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Wake up, shape up, or gig's up

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Pardon me, but didn't you used to be Tomorrow?

There is something familiar about you, the way you stand in a batter's box, the way you lope across an outfield. Didn't you used to be Hope? Didn't you used to be The Future?

I'm sure I know you from somewhere. There is something about the eyes, about the smile. Back in the day, weren't you Promise? Weren't you Someday?

Hey, didn't you used to be Josh Hamilton? And whatever happened to you?

Around here, Josh, it seems as if you have disappeared from the radar screen. Once, your future and that of the Rays were intertwined. No one talked about one without the other. Lately, it has been all about Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli. You have faded to the background with Matt White and Bobby Seay and the rest of yesterday's news.

Anyway, so what are you doing with yourself these days? Rays camp? Oh, that's right, I heard something about that. Supposedly you have them smiling and frowning at the same time.

For one, you caught Lou Piniella's eye by the time he crossed the foul line. You always have looked as much like a ballplayer as anyone. There is a particular snap that natural hitters have when they hit, and this spring you have shown you have it still. You still have the personality, the profile, the pizzazz.

Ah, but you raised a few eyebrows when you were late twice in a week. That's silly, Josh. When a new manager is in town, forming new perceptions, why wouldn't you be in uniform by the time Piniella had his coffee? Hey, the guy will tell you he doesn't have many rules; being on time is one of them.

There are those in the organization who still are discussing this, Josh. Is this a mild annoyance, no more than a detention hall kind of violation, or is it a sign of trouble?

By occupation, baseball people look for signs. When a player is tardy, they tend to wonder what happened the night before. They wonder if something deeper, something darker is going on. And so there are those who want to shake your lapels over this, and there are those who want to tell you stories of players who left their careers somewhere between the nightlife and the boogie.

Like the rest of us, they would prefer to believe you're going to be a big deal, and the tardiness isn't, instead of the other way around.

What's that? Yes, I've had car trouble. Yes, I've hit a snooze button when I shouldn't have. Yes, I've been 21. But this isn't an 8 a.m. sociology class you're late for. This is a job. As you admit, everyone else managed to be there.

You say the Rays have your attention. That's good. As Piniella says, "it throws up an alarm." There is a measure of discipline involved. In other words, if this really is your time, you should show up for it.

Physically, you look good. Strong, healthy, relaxed. Your arms still look like hitter's arms. Well, let's be honest. Between the flames on the left one and the panther on the right, your arms look a little like the hood of '68 Firebird.

How many is it now? Twenty-six? How can anyone have 26 tattoos on one body? Where is there room for 26 tattoos? Wait, don't tell me. But, um, could you take off your shirt? I want to read Doonesbury.

Hey, I'm kidding. It must get old when all people want to talk about are the tattoos. Everyone wants to be someone in this game, but I'm not sure the Illustrated Man is one of them.

There are doubters, of course. You have finished three seasons out of four on the injured list, and it has become easy to wonder if you ever would reach your potential. Some wonder if your tattoos signal rebellion, if your lateness was a warning sign, if your injuries were a measure of your resiliency. Some still are skeptical.

You smile at such talk, I see. You suggest the tattoos are merely a generational thing. That's true, of course. More players have tattoos in a major-league clubhouse than do not. Of course, most of them stop somewhere short of 26. As for being late, you say it won't happen again. And the injuries seem to be at bay.

Perhaps, then, it is time to reclaim tomorrow. Already, people have been reminded of your potential. Frankly, some wonder if you'll ever see the minors again.

As for you, you say you never have doubted. You always have had self-confidence. The other day, you were talking about the Hall of Fame, and you've yet to have your first big-league at-bat. Your first Triple-A at-bat, even.

On Friday, I hear, you were sitting on the bench as third-base coach Tom Foley was going through the signs. He gave you a bunt sign, and you looked at him blankly. Then you asked: "So, what's the sign for a home run?"

Another Rays coach, sitting nearby, answered: "You've got to be on the field first."

It was a nice little moment, and one that hinted at your confidence. That's good. I do have to tell you, those are lofty goals you have set for yourself. A .300 batting average, 80 RBIs, 20 home runs.

When someone mentions what a great outfield this might be in five years, you correct them with this: "Not five years. Two years." You're not exactly intimidated by this notion of the big leagues, are you?

Who knows? Maybe it all comes together. After all, you have all the tools. A great arm. A quick bat. Excellent power. Good speed.

All you need now is a better clock.

For goodness' sake, hasn't this franchise waited long enough for your arrival?

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