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Hammer time ?

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Since the day they made him the No. 1 pick in the June 1999 draft, the Rays quickly have gotten used to being amazed by Josh Hamilton.

They've marveled at his maturity, his undying love for the game and work ethic, his pulsing combination of speed, power and grace.

But they hadn't seen anything like this.

Hamilton showed up early for spring training saying the attention and accolades of being one of the game's top prospects hadn't changed him, that he was still the same shy and humble kid from North Carolina who lived with his parents.

And then he took off his shirt.

One, two, three, four, five, six tattoos now adorn his upper body: a nickname and a symbol on each arm, and a pair of designs on his chest. You only had to watch and listen to the reaction of the other players to understand what a shocking development this was.

"Josh?" teammate Steve Cox shrieked at the news, then scurried to look for himself. "Josh Hamilton?"

The tattoos aren't all that's new about Hamilton this year. He's a little bigger, a little stronger, a little wiser. And, most importantly, a lot closer to the major leagues.

Last year, Hamilton's presence in major-league camp was a novelty, a chance for the big-league staff and players to get a look at him, and he they.

This spring, he's there for a more important purpose: a chance, at age 19, with less than one full season at the low end of Class A ball, to win the job as the starting rightfielder.

"It's just a question if he's truly ready," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "We're going to give him every opportunity to show what he can do in spring training. He's going to get his at-bats, he's going to get his hits, he's going to make his outs, and somewhere around the middle of March we'll decide whether it's time to send him back or can he really truly make a run at it."

The Rays tend to be conservative in personnel matters anyway, and LaMar and manager Larry Rothschild say they are going to be absolutely, positively sure they are doing the right thing for the team and for Hamilton.

First, they want to see how well he does during the exhibition season that starts this week. "He has to come in and put up numbers," LaMar said. "There's a point when you're fighting for a major-league job when no matter how good of a prospect you are, you have to dominate."

But they are even more interested in some less quantifiable qualities, specifically how Hamilton handles the failure and struggles that are sure to surface.

"It's not going to be one defining thing," Rothschild said. "It's going to be where he is physically and mentally. He's got all the tools. It's just a question if he's matured to the point that he's ready to play in the big leagues."

Hamilton, naturally, anticipates their concern and, much the way he mashes a hanging curve, dismisses it abruptly.

"I think I can handle it," he said. "I'm not going to give them any reason not to have me up here besides if they think I'm not ready as far as age or I don't know what. But as far as playing ability, I'm not going to give them any reason to think I'm not ready."

Having seen all but four of the baseball games his son has ever played, Tony Hamilton is even more sure Josh is ready.

"It's just a matter of what they want to do with him and how soon they want to bring him up," Tony Hamilton said. "There's no question he can play."

Josh said it is a dream to even have a chance to make it to the majors this quickly, but one he expects to quickly become reality. "That's what I'm here for, to make it," Josh said. "How fast? I don't know if that's up to me or not. It's up to me in a way as far as the numbers I put up, but I don't have the say-so."

Tony Hamilton figures that after a couple seasons of development, Josh will be hitting 50 or 60 homers a year. Until then? "It's just a matter of having at-bats, and my personal opinion is if you're going to have at-bats you might as well face the best pitchers instead of someone learning how to pitch," he said. "In the major leagues the ball is around the plate most of the time, and Josh will hit it if it's around the plate."

Father and son have talked repeatedly about the pressures and the pitfalls, and say that Josh is prepared for the ups and downs. Tony explains that Josh has always done better when playing with older kids and that his performance improves under pressure.

The jump from Class A to the majors is not that uncommon, but it is not without peril. Two current Rays players did it, outfielder Jose Guillen with the Pirates in 1997 and infielder Mike Caruso with the White Sox in 1998, and both still are trying to establish, or re-establish, themselves as everyday major-leaguers.

The Rays say the same maturity that made Hamilton so appealing to draft first and so worthy of the $3.96-million signing bonus investment is what makes him such a strong candidate for a huge promotion after he hit .302 with 13 homers and 61 RBI in 96 games at Charleston, S.C., missing the final month with a minor knee injury that was surgically repaired.

"To me he's not 19, he's 24 or 25," hitting coach Wade Boggs said. "I think someone messed up on his birth certificate. He falls in with the line of a Derek Jeter with that type of maturity at a young age."

"This guy's a throwback; he should have played in the 1940s," scouting director Dan Jennings said. "He reminds me of one of those guys that ought to be in a wool uniform the way he loves the game."

Josh said it is the fun he has playing that game that fuels him, and Linda and Tony do their part to keep it that way for him.

The family debts paid off with Josh's bonus money, Linda and Tony quit their jobs to travel the minor leagues with him, already putting 45,000 miles on their 1999 Chevy Silverado pickup.

The Hamiltons and Josh shared a rented condo in Charleston last summer, and Tony and Linda would drive to all the road games, getting a room at the team's motel. This spring, the Hamiltons are living together in a house they bought near Bradenton, and mom and dad are daily regulars at the team workouts.

Tony and Linda say their presence -- or is it omnipresence? -- has been a positive influence on their son's development as a professional. "We think it's helped him a lot to have folks around him that he knows will support him," Tony said. "And he has momma to cook for him and wash his clothes and do some of the other stuff the other guys have to do on their own." Linda also helps with fashion tips, reminding Josh to buy "better shirts like the major-leaguers wear" and helping try to find shoes for his size 19 feet.

Hamilton doesn't spend much time with teammates away from the field, an idea Linda said she and Tony have pushed "because when you're with them all the time it's kind of like being married and sometimes you need a break."

Even though he takes some abuse from friends and foes, Hamilton said he is still comfortable being with his parents nearly all the time. "They're what helped get me where I am so far," he said, "so why not keep them around and get a little further?"

Despite what seems like constant chaperoning, Hamilton claims to have something of his own life. He says he comes and goes as he pleases with no curfew, is "kinda seeing" a girl from North Carolina right now, and has sampled beer and cigarettes, not particularly caring for either.

While Hamilton said the tattoos were something he wanted for a while, others have wondered if they were the first a sign of rebellion.

He got the first one, a small rendering on his right arm of his new nickname, Hammer, at the end of last spring. His mother didn't talk to him for a day-and-a-half.

When he got the other five in two sessions a few weeks apart last fall, she cried. Above the Hammer is an illustration of two bats with hammer heads crushing a baseball. On the left arm is a band around HAMBONE, his high school nickname. Above that is a high-tech bear claw. On his chest are two hard-to-describe symbols that Hamilton claims are "tribal art." What kind of tribe? "Good question," Hamilton said. "I don't know. I just liked the designs so I got them."

Josh is happy to discuss the tattoos, but reluctant to show them off. He declined a request to pose shirtless for a photo, and points out that all six can be covered by a simple T-shirt. As much as Tony and Linda admittedly were disappointed by Josh's actions, they are trying not make too much of it.

"It's just him trying to say, "This is me,' " Linda said. "If it was rebellion, he'd be out drinking and partying and whatever the other guys are doing. So far, knock on wood, we don't have anything to do with that. He might get crazy and dance or something. He still kind of has that boyish shyness to him."

"Put it this way," Tony said. "If this is the worst thing he ever does, I'll be happy."

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