A BASEBALL STORY, First of three parts
By ANNE HULL
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 24, 1999
The kid arrived at the Ramada Inn with his scuffed suitcase labeled with a piece of masking tape: "J. Hamilton." He wore Sears clothes and a gold necklace his granny had given him in the 10th grade. His cheekbones were Wheaties-box perfect, his hair lamby and shorn, his muscles on the verge of bionic. He was on a two-hour feeding schedule.
Josh Hamilton was 18, from North Carolina, 6-foot-4, a lefty with magnificent bat speed. He also possessed what modern baseball executives call "intangibles." Desire. Drive. Composure. Competitiveness. Coachability.
Grown men sounded like Zen masters when they spoke his name, drawing their index finger through the air and whispering:
The complete circle.
So the Devil Rays staked their future on Josh Hamilton and gave him $3.96-million, one of the fattest signing bonuses in the history of the amateur draft.
The kid, well, he liked Fruity Pebbles.
In June, he was shipped to the Princeton Devil Rays, the club's rookie team in the Appalachian League in Princeton, West Virginia.
But a few days before the season opener against the Bluefield Orioles, Josh began to perspire. His stomach didn't feel so good. He lost a pound, then two, then three, then eight.
Nerves? The doctor said his ailment was more likely food poisoning. On the ride to West Virginia, Josh had eaten gas station chicken. A lot of it.
News of the phenom's ill health whistled through the hills and hollows. "Hamilton Hospitalized," screamed the headline in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.
On opening night, the first day of Josh Hamilton's professional baseball career, the strapping sure-bet millionaire sat on the pine, too weak to play. Princeton lost 15-3.
The next afternoon, the team bus rolled up to Bowen Field in Bluefield, W.Va. Josh packed his cheeks with sunflower seeds and got to work. He dropped to the grass and began stretching with his teammates.
Already, spectators had gathered to get a look at the new centerfielder. They hung on the fence and watched him loosen his arm in the afternoon sun. He took batting practice and soaked through his gray T-shirt.
The grills were coming on. The smell of onions drifted. Bowen Field was a beauty. When the fog rolled off the East River mountains at night, all life was suspended and stage-lit: a ball field hovering in the black rock of summer. Yet it was still a ballpark in the lowly Appalachian League. Bobby Ramos, the manager of the Devil Rays, ordered the grounds crew to remove a few stones from centerfield so that the $4-million prospect wouldn't break an ankle on his first night in professional baseball.
Fans began filling the stands. Old men brought bologna sandwiches from home and gathered on wooden bleachers. They debated whether Josh's gargantuan feet would prevent him from being a quick outfielder in the major leagues. They talked about the bonus.
"The money they spend for young ballplayers these days is just hell-crazy," one said.
Fifteen minutes before the 7:05 game start, Josh Hamilton went to find his mother. Linda Hamilton was already waiting at the fence. He leaned over and kissed her cheek.
He retreated to the locker room and sat in isolation. He held a bat and fixed his eyes on it. Another player was vomiting into a nearby urinal. Josh rose. He climbed back into the dugout.
Bobby Ramos was pacing the length of the bench, his arms folded, occasionally reaching out to squeeze a set of shoulders. "Have a good one, baby, have a good one." He left Josh alone.
One by one, the Princeton Devil Rays trotted onto the third-base foul line when their number was announced. "Number 22, playing centerfield for the Devil Rays, Josh Hamilton!"
Twenty-two had been his number in American Legion ball. Now it was sewn across his light gray Devil Rays uniform. Josh looked down at his feet. He required custom-made size 19 cleats.
He took off his cap for the National Anthem and laid it over his heart.
Josh was the No. 3 batter. He pulled on his black leather gloves like a man about to commit murder. The on-deck circle was a sorry green scrap from a carpet store.
The PA keyed the microphone. "Ladies and gents, now batting for Princeton is centerfielder Josh Hamilton." Both bullpens shut down and turned to watch. The old Norfolk & Western railway men standing around the fence stopped their gabbing and faced the field.
Let's see the kid play.
The silence was unbearable.
The Princeton dugout started making noise. The Dominican players gave off exotic whistles, like island birds in the gum trees. They called out "sera tu!" and "tranquilo!."
The American players brought their own chorus.
"Make it sweet, kid."
"Atta boy, Josh."
The first pitch came tight and high, and Josh popped it just behind the shortstop's head. The leftfielder came in for the catch. Easy out. Josh dropped back into the dugout, still holding his bat. The others watched him carefully replace his Louisville Slugger into the bat box.
There, it was over. He was a mortal. He smiled.
"Like a dern funeral in here," he said.
His second at-bat, he grounded out to the shortstop. The pitches were coming in faster than high school. The curveballs were breaking harder. Josh dug in at the plate on his third time up and cocked back. He whacked impatiently at a high pitch. He got a lucky single, a four-hopper up the middle. He blazed his way to first, then stole second. Two batters later, a double drove him home and he scored. When he stomped across, his shoe covered the plate.
A heckler in the stands began egging him on when he came to bat in the sixth inning. The voice was mocking:
"You got to get that bat off ya' shoulder, big boy. What did they pay you?"
The curveball broke right down the middle. The pitcher's mistake.
Crack! A 380-foot shot into the poplar trees. Not a lofted ball that drifted in the night air and fell just over the fence, but a low, hard rocket.
"Mercy gosh!" cried a woman with a beehive.
After the game, Tony Hamilton jingled coins in his pocket. The back-slappers were two-deep around the proud father. Princeton had won 10-7. Everyone wanted to know about Josh's future.
"At this point," Tony said, "it's not about wins and losses, it's about development." Then he gave a sly grin.
"Course, you develop better when you win."
* * *
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays spent more than $7-million acquiring its rookie prospects in Princeton. Almost $4-million went to Josh Hamilton. The organization's hopes were riding hard upon him.
His journey began at the Ramada Inn Limited in Princeton, a $48-a-night highway resting ground at the bottom of an exit ramp. Josh's balcony overlooked a patch of grass where skunks would mate.
The Devil Rays stayed on the first and second floors of the motel, bunking two per room. Ramada Inn management sent them a warm letter of warning upon check-in:
"We realize that you are all young, exuberant and often have reason to celebrate. However . . ."
Some arrived with batches of cookies sent along by their mothers. One player swaggered onto the scene with his scrapbook bulging with newspaper clippings of his high school glory.
Most were 18 or 19, greener than grass. Some had never used wooden bats. Some had never played under lights. Some barely knew the fundamentals of the game. The rookie season was the shortest in professional baseball, but the schedule would bury some of them.
Seventy games in 73 days.
The idea was to grind them down, wash the weak ones aside.
By the time the maple leaves began to tremble on the branches in the fall nights of September, the rookie season would be over, and innocence would have met the machine, decisively, squarely. Those who still remained would realize they had joined a business disguised as a boy's dream.
But when they reported to Princeton that June day, there was an intoxicating, frightening energy that shimmered through them all.
Piles of cash had been laid at their feet. Even the 27th-round draft pick got paid $50,000 to sign with the Devil Rays. Twin blond pitchers from Iowa drafted in the 10th and 11th rounds had signed for $140,000 each.
Carl Crawford, a second-round draft pick from Houston who signed for $1.5-million, didn't know how to read a box score.
Doug Waechter, the star quarterback at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg, pitched fewer than 30 innings his senior year. He signed for a half-million dollars.
The big money went to the Americans. The Dominicans were bought cheaply and in bulk. They had been visited by scouts in their rickety homes and signed for $6,000 or $10,000 or $12,000 before they could be bid upon in a free-market setting. One player stepped off the plane from Santo Domingo and splashed in the Ramada Inn bathtub like a baby; he didn't know how to operate the shower.
All of the first-year rookies, even Josh Hamilton, were paid $212 a week. One player used his to pay child support. Some of the Latin players blew theirs on sneakers or gold; others mailed every penny back to the islands. People in Princeton still talk about the time Nestor Perez was invited to dinner by a local family and ate 17 porkchops.
The players possessed only a vague notion of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays organization and its managing general partner Vince Naimoli. One rookie thought the club was owned by someone named "Naomi."
Only 10 percent of all minor league rookies would ever play a single game at the major league level.
The odds of making it favored the higher draft picks. First-round picks were given a 66 percent shot, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. For those who survived, the journey to the major leagues took four to six years.
Tony Hamilton predicted his son would make it in three.
So not only was Josh expected to make it, he had prognosticators accelerating his arrival.
There were no guarantees. Brien Taylor, the 1991 top pick who signed with the New York Yankees for $1.55-million, was injured in a bar brawl and never climbed past Double A.
Scouts and coaches used the word "old-fashioned" to describe Josh, as if the pinstripes of his forefathers were stitched across his antique heart. And yet he came to Princeton thoroughly a boy. He drank six or seven large colas with his meal. He tapped his cap with his fork. Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding. He drenched his meat in a half-bottle of A-1 sauce. He played with his napkin.
He was not much of a communicator. His words were carved off at either end, so that he would finish saying what he needed to say and be done with it.
"North Carolina" was "nof-ca-lina."
Even "doggone" was hacked to "dag."
He saved his rhyming couplets for the baseball field, for when he sent a small sphere to hang in the moonlight and then drop into the branches of maple trees.
What else was there to say?
The first speech.
"No facial hair, fellas. Come to the ballpark in a polo shirt. No earrings. No gold. Cuban people love that stuff. We like to show it off at parties for the girls. But you get to the ballpark, take off your jewelry. Sideburns? Half-way up the ears. On the road, you got a two-hour curfew. You got two hours to get a good bite to eat and then be in your room. If I bang you, I bang you hard. You want to pay, I'll keep taking your money."
The rookies were lying back in the grass, listening.
Bobby Ramos, their manager, was 43, grizzly and handsome. Tight blue jeans and Saturday night cowboy boots. ("I'm from Miami, Cuba, baby!") He'd been one of them once. He was drafted out of high school in 1974 in the seventh round by the Montreal Expos. He'd climbed his way to Class A, then Double A, then Triple A. For five years, he went up and down between Triple A and the majors, playing back-up catcher to Gary Carter.
Now he was here, at Hunnicutt Field in Princeton, W.Va. The ball field overlooked a high school parking lot. There was no jagged mountain vista beyond the outfield, just a towering Wendy's sign.
In Princeton, Ramos rented the upstairs of an old wooden house four blocks from the park, overlooking the Dairy Queen. He was used to a suitcase. Spring meant St. Petersburg and fishing for snapper in the Gulf of Mexico after a day of coaching. Summer meant rookie ball. Fall meant the Instructional League in St. Petersburg. Off season, he saw his wife and three kids in Miami.
Ramos spoke Spanish and English and in-between. A good thing, because the 24-man Princeton roster included 16 Americans (nine of them pitchers), six Dominicans, one from Curacao and a Cuban defector.
Those first few days, Ramos watched them. How quick their hands moved, how they wheeled around for a fly over their shoulder, the radius of the turn as they rounded second for third, how they shaved down angles as they charged a ball, the way they knocked down a bad-hop grounder with their bodies, every little detail.
Ramos had coached plenty of top prospects, but never the No. 1 draft pick before. Nor in his 26 years of professional baseball had he ever seen a player bring his mom and dad to rookie season.
Parents usually drove in for a weekend game, watched their son play, took him out for a steak and then vanished the next morning. The Hamiltons checked into the Ramada Inn in Princeton and showed no signs of leaving.
"This is the time to step into manhood," said Charles Armstrong, a Princeton pitcher. "What are they doing here?"
The Hamiltons showed up for daily batting practice at 4 p.m., lone figures in the sun-beaten stands. Ramos figured they'd lay off after a week or so.
As the team was boarding the bus one afternoon, the pitcher Scott Vander Meer tucked a pinch of Copenhagen in his lip and spat a brown stream to the pavement.
"Don't spit close to Josh," Linda Hamilton reminded.
"Yes, ma'am," Scotty answered, feeling bad.
While the other guys were half-starved and wearing dirty clothes, Josh had a full stomach and clean shirts. He was kept strong and ready.
Bobby Ramos didn't like the idea of one of his players getting special treatment. All things had to be equal to test them equally.
On the other hand, Hamilton was the bonus baby from the home office.
You could say this about the kid: He worked hard. Always the first one out of the clubhouse, trotting toward the grass with his chin up and heels high. And that beautiful swing.
So when Linda Hamilton fussed with the hem of her son's uniform, asking, "Don't they have any better than that?", Bobby Ramos looked the other way.
* * *
Josh Hamilton didn't just walk out of the brushy pines of North Carolina. He'd been reared for glory.
Tony Hamilton was a high school athlete -- football, baseball, karate, hell, he didn't care, bring it on -- who grew up on a hog and chicken farm in Oxford, N.C. Linda Hamilton was a competitive amateur softball player from Raleigh. They met on a baseball diamond one rainy day. Six months later, they married. They had two sons, Jason and Josh.
Tony's job as a shop foreman at the Ditch Witch dealership in Raleigh paid the bills, but his real career was coaching his wife and sons. The concession stand became the Hamilton family dinner table.
Rules were important. Shirt tucked in. Don't leave your bats out for someone else to pick up. Tony Hamilton pushed his sons hard. He benched 11-year-old Josh for not running to first base hard enough during a state championship. Josh responded with a wise crack after the game. Tony jerked him off the ground and threw him into the back of his red Chevy truck.
"Let me tell you something, boy," he said, the father's blue eyes looking into the son's blue eyes. "If you ever embarrass me again on the baseball field I'm gonna embarrass you. I'll come out there and whip your ass." And then Tony would say good night. "Sleep good, boy."
The Hamiltons joined leagues like some people went to church. Coach-Pitch, Pee-Wee, American Legion, it was year-round registration. Josh played soccer, baseball and football. He ran track until his feet outgrew manufactured track shoes.
Tony and Linda assessed their youngest son's gifts. Josh was a lefty with brute strength and good speed. They decided he should focus exclusively on baseball. Anyway, Tony would later say, "Soccer is about the dumbest sport there is. What kinda sport don't let you use your hands?"
Whatever athletic records set by his older brother Jason, an outstanding athlete at Raleigh's Athens Drive High, Josh came along and re-set them. After a mediocre game, Josh would return to the ballpark for more hitting. Tony would pitch and Linda would shag. Lean back. Wait on it. You're too anxious.
Josh practiced his 100 nightly tri-cut swings in the living room in front of the mirror. "We got a 46-inch TV sittin' there, God, boy, go in your room and twirl that thing," his mother scolded.
Tony weaned Josh off the aluminum bats and switched him to wood. He bought a 10-pound medicine ball to strengthen Josh's forearms and wrists for bat speed.
Josh was aware of certain boyhood joys withheld by his parents for fear of injury, "like never going ice skating or getting to try new things, like riding four-wheelers." To keep things interesting, his father would dangle little carrots. Once, Josh passed through the living room where Tony was watching a Cubs game. The camera panned to the beautiful wife of the Cubs third baseman. He was no great looker.
"How'd he get her?" Josh innocently asked.
"You stay focused and get to the big leagues," Tony said, "and you'll see for yourself."
The pro scouts began clogging the stands at Athens Drive High during Josh's senior year. He stuck to his routine. On game days, he stood outside his '89 Camaro in the school parking lot and changed into his uniform, always blasting the same two songs: Double Trouble by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Brand New Key by Melanie.
He was batting .529. He played centerfield and pitched, with a fastball in the mid-90s. Turn down the heat, Tony told him, or "they'll draft you as a pitcher and you'll spend all your time sittin' on your butt."
Josh's arm strength and his 6.7-second 60-yard dash made him an excellent candidate for rightfield or center. Despite his gargantuan feet, he moved up, back and laterally with ease. He always seemed to catch the ball in the center of his glove.
"You would have had to be a blind man not to see it," said Mark McKnight, a scout with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. "He looked like a big leaguer in high school. No kids look like that."
Major league clubs on the verge of opening up their wallets do their homework. A prospect's buddies are taken out for little rides. Girlfriends and coaches are quizzed. Josh filled out psychological questionnaires. His body was poked and prodded. An eye exam revealed he had 20/10 vision. What most people could see at 10 feet, Josh could see at 20 feet. Like a small white ball traveling at 88 mph.
He had no girlfriend; he'd skipped his senior prom. His idea of blowing off steam was going to the pond with his fishing pole and a sack of chicken livers.
Professional sports had its fill of tainted hopes: dope-doing, shoplifting, girlfriend-bashing, DUI mess-ups with 100 hours of court-ordered community service.
Here was a clean whistle.
Because the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had the worst record in the American League for the 1998 season, they held the first pick in the 1999 draft. Besides Josh, the organization was considering two other top prospects, a pitcher out of Texas and a catcher from California.
"We can measure all the skills," said general manager Chuck LaMar, "but let me know the minute they invent a device that measures heart and guts."
Josh was the June cover boy of Baseball America. As draft day drew near, LaMar flew to Raleigh to meet the Hamiltons. Their house sat on what used to be the garden of Linda Hamilton's childhood home. Granny lived next door. LaMar liked them right away.
Tony made it clear he didn't want to haggle or stall.
"It's like my daddy said," Josh would explain. "We don't wanna take anyone to the cleaners."
The Hamiltons accepted the $3.96-million bonus the Devil Rays offered, paid over 18 months with interest.
Jackpot. Tony asked for a leave of absence from Ditch Witch. Linda quit her job with the bridge-maintenance unit of the N.C. Department of Transportation.
The Hamiltons broke all the unspoken codes when they tagged along, Linda with her homemade tomato sandwiches in the motel room, Tony with his pointers on footwork.
But Chuck LaMar said he was relieved.
"Josh is going to have to deal with a lot more pressure than mom and dad following him," he said.
* * *
Every night, Bobby Ramos and the two other coaches retreated to their cramped office in the Devil Rays clubhouse. After showering, they knotted towels around their waists and began to crunch numbers.
Using a laptop computer and modem, the coaches filed a detailed game report. They also logged in a voice mail summary of the game.
"Fastball had good life but inconsistent with command."
"Had a wild pitch that lost us a run."
"Quite honestly, his attitude stunk."
The reports were reviewed the next morning by Tampa Bay executives.
The rookies knew some vague science was being applied to their performance, but not with the exactitude of the men with towels around their waists.
For Josh Hamilton, the numbers couldn't have been better. By July, he was batting .325, leading the team. In 83 at-bats, he had 11 strikeouts, 7 stolen bases, 27 hits, 16 RBI, 8 doubles and 4 home runs.
There was little advice for the batting coach to offer, except to use more discipline on pitch selection. "His swing is a natural beauty. It's a swing he was born with," said Mike Tosar. "It's inside him."
Princeton was a sloppy stage for his debut. The mistakes made Josh wince but he kept his mouth shut. He knew he could be the next one to feel the ball bouncing off the tip of his glove.
On a warm July night, the Devil Rays were playing the Bluefield Orioles at home. Princeton's starting pitcher Seth McClung, a 6-foot-6 redhead with a 97-mph fastball. The first inning, his fastball was nipping the inside corners of the strike zone. "I'm on fire," he shouted, hoofing the rubber like a mountain goat.
Then he hit a batter with a wild pitch. He walked the next. And another. His eyes darted around. He touched his cap, penned with secret inspirational sayings:
I WILL WIN
GOD HELPS THOSE WHO HELP THEMSELVES
"C'mon, shake it off," the pitching coach called from the dugout.
The Princeton infielders were nervously trying to hold the runners on first and second. The pitcher tossed another wild one. The catcher ripped off his mask and ran for the ball at the backstop. He should have thrown to third base. He threw to second. The Devil Rays shortstop and second baseman both raced to cover.
The sound of two skulls cracking in mid-air is unmistakable, like trucks colliding on an empty road. Both players were flat-out in the grass.
The pitcher froze as the runner on third barreled home.
Bobby Ramos threw up his hands in frustration. "These guys don't understand baseball."
Josh, in centerfield, scrambled for the ball and hurled a 220-foot clean shot to the catcher, but it was too late; the runner had scored.
When the inning finally ended, the pitching coach checked his counter. Seventy-five pitches so far. A high number, with most of them topping 90 mph. The coach considered the $350,000 the Devil Rays spent on the prospect's arm. He signaled the bullpen for a reliever.
Carl Crawford, the rightfielder, tossed his glove on the bench in disgust. "I want to win tonight," he said. "So many people here. So many g-d----d women!"
Josh came into the dugout, nearly smiling at the on-field calamity.
Crawford spit. "All the girls do anyway is ask, "Where is Josh?' "
The girls were prowling above the dugout like cats on a roof. They weren't baseball fans in the formal sense. Most were minor-league rookies themselves, young baton twirlers from the hills of West Virginia, or 18-year-olds with a night off from Kroger.
Ramos saw a note addressed to the third baseman drop down from the railing. He was not oblivious to the charged air above the dugout. It was impossible to pin his team's 11-4 loss on female distraction, but later that night, Ramos and the other two coaches made a sweep of the Ramada Inn.
They busted four players for breaking the 12:30 curfew.
The next morning, Ramos fined them each $50. They happily paid.
* * *
The first casualty happened 14 games into the season. Josh observed it with detachment.
Four doors down from his room at the Ramada Inn, the pitchers hosted frequent Coors Lite festivals. Josh stopped by sometimes. The curtains were drawn for security, since underage drinking was against the rules of baseball and West Virginia. The motel room was a glorious cocoon of wintergreen and Copenhagen and pepperoni.
Kevin Price was a Mormon from Utah, with a droll sense of humor that distinguished him from his teammates, who preferred a less sophisticated approach to good times (atomic belches, mushroom clouds of noxious gases).
Like Josh, Pricey abstained from beer but he partook in games of spades, his cap fixed low over his gray eyes, all elbows and kneecaps at the card table. He was 6-feet-9 and lanky. On the pitcher's mound, he looked like Ichabod Crane with a big leather hand.
Pricey was lactose intolerant and had a nervous stomach. The Devil Rays had signed him in 1997 in the 13th round for $30,000.
In his wallet, he carried photos of the truck he'd bought with his signing bonus. On road trips, he'd pull them out for reassurance.
On the night of July 2, Scott Vander Meer was pitching against the Pulaski Rangers -- his curveball was breaking, hallelujah -- when he heard something in the dugout about Pricey.
"What about him?" Scott asked.
"He got released."
Scott began to cry. The inning ended. The infielders were grabbing their gloves and jogging out into the lights. The pitching coach, Steve Mumaw, put a hand on his shoulder. "You still got a job to do," he said.
Scott pitched two more innings without giving up a hit.
When they walked back into the clubhouse that night, there was a large pair of baseball pants hanging over a particular locker, inscribed with shaving gel: THE MORMON HAS LEFT THE BUILDING.
When the team returned to the hotel after the game, Pricey had already cleared out. He was on a highway to Utah. Within a week, he was installing cabinets for $9 an hour.
As Josh set the ball on the plastic tee, he met it clean and square. The tee never so much as shivered
COMING MONDAY: The "roughnecks' wear down. Playing day after day begins to take a toll on the body and spirit of Josh Hamilton and the Princeton Devil Rays.