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The roughnecks of summer

The grind of professional baseball takes its toll on the rookie Devil Rays. Arms tire, feet swell, muscles strain -- the game itself frays around the Devil Rays' hot prospect, Josh Hamilton.

By ANNE HULL

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 25, 1999


Second of three parts

* * *

The first installment of Josh Hamilton's $3.96-million signing bonus -- $500,000 -- would sit in the bank, largely untouched. Linda Hamilton still made her son banana and mayonnaise sandwiches after baseball games. Josh still bought his shirts at Sears. They ate at Po' Folks because they always had.

But the material world was knocking. Expensive baseball gloves arrived by the dozen. Josh preferred his old Louisville Slugger glove from high school.

"It still has some games in it," he said.

There was only one thing he wanted.

"I'm not gonna buy an 18-year-old kid a $30,000 car to run up and down the highway," Tony Hamilton told his son.

Tony still saw himself as the Ditch Witch shop foreman. "Look," he said, "the major league guys, they fly in the best jets, they get meal money which they never use, they sleep 'til dinner, people wash their clothes for them. You take a guy in the stands. He works hard, makes $50 a day. He spends $30 on tickets to see this spoiled guy play."

Tony, 46, was the blue-collar everyman with a wrench in his hand, fighting a sport that had lost all sense of proportion. Yet his son had just been given almost $4-million to play baseball.

In July, Tony and Josh found themselves on a car lot. There was Josh's dream. The 30th Anniversary Edition Trans Am. Only 1,600 came off the Pontiac factory line in 1999. Josh opened the door. Creamy white interior. Bucket racing seats. The number 1,594 was engraved in the wood-grain console. The outside was eggshell white with Carolina blue racing stripes and matching blue alloy wheels. It looked like a sneaker with dual mufflers.

The price was $33,000.

Tony said yes. Josh ordered a custom-made license plate for the front: I LOVE THIS GAME.

As long as they were at it, Tony picked out a $52,000 Geneva Suburban, jet black, fully loaded, with a TV.

"You deserve it, Daddy," Josh said.

nnn

Bobby Ramos, the manager, called them "roughnecks," and they liked that. "Buncha roughnecks," he'd growl, and they would lift their eyes

The Devil Rays were the youngest team in the Appalachian League.

"Don't let that big monkey scare you," they'd shout from the dugout when one of their batters faced a 20-year-old pitcher.

They were often out-muscled and out-experienced. The 70-game rookie season was the shortest in professional baseball, but the weeks and the towns began to pound together. They traveled across Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina in a Mountaineer bus.

When they woke up in Martinsville, they thought they were in Elizabethton. Yawning at noon, they would pop a Mountain Dew, bandage their bloody feet, and it would start over, the minutes pulsing toward the 7 o'clock game.

On road trips, they drew the curtains in their $42 motel rooms and turned the air on high, to blast them into some frozen slumber until it was time to face the heat again.

The pitchers felt their arms going numb. None of the starters could last more than five innings. Yet when they came off the mound, they were put through lifting exercises with 5-pound lead balls.

"This will prolong your career, guys," the team trainer encouraged. "The more you pitch, the looser your arm gets. This will keep your arm snug." Next was the stationary bike, to flush the lactic acid buildup. Finally, their arms and shoulders were wrapped with ice in elaborate plastic casts.

Gone was the pageantry of the season's opening days. The loneliness of rookie baseball was a dream-crusher. In July, the Devil Rays played a 1 o'clock game on a Sunday and 22 fans showed up. Two were Josh Hamilton's parents.

What had always carried the players through -- a love of the game, a gifted athleticism -- was no longer enough. This was business. This was survival.

Some would stay alive in the minor leagues by sheer determination. Some were simply forestalling a certain future: poultry farms, windowless cubicles in car dealerships or rayon shirts embroidered with the word "Coach."

The odds were against most of them. Players drafted between the third and fifth rounds had a 32 percent chance of playing a single major league game, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. Rounds 6 through 10 had a 20 percent chance. Round 21 and below? Seven percent.

Though the international market supplied almost 40 percent of minor league talent, foreign players had only a 7 percent chance of making it to the majors.

The long shots didn't know they were long shots.

"Sometimes we sign players for Josh Hamilton to play with," said Steve Mumaw, the pitching coach in Princeton. "We need other guys. Every once in a while, we'll sign a filler who will go on and make it."

The foreign players were tested the most rigorously. Appalachia -- with its Cracker Barrels and pale Baptists -- was a hard place for the Dominicans. Some Princeton families who hosted players made their preferences clear: "No Spanish speakers, please, white only."

Other Princeton fans learned how to make rice and beans for the Dominicans, presenting the bland concoctions in Tupperware after the games.

When Enger Veras, the 6-foot-5 right-handed Princeton pitcher, saw Linda Hamilton sitting in the stands, a terrible homesickness crossed over him.

"This game is beautiful," Veras said, gently. "This game is happy. I play happy every time. But I miss my mother. I miss my home every day. Sometimes, this game is hard."

Princeton rightfielder Jesus Lama received his English lessons from rap music. By July, he was spewing expletives from the dugout, cheered on by his teammates.

"F--- all y'all muthas," was his first full sentence in English.

There was no real friendship between the Caribbean players and the Americans. By midseason, they remained segregated -- in the dugout, at the motel, on the bus, at the table.

Linda Hamilton may have washed clothes at night when utility rates were cheaper so Josh could travel to expensive showcase camp. But the guys from the Dominican had taped their fingers together to make gloves.

On many nights when Josh was in centerfield, the infield was entirely manned by players who spoke no English. After the game, he went his way and they went theirs. That was fine.

What bothered him was not being able to communicate on the field. He found a local Spanish teacher and asked her how to say "good game" so he'd have something to offer the long-limbed, graceful third baseman, Juan Salas.

Buen partido

.

"Just imagine if you was one of them," Tony Hamilton reminded his son. "No one to look after you, so far away from home."

After games, Josh was usually at a corner table at Applebee's, listening to his father deconstruct the night's performance, play by play.

"Like you sittin' back on that curveball," Tony would begin, as Josh's eyes glazed over.

But he was glad they were there.

"I couldn't stand having my parents around," a player told Josh.

"That's you," Josh said.

nnn

Josh was pulled from the game in the seventh inning with a tight hamstring. Then he got a nosebleed

After the game, the Devil Rays were in the visitors clubhouse, throwing their gear into duffel bags. One was was telling a story about his previous night at Hooters.

Bobby Ramos heard the laughter. His team seemed untroubled by losing. Ramos couldn't teach them how to burn with intensity, but he could set off an alarm.

"Fellas, give me a minute," he said, standing next to a water fountain. The players looked up. Ramos was exuberant, Latin, all hugs and handshakes, but, oh, how the dark clouds could roll in.

His voice was deceptively friendly. "What happens here is a learning experience," he began. "Later, they will teach you, but they will bury you. Don't let that bother you. The manager is trying to find out your makeup. If you are soft, he will know it. Take it like a man. Learn from it and flush it out of your mind. Keep yourself up for the next day."

The players wondered where Ramos was going.

"A manager looks for a winner who doesn't take losing lightly," he continued. "When it comes to a manager, learn the guy, what he likes, when he likes to joke around or bare down. Same way with a lady. You take her out, you kiss her, you get to know her. You've got to be able to read a situation."

Then his tone began to bully. "Life is timing. Try not to laugh around when you are getting your a-- kicked. "

He looked across the room. His players were bruised and scraped, and caked in clay like Bedouins who'd wandered the orange desert for 100 nights.

"If you are not healthy, you will not make your goals in the system. If you get a reputation, "Oh, this guy gets hurt a lot, this guy's soft,' be careful with that. Don't get that reputation."

He lightened. "This is a short season. When you get up there, it's 162 games. It's like a roller coaster out here. You've got to maintain the same key. Stay off the roller coaster."

No one talked much on the bus ride to the motel. Josh went to dinner with his parents. His teammates walked along the weeds of the highway to a nearby Waffle House.

They were scheduled to play the Cardinals again in 13 hours.

nnn

The Cardinals' stadium was built in 1956 and smelled of woodchips and Bermuda grass. Coca-Cola and Dr. Enuf signs were nailed to the outfield fence. A train whistle blew. At last, they woke up

"Man, this is sweet," said one of the pitchers.

They would pay tribute the only way they knew how. In batting practice, the hitters reared back and swung, filling the park with deep shots. Crack! Crack! Crack! And then a delicate bunt. They were trying to win Ramos back.

Ramos stood behind the net cage on the pitchers mound, feeding soft ones. "Buncha roughnecks, look at that hit," he would yell, as the dirty balls sailed over the fence.

The grills in the concession stand came on. Hamburgers were frying. The roughnecks were hungry. Their mouths watered. No one had eaten breakfast, except Josh.

"While he sleeps, his mom and dad go out and get his breakfast," Ramos said. He glanced up to empty stands and noticed the Hamiltons. As long as they were here, he would ask a favor.

"Would you mind going to McDonald's and getting 30 Egg McMuffins?" Ramos asked, reaching for his wallet. The Hamiltons waved him off and returned with 30 cheeseburgers.

"Just make sure Josh gets one," Linda Hamilton said, as she handed the sack down over the railing.

One bite, two bites, three bites, gone. More hitting. Abdominal crunches. Showers. A fresh uniform. Game time. They were born again.

"Don't be afraid to get dirty, brother."

"C'mon kid, hum now."

"That big monkey's scared s---less."

The Devil Rays clocked the Cardinals 10-6. "See you down the road, baby," Ramos called out affectionately to the Cardinals manager.

The victory stoked them all, especially Josh. Winning was the undercurrent of his life. He craved the total atmospheric sense of victory. It was no fun alone.

The bus turned onto the Tennessee highway, back for home. Someone put

a copy of Animal House

in the VCR. The pitching coach was pecking out the game report on the laptop while Louie Louie

blared. There was raucous laughter caused by a flatulence duel, and T-shirts used as gas masks. "Dude, that one jumped up and slapped me!"

The miles rolled by. Tennessee turned to Virginia. Outside the window were old red barns and strip mines and white-washed Holiness churches. In the bronze light of late afternoon, a line of cows walked single file to their supper.

Ramos took it all in. He spread his big arms toward the window and called back to his players. "Part of the nation, baby. We got your corn, we got your cows, baby, we got your America!"

The bus pulled up to an intersection of fast-food joints. "Thirty minutes, gentlemans," Ramos announced. The players scrambled out.

Josh and Carl Crawford, a rightfielder, found a table at Wendy's. Carl had signed with the Devil Rays for $1.5-million. Between Josh and Carl, there was $5.5-million huddled over burgers and Frosties on the side of a highway.

Josh noticed the tattoo of a Rottweiler's head on Carl's arm. Josh wanted a tattoo. Some of the guys on the team were planning to get tattoos.

"My mama and daddy would kill me," Josh said.

"Man, you a grownup," Carl pointed out.

"Nah," Josh said.

nnn

Linda Hamilton, 43, monitored her son's mail and packages. "It's not that I'm afraid of what he'll do," she said. "I'm afraid of what others will do to him.

There was no denying the forces that began to converge on Josh.

Strangers with P.O. boxes sent him stacks of blank index cards requesting his autograph. The Hamiltons refused; who knew where the signature would end up? Any personal effect inscribed with the name Josh Hamilton -- including his sweaty baseball pants -- was stolen.

On a July road trip, the Devil Rays walked into their motel lobby to pick up their room assignments. Josh was momentarily on his own; Tony and Linda were still an hour from arriving.

A man in golf slacks was sitting on a couch. He saw Josh and struck up a conversation. He mentioned North Carolina.

"I'm from North Carolina," Josh said.

"You wouldn't be Josh, would you?" the man asked, a briefcase next to him. He'd been waiting the whole time.

"Yes, sir."

"Son, do you have a minute?"

In an instant, Josh was outside in the motel parking lot, listening to a pitch. Josh already had an agent, Casey Close, who represented Derek Jeter, but nothing shielded him from the daily shakedowns.

* * *

July 13. The great Ted Williams was wheeled out in a golf cart at Boston's Fenway Park for the 1999 All-Star Game. Williams had been a rookie once, a skinny, high-strung, arrogant rightfielder who signed for $150 a month to play in the Pacific Coast League. Now he was 80 and stroke-ridden.

When he stepped to the pitcher's mound and threw out the ceremonial first pitch, the applause in Fenway lifted in deafening rings. On the infield, men began to weep. Men who themselves were legendary: Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Steve Carlton, Reggie Jackson and Carl Yastrzemski.

In the Princeton clubhouse, a small TV on top of the Pepsi machine broadcast the All-Star Game to an empty locker room. The equipment manager was in the back, washing dirty T-shirts and jock straps.

When the Devil Rays stomped back in from a winning game, someone reached up and turned the channel to MTV. They had no memory of hot flannel uniforms, of Ted Williams weighing his bats on post office scales.

Two mornings later, they loaded onto the bus with double packs of Sno-Ball cakes, Pringles, pillows, headphones buzzing with Pavement, folded copies of SuperModel

and bound editions of Meditations With God

.

nnn

"Shaggy, he understands

baseball," Ramos would say. Shaggy was from Curacao, an island of the Netherlands Antilles. He'd left home at 10 to play baseball in Japan. He knew how to cook spicy chicken dishes on a hot plate in his motel room. He was the team barber. He spoke five languages

But most of all, he was the experienced catcher who led the rookie pitchers through the woods, night after night. The Devil Rays had signed him in 1996 for $22,500. Bargain basement Shaggy.

"Read the signs, brother," Shaggy would implore at a conference on the mound.

A Princeton pitcher had a habit of licking his fingertips, touching his sleeve and then starting his windup. One night, an umpire got wise.

"TIME," he shouted. He suspected illegal spitballs.

Shaggy walked out to the mound. He listened intently to the pitcher, then he jogged back to the plate and reported back to the ump. "He said he doesn't know how

to throw a spitball."

Shaggy had come to Princeton to perform a duty. He was sent down by the organization's short-season Class A team in Hudson Valley to help the rookie pitchers. "It was like a knife stick in the heart," he said. "I asked God to help me understand. I was sent here to help these guys. It is my job."

So he toiled away, selflessly, in the mountains of West Virginia. One night, a fan brought him a fried bologna sandwich.

As if they recognized each other's purpose, Josh and Shaggy glided around each other with ease.

"Hammytoon," Shaggy would say with his Dutch accent.

"Shagadelic," Josh would answer.

nnn

Josh's batting average of .344 made him the seventh-best hitter in the Appy League. He ranked fourth in the league with doubles

With those numbers, it seemed Princeton was just a docking station before the organization moved him to the next level.

But it wasn't Josh who was called into Ramos' office on the afternoon of July 25, before the doubleheader against Elizabethton. It was Shaggy.

A day earlier, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had traded away two of their spare-parts catchers in return for Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Jose Guillen. One of the catchers came from the Devil Rays' Class A team in Charleston, S.C., which created a hole in the minors.

Shaggy was needed in Hudson Valley.

His promotion was a blow for the rookies.

Without Shaggy behind the plate, the pitchers were the first to fray. When the pitching suffered, the team suffered.

Tony Hamilton said he never thought his son's first losing team would be in professional baseball. "Hell, all the years I played, I won," he said. He wondered why the Princeton coaches weren't enforcing the basics, like teaching the outfielders efficient footwork. The drop step, for crying out loud!

"Just the little things," Tony would say, shaking his head.

One night in Pulaski, Va., Josh was heckled from the stands. He was 1-for-4 when he walked to the plate and the jeering began.

"They paid you how much money and you still can't hit?" the guy yelled.

After the game, Linda Hamilton walked over.

"Do you have kids?" she asked the man.

"No."

Linda's blue-gray eyes could sheet over with ice. "Well," she said, "God knew what he was doing when he didn't give you any."

nnn

His batting average was .346 in 56 games. He'd scored 49 runs, gotten 82 hits, including 20 doubles, four triples and 10 home runs

But he was beginning to fatigue. His legs felt weighted by sinkers. His thighs no longer pumped in the air when he jogged out to centerfield.

The Devil Rays were averaging more than two errors a game. The narcotic of losing made Josh groggy.

When he looked up in the stands some nights, they were half-empty. In centerfield, he fought to stay alert. He thought of his Trans Am. He thought of his brother's new baby. He thought about Hudson Valley and wanted to play there.

The grind had become numbing. They would drag in from practice and take showers before changing into their uniforms. Some sat in metal folding chairs around the fan, like tribesmen. Some played Ping-Pong in their underwear. Others stared at MTV. They guzzled whatever caffeine drink would get them through the night.

At the Ramada Inn, they had mutated into backwoods survivalists. They grilled slabs of meat on a hibachi and ate without silverware. One night, they barbecued indoors, and Princeton fire trucks responded.

On Aug. 16, with less than two weeks left in the season, they faced the Martinsville Astros. A rumor spread through the clubhouse. The man they called "Naomi" was supposed to be in the stands that night.

Vince Naimoli, the managing general partner of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, had not picked just any night to fly into Princeton. He was there for a reason.

Ten minutes before the Devil Rays took the field against the Astros, Bobby Ramos came out of his office. "Hamilton," he called. "I need to see you."

Ramos sat behind his desk. Josh took a seat in front. "Congratulations," Ramos said, breaking into a smile and extending his hand. "You're going to Hudson Valley in the morning."

Josh was taken by surprise. So late in the season. "Are you serious?" he asked, grinning.

Ramos brought out a box. It contained a dozen new balls stamped with the Appalachian League logo.

He'd seen lots of guys come and go. But he had a feeling about this one. He handed Josh a pen. "Would you mind signing these for me?"

* * *

One thing could be said. Josh went out with a final fury on his last game in Princeton. Against the Astros, he slammed a double, a triple and a home run. The crowd -- the witnesses, really -- gave a series of stomping ovations to the departing centerfielder.

The next morning, Josh flew out on an 18-seat prop job. Beneath the plane's tin belly, the mountains of West Virginia were soon covered by a thin white soup. His stomach pitched in the turbulence.

In a day, he would trade the Appalachian mountains of his rookie summer for an uncertain autumn in the Catskills of New York. Not only was the organization shipping him to a better team, the Hudson Valley Renegades were in a pennant race.

All Josh carried was a small bag of clothes and a single bat; the rest had shattered in Princeton. Hudson Valley's general manager greeted him at the airport.

That night's game started at 7:05. It was past 4 when Josh walked through the gates of the ballpark. His kneecaps went liquid. Dutchess Stadium sat 4,320.

In the clubhouse, they gave him a locker. They measured him for a uniform. His number was already being worn by a pitcher, a big righty named Barrett Wright. "But if you want No. 22, we'll get you No. 22," the equipment manager offered.

Josh waved him off. "Don't worry about it. Gimme whatever fits.' No. 30 fit.

His new teammates were already taking batting practice. As Josh walked toward the batting cage, he noticed how much bigger and stronger the players were. Many were third-year college students. Others were doing their second or third year in the minors. Their legs and chests were filled out. As they took swings, Josh could see how they used their lower trunks to drive the ball.

He'd heard the pitchers in this league threw the same velocity, but their command was far superior to the Hail-Mary fastballs tossed by the rookies.

The field was a beauty: New Jersey red clay and Kentucky bluegrass. Josh felt the undeniable sense of possibility.

Ryan Rupe pitched for Hudson Valley in 1998 and was now on the mound at Tropicana Field.

Dutchess Stadium gleamed in twilight. Fans carried sweaters as they took their seats for the game against the Staten Island Yankees.

Josh's teammates wore white with burgundy pinstripes. One by one, they leapt from the dugout and trotted to the freshly-chalked first-base foul line when their names were announced. Then it was his turn. His heart was pounding.

"How 'bout a nice, warm welcome for this year's top draft pick, Josh Hamilton!"

The crowd exploded.

* * *

COMING TUESDAY: It isn't the big leagues, but it's big enough. Josh Hamilton faces his first struggles amid a New York-Penn League pennant race.

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