Because 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
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.
"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.
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Athens Drive High BMOC Hamilton has size 19 feet, a 96 mph fastball and a .556 average.
Five Fellow First-rounders
Count on these players to join Raleigh, N.C., sensation Josh
Hamilton as first-round selections in major league baseball's
amateur draft from June 2-4.
POSITION SCHOOL SEASON STATS
Josh Beckett Spring (Texas) High 10-0, 69 1/3 IP,142 Ks
Throws in the mid-90s; extremely confident, hard-nosed
Bobby Bradley Wellington High, 9-1, 0.47 ERA
Pitcher (R) West Palm Beach, Fla.
Fastball in the low 90s, plus one of the best curves in the
B.J. Garbe Moses Lake (Wash.) High .588, 6 HR, 22 RBIs
All-state quarterback strives to be the next Gwynn, not Griese
Eric Munson Southern Cal .308, 10 HR, 32 RBIs
Broken bone in hand kept junior out for five weeks; returned May
2, but stock could be down
Kyle Snyder North Carolina 7-2, 3.88 ERA
6'8" junior mixes pitches well, throws hard; missed one start
with triceps tendinitis, came back strong