several stories, imitates the talking Big Bird he's bought for the baby that his brother Jason's wife is expecting, twirls his heaviest baseball bats around like a 6-year-old's baton, and demonstrates a little two-step.Even stories about childhood mischief are delivered in a deadpan drawl, when Josh plays up Country Boy.Once at a ballfield, waiting for his parents or brother to play, well, some kids were behind the bleachers, some rocks started getting thrown. The sliding glass door of a nearby home went "crrr-ash.""I think that was my curveball," Josh says.Josh twirls his keys, including the one to his 1989 blue Camaro, as he sits in the dugout after practice. Attached is an orange plastic key chain with a blue Jaguar printed on one side, the word "kindness" on the other.Details slowly emerge. This is part of Athens' version of the school system's character education program. If you regularly demonstrate one of the key character traits, you get a keychain."If the administrators see you with this (keychain), you get some free fireballs," Josh says. Free candy still makes him happy.Josh takes nothing for granted, talks about going to State, says he could always get hurt, things could happen.He shrugs when asked about all the nice things that people say about him separate from baseball."I like it, I guess," Josh says in a rare moment of gravity. "Mom asked me if I got tired hearing what a sweet boy I am. I said 'Well, no, it's alright I guess. It could be worse.'"Josh has never been one to watch sports much, other than going to other high school and Legion baseball games. What could be more boring than watching sports on TV, he says."Unless it's the World Series or something," he says. "Now, baseball on Nintendo, that's fun."Every year, for Christmas, his grandmother gives Josh and his brother complete sets of baseball cards. They remain unopened. He's never had a baseball poster hanging in his room, never had a favorite player, never read much about the game."Never had a favorite team," he says. "Still don't."And here comes the grin.It flashes on the darkening dock when his fishing partner Â— his mother Â— catches on to the bait-chunking bit. He is trying to sing and act innocent."Josh Hamilton, are you being hateful to your mama?" she exclaims."Oh, Mom," he drawls, "you know I love you."Same old, same oldThe scene has been repeated most every weekend for the past dozen years or so. It's afternoon, and Josh Hamilton's father is throwing batting practice.The wind swirls on this unseasonably cool Sunday, as they go through the ritual, this time in the batting cage next to first base at the Athens Drive field.The crack of the bat Â— it's very loud when Josh is hitting Â— usually brings out a few of Josh's young fans, preschoolers whose houses back up to the field. They stand or sit along the chain link fence, smiling at him. He smiles back."It's been a long time since there was a day that I didn't pick up a bat or ball," he said. During the off-season, Josh spent a lot of time working out at home, adding velocity to his pitches and power to his swing.Josh lets a ball rip, and it bounces off a pole back toward his dad, standing behind a net. One day, Linda Hamilton worries, Tony is going to get hit hard.She's told him and told him that he ought to wear a batting helmet, but well, you know how men can be. "I'm not batting," he'll joke. He used to throw batting practice without standing behind a net. At least until Josh was 12.How many times has Josh beaned his father, who also serves as his practice catcher when he pitches, over the years?"I think he's put me in the hospital three times, real bad," Tony Hamilton said, straight-faced. Then his son rolled his eyes, and he laughed. "Really, he's hit me about six times I guess. Nothing bad. I'm pretty good at ducking."One time, Josh told his parents that other students in sociology class were talking about how teenagers don't like to be seen with their parents. When he told them this, they were sitting in a movie theater lobby together, probably on the way to see an action movie."I'll claim them," he said. "Every now and then."Josh has lived in the same house for his entire life, south of Tryon Road between Yates Mill Pond and Lake Wheeler roads. His parents built the house on land that used to be part of the farm where his mother grew up."I think the hog pen used to be where my room is," Josh jokes, "or maybe it was that goat.""That was a good goat," his mother returns.Around home, there is little draft hoopla, or whatever you'd like to call it."Same old, same old," Josh says.Josh doesn't get an allowance Â— his parents give him money for things when he needs it Â— and he has regular chores around the homestead. Mostly, these would be "cut the grass, cut the grass and cut the grass," he says. He has been known to push a vacuum or a dust rag, too."I never wanted him or his brother to be dependent on a wife," Mrs. Hamilton says.Besides, if he hadn't spent so many hours with a push mower and a weedeater, Josh suggests, to his mother's laughter, he wouldn't have so much power behind his swing.What might it be like to play baseball for a job?"A Fun Job," Josh said. "I'm ready to get started."Home away from homeBy the time that Joshua Holt Hamilton was 4, he was getting on close terms with baseball. And with football and basketball.He was the kind of kid who had to be convinced to change out of his dirt-streaked uniform, the kind who moved seamlessly from one sport, one season, to the next.Josh and his brother Jason, older by four years and now a Marine stationed in Beaufort, S.C., came by their love for sports naturally. It was part of family life all through their boyhood years, as Josh attended Swift Creek Elementary and later East Cary Middle.When Linda Hamilton was a student at Cary High, she wanted to play softball. There was no girls softball team at that time. She went out for the baseball team."I made the team but they kind of asked me not to play ... " Mrs. Hamilton said. "We got a softball team later. We had a good softball team."Tony Hamilton played baseball as a kid and football at Cary High, where he spent part of his prep career before his family moved to Franklin County. He and Linda met on a softball field out at Carolina Pines. But that's another story.Both played on adult softball teams. Tony coached a national championship team that Linda played on, and over the years, their sons served as water boys and bat boys. The parents hung up their gloves as the boys began playing. Josh started in coach-pitch at 5.Every season, his parents coached, kept scorebooks, hauled equipment. Evenings and weekends meant ball. "It was like that for a long time," Josh said. "When baseball season started, it was hard to find us at home. I don't know how many hot dogs I've eaten at ballparks."If no one had a game, Josh and Jason would be out in the yard playing catch.When Josh was 7 or 8, playing mostly shortstop at the time in a coach-pitch league, the parents of some of the other players thought he threw the ball too hard. One of the other boys, they said, is going to get hurt, and Josh can just sit out until he's old enough for the next league up, the 9- to 12-year-old league, where the kids pitch.Forget that, the Hamiltons said. The state commissioner came down to see Josh. Josh moved up to the next league. In Little League, he was part of five state championship teams.By the time Josh was 14, he was playing for Fuquay-Varina American Legion Post 116, something the typical player does at about 16.He was pitching at age 10 and at some point, Josh has played every position on the field. Once in fall ball, he played five different positions in one game: pitcher, catcher, third base, shortstop and center fielder."He's always excelled in all sports, but came a time when he had to make a choice," Mrs. Hamilton said. He gave up football after his ninth grade year.The summer before his junior year at Athens, Josh began attending showcases, and his stock rose. It went through the roof last summer when he made appearances at showcases in several states.On all his trips, he takes along his fishing gear, in case of a break. His first rod, a Mickey Mouse model, retains a place of honor at home.For years, Linda Hamilton has kept scrapbooks for her sons. Last week, she ran across two paragraphs that Josh wrote long ago in elementary school, one must've been in first grade or so, to judge by the handwriting (it's the kind you see from kids when they're just learning to curve their little fingers around those fat pencils).The children, apparently, were directed to write about being a professional athlete. Josh's paragraph is titled, "I would be a baseball star.""I can play it good and I like it. I would make a lot of money if I play hard. I would sign autographs for my fr(i)ends. I would do television shows too. In fifty year(s) I would coach the baseball team."The other one has a similar theme. Under Josh's pencilled-in sentences, his teacher has written in pink marker: "You might be a famous player one day." She drew a smiley face.Let's count the IntrepidsThere have been only four days lately that Josh hasn't fielded calls from professional baseball scouts. Those days came during spring break with his parents at the beach, with fishing filling much of the time.Among Josh's Athens Drive teammates, the joking goes something like this.How many Intrepids are in the parking lot today? Is the Intrepid the official car of Major League Baseball scouts or something? Can't you get your scouts not to take our parking spaces at the field, Josh? Man.Every single team in the majors has contacted Josh. They call, visit, and call some more. Scouts. Scouting directors. Cross checkers. At one early season game in March, he figures there were about 50.Lately, most haven't called as much. The teams with the first four picks Â— Tampa Bay, Florida, Detroit and Arizona Â— call more than the others.At first, Josh had to take a lot of tests, from eye tests to psychological questionnaires. For a while, it's been more about getting to know him and his family.Also surely coming up in conversation is the fact that Josh Â— 96 mph fastball or not Â— doesn't really want to pitch at the next level. He doesn't want to "sit four days and do nothing." He wants a try as a position player first.Scouts drop by practice. When he's playing, Josh ignores them."I know they're here, but I don't try to overdo it," he said. "At practice, I think of them as parents with kids on the team. At games, I think of them as fans. It doesn't bother me."For a long time, the Hamiltons didn't have an answering machine. If it's important enough, they figured, they'll call back. Once college scouts started calling, they bought an answering machine."We've gone through three of those things now," Mrs. Hamilton said, rolling her eyes."It's been quite a year," Mr. Hamilton said.By August, financial advisers Â— you might call them agents Â— were phoning so much that the Hamiltons picked a dozen or so and had them come out for visits. They selected Casey Close and Brian Peters of IMG. Their job would be to make sure Josh is treated fairly in the draft, his father said, and to take care of him in the minors.Keep in mind that last year, one of the top three draft picks received a signing bonus of $3.7 million.In the face of such things, one of Josh's parents goals has been to make sure his senior year was as normal as possible. Work hard, have fun, appreciate this once-in-a-lifetime moment, they have told him. Don't get uptight, don't overanticipate, plan to take some college classes in the offseasons if you go pro."When people tell you that you're going to be picked number one, you're going to be picked number two, you're going to make millions, that can be pretty big stuff for a teenager," Mrs. Hamilton said. "But he's done really well with it all. ..."I know some of it affects him a little, but we try to talk to him a lot about it, just communicate."Josh gets letters from all across the country, asking for autographs. After most games, a few children will gather and hold up baseballs. They love Josh.And Josh, his mother said, doesn't see bad in anybody. Most of the time, he is right. Sometimes, he is not. There was one man, for example, who showed up with a case of baseballs, suggesting that Josh sign them for him."No thank you," Mrs. Hamilton told him. Josh won't sign blank cards where other things can be written.Josh has overheard conversations in which classmates say things like, "One day, when I see Josh Hamilton on TV, I can say he gave me this."If he finds this bizarre, he is mostly taking it in stride, with those big 19's."I've been coming out of class and people are standing there with balls or articles for you to sign," Josh said. "It's like ... dag."Every action tells a storyJosh stories abound. When he was really sick for a while this spring, he had to leave one game after three innings, although it hurt him nearly as badly to leave as to be sick; he hit two home runs first. An umpire tells of hearing Josh mutter, "I'm tired of getting walked," and digging a pitch out of the dirt, hitting it a good 350 feet. A coach quips that next time his team plays Athens, he'll wear a lead vest to protect himself from the scouts' radar guns.After a recent game, Josh hung around the field.He broke out his wooden bats and hit for the six or eight scouts on hand, his dad pitching as one after another, Josh knocked balls over the fence, with the seemingly effortless grace that gifts his play. Then Josh clambered over the fence to shag balls.He joked around with Athens team manager Ashley Pittman, then took his cousin's little boy Justin, who turns 2 on May 20, the day before Josh will turn 18, and who sometimes wears an orange T-shirt with Josh's current number, 31, on the back, for a spin on the riding lawn mower. He chatted with his agents.Josh's resume, so to speak, is a bit like this too. The page of high school baseball highlights that his mother keeps features a long list of awards. Things like "Preseason All-American" alternate with things like "Threw out first pitch for Garner Little League season."Between greeting scouts, Josh greeted his family. The Hamilton-Holt clan Â— 10, no 11, at most games Â— and the scouts can pretty well fill up the bleachers at some high school ballfields.Josh's goals this season were simple: "Get back to the state championship series. Have fun. Try to do my best and get the team to do their best."The hardest thing, he said, about the draft business is the waiting.His father adds to this. When Josh gave up a home run in one game, fans yelled, "Yeah, Major League.""They expect him to hit a home run every time, or to strike out everyone," Mr. Hamilton said."It's kind of hard for a kid being under such a microscope," he said, "but he's done real well with it. People come to see you, looking for weaknesses. That's the scouts' job, to criticize. It's kind of amazing he's done as well as he has this year I guess."His grandmother, mom and dad rarely miss a game. What might it be like, to go off somewhere in the minors, without his family?"They'll probably go with me," Josh said."We've never missed a game he's played yet," Tony Hamilton said. "Why start now?"End of the dayNow it's really dark on the dock. No one remembered to bring a lantern.Josh packs up the folding chairs, the tackle boxes and rods, and wipes his bait-slimy hands on a towel.By this time, he has nibbled on the bait Â— the cooked hot dogs portion of it Â— more than any fish has.Thursday afternoon is Athens' final regular season game, at home against Millbrook. When that season ends, Josh plans on playing Legion ball for a while.Going up the hill from the pond to the parking lot, he jokes about Friday the 13th movies, set on dark shores like this one. How many of those daggone movies are there any way?For once, there are no fish to count. And here, Josh would throw them back anyhow.It might be the last time, but on this night at least, the 17-year-old whom many people regard as the best catch in baseball has struck out.
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