Just a short prop flight from the rookie league, Josh Hamilton faces new challenges - a struggle at the plate and the pressure of a pennant race.
By ANNE HULL
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 26, 1999
Third of three parts
The New York-Penn League. Roadside Greek diners and cannoli and bridge tolls. Outfields of mowed Kentucky bluegrass. Play-by-play radio broadcasts. Real stadium-stomping baseball. The whiff of a pennant.
The Hudson Valley Renegades were in first place in their division, with the playoffs less than two weeks away.
Such a spectacular stage for Josh Hamilton. It had been here all summer, waiting.
He climbed out of a puddle-jumper from the mountains of West Virginia -- goodbye rookies, goodbye Princeton -- and walked to the plate at Dutchess Stadium with a bat in his hand.
"Batting No. 3 for Hudson Valley, Josh Hamilton!" His ears were ringing. The noise. People were coming off the bleachers in a sonic outpouring of anticipation. Four thousand fans were giving him a standing ovation.
A mid-August chill floated off the Catskills. But Josh had no sense of the atmosphere. The sound of the crowd melted away. He heard it, but he didn't hear
it. He was scanning the infield defenders. The Staten Island Yankees were no scrawny bunch.
The first pitch was a fastball. He swung. Strike one. Instantly he knew he was no longer facing the gangling gawks on the mounds of the Appalachian League.
Fourth pitch. Boom! He pulled it hard inside the rightfield line. He cut a tight circle as he rounded first base and tore on to second. Now he was committed. He dove, his fingers outstretched. Safe. The crowd went wild.
Put that one down in the record books. The $4-million prospect hit a double and drove in a run in his first at-bat with the short-season Class A Hudson Valley Renegades.
When Josh scored two plays later, he was swarmed in the dugout.
"Thanks a lot, man," Josh said, offering his knuckles.
They should have been strangers to him, but they weren't. They were long-lost brothers, the ones he had missed so badly while standing in the outfield of the Appalachian League, awash in fireflies.
Josh heard a familiar voice.
"Hammytoon!" It was Chairon "Shaggy" Isenia, the catcher, who'd been promoted from the rookie-level Princeton Devil Rays three weeks earlier.
Josh and Shaggy greeted each other with solidarity: escapees who had cast off their beginner uniforms and were now wearing the pinstripes of a team chasing a pennant.
In the fourth inning, Josh clubbed a 395-foot shot to straightaway center. Five feet short of a home run. The sacrifice fly gave the Renegades a 5-1 lead.
In centerfield, his adrenaline was enormous. When the pitcher released the ball, Josh dropped his shoulders like a barroom brawler. He caught one on a dead-run against the wall.
He watched the crisp defensive play of his teammates. The shortstop stretched for a hard grounder and snapped it low from his hip to first base. Hudson Valley defeated Staten Island 7-3, inching closer to the playoffs.
This was baseball.
Josh wasn't the only one promoted to Class A.
Tony Hamilton, already wearing a Renegades cap, was beaming when he saw his son under the lights at Dutchess Stadium.
"Boy, it's good to play for a big crowd, ain't it?"
It was almost 11 p.m. Josh needed sleep.
Players in Hudson Valley lived with host families. Before Josh arrived, the Renegades' general manager asked Al and Jane Stewart, retired public school teachers who were already housing two players, if they could squeeze in a new guy being bumped up from rookie league.
The Stewarts lived on a tree-lined street in Poughkeepsie, about 20 minutes from the ballpark. Jane usually had a big spread waiting for the players when they came home after games. Sometimes she and Al fired up the hot tub.
Sure, the Stewarts said, but all they had in the way of space was a fold-out couch in the basement.
The other players living in the house were both 21, three years older than Josh. Rightfielder Matt Diaz was a preacher's son from Lakeland who had played for Florida State University; Derek Anderson was a pitcher from upstate Washington.
After dinner, they watched Josh shoot Redi-Whip dessert topping into his mouth. They called him "Baby Brother."
"He's just a big ol' kid," said Diaz.
"A big ol' kid with $4-million," said Anderson.
Matt and Derek drove the Stewarts' car to practice, and Josh rode in the back seat. "Hey, everyone pitch in five bucks for gas," Diaz announced. "Josh, you can afford 10."
It was an outlandish joke, the $4-million. Josh usually didn't have more than $20 in his wallet.
While Josh retired at midnight to the basement at the Stewarts' with a bowl of Fruity Pebbles and Clint Eastwood movies, he was not far from his parents.
They set up their base of operations at the Mainstay Suit hotel near the ballpark, continuing their vigilant observation of Josh's career, beginning with 4 o'clock batting practice.
The way things would take a turn for Josh in his first week in Class A baseball, he would need his parents more than ever.
The Massachusetts city of Lowell will always be a miserable blight in the mind of a particular top draft pick.
Was it the city that sparked Josh's curse? The sullen brick stacks from the old mills that overlooked the ballpark?
Baseball was a game of failure and rotten luck, but Josh Hamilton had never known that side of the coin.
Lowell was the wretched place where he began to slide.
The Hudson Valley team bus chugged the 256-mile drive to Lowell the day after Josh made his debut with the Renegades. He was physically tired but energized. What a first night.
The Renegades faced a three-game stand against the Lowell Spinners, the minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. The team arrived at the towering Doubletree Inn. Class A ball sure beat rookie ball, Josh noticed. A hotel with a marble lobby. Thick white towels. Central air. Beds that didn't sag with misery and carry oil stains on the headboards.
In the first game against the Spinners, Josh looked to be worth every penny of his $4-million price tag. Before a sellout crowd of 5,000, he went 3-for-5 with an RBI.
The second night began on an ominous note. Josh led off with a mighty drive, only to watch the Spinners centerfielder whirl back until his shoulder blades were pinned against the fence, under the 400-foot marker, and snag the ball.
It took a lot of nerve to make that catch, and the opposing centerfielder got his point across: just any hit won't do in this league, rookie.
Josh went hitless in four at-bats.
The next night, Lowell pitchers confounded him with junk speeds and curveballs. He was swinging too early, falling forward. "How come I keep popping everything up, man?" he asked, walking back into the dugout.
He went 0-for-5, making him 0-for-9 in two games.
Tony and Linda Hamilton were waiting outside the locker room, near the idling team bus. Linda watched the door of the locker room for Josh. Tony was off under a tree. Hadn't he told Josh a million times, sit back and wait on it?
Linda didn't take it as hard. She looked at her husband standing under the tree. "He's ill," she said, using a Southerner's term for frustration. "He gets ill."
Finally, Tony walked over. "Ah, hell, if he hit the ball every time he was up, he'd be God," he said, jingling coins in his pocket.
But God didn't sign with the Devil Rays for $4-million. God didn't have sports fans and baseball executives breathing down his neck. Josh emerged from the locker room with a pizza box and his gear. He kissed his mother. Tony offered an awkward pat before Josh climbed onto the waiting bus.
It was 4 a.m. when the bus passed the signs for home. Josh had played 65 games in 68 nights. His hands were so tender they ached in the dark. Even wearing batting gloves, the heel of his right hand was charred with a blackened blister.
Every player had an inner mantra that kept him going. Josh's was simple:
"I'll make it faster if I have fun."
But the stakes were higher now. The players were older, bigger, stronger, more experienced and just as determined as Josh to make it to the major leagues. They would only scratch harder as the road became more narrow. Most would fall by the wayside.
In Hudson Valley, airplane tickets were taped to lockers when a player was released.
Even the fans were tougher this level. Back in the Appalachian League, kids brought ham biscuits to the players at the fence. In Lowell, a boy barked a demand at Josh from the railing.
"Hey Josh, sign my ball, willya?"
Josh did not respond quickly enough for the impatient fan.
"You stink. You shoulda lost," he shouted.
Josh looked up, stunned.
Fun. Could this still be fun?
The first week after his promotion to Class A, the newly crowned king was stumbling. All the money and bowls of Fruity Pebbles and calls from Nike could not make things better.
If the Renegades expected Josh to invigorate their pennant chase, it didn't happen. The slugger who had left the Appalachian League with a .344 batting average slipped to .191 with Hudson Valley.
Each time Josh approached the plate, the tension would build. He would swing and get a piece of the ball, only to line out or fly out. In his first nine games, he struck out 10 times.
Off-speed pitches foiled him. When he expected a 92 mph fastball, he got a 76 mph surprise. He was lunging.
Soon, 0-for-9 became 0-for-14.
Tony Hamilton tried to keep his son's spirits up with stories from his coaching days. "There's guys who could pitch a no-hitter, who went 5-for-5 every night," he told Josh.
Josh looked at him. "Where are they?"
Tony smiled. "I could never get any of 'em out of the stands."
Against the Vermont Expos, Josh's slump worsened to 0-19. His batting average was dragged down to a lifetime low of .172.
He knew he was swinging at the windup and not the release. Why couldn't he correct himself? His mind was vulnerable. He began to entertain the unthinkable: He couldn't handle the pitchers. Maybe minor league baseball was crowded with brighter prospects than him.
Josh had never considered another career option. Injury was the only possible peril in his mind.
When his father was asked what Josh would do if he couldn't play baseball, Tony was almost surprised at the question. "He's never thought about it," Tony said.
On a shivering cold night in Massachusetts, Josh snapped his streak. He got a single against the Pittsfield Mets. Glory, glory, his size-19 foot was actually touching a base. The next night in Pittsfield, he went 2-for-5. The next night against Utica, he knocked a double to centerfield and went 1-for-5, but none of it was enough.
In four heartbreaking nights, the Renegades let slip away what was theirs only a week earlier: the McNamara Division title. As the playoffs loomed, they dropped four straight games.
With one game remaining in the season, they had yet to clinch a spot in the playoffs.
They would have one chance.
The Renegades would face their closest competitor, the Utica Blue Sox. Both teams were tied with 42 wins.
If the Renegades lost, they would pack their suitcases. One of the pitchers already had a job lined up mowing grass along highways for the state of Indiana.
If they won, they would gain a spot in the playoffs.
There was a frightening vibrancy in the Renegades dugout. Molars were coming unhinged by the vicious chewing of bubble gum, and there was some serious butt-slapping as they paced. Sunflower seeds were shooting from salty lips -- thwa, thwa, thwa
-- until the pine floor looked like the bottom of a canary cage.
A sellout crowd of more than 4,100 rustled in the stands for the game against Utica.
When Josh came to the plate, there were runners on first and second.
He'd broken his hitless curse, but he was still staring down a batting average of .191. Even the local sports pages were beginning to notice.
He worked on a basic psychology: see the ball. His science was reduced to mere guesswork when his eyes could not pinpoint the pitcher's release.
The gentleman competitor lost his manners. Josh threw his helmet on the floor of the dugout and tossed his bat into the corner.
The next batter for Hudson Valley, slugger Dan Grummitt, blasted one to the outfield. It crashed off the fence and rolled away from a pair of Utica outfielders, igniting the Hudson Valley dugout as two runners scored.
Grummitt got a hero's welcome by his teammates when he crossed home, giving Hudson Valley a 3-0 lead in the biggest game of the season.
Josh sat on the bench, staring at his shoes. He had no congratulations to offer. He returned to centerfield.
Utica hit a hard shot in the outfield gap, and Josh gave an all-out burst, but the ball fell 2 feet beyond his outstretched glove, bouncing off the deep wall. He made a good throw to second, but the batter had made it there safely.
Hudson Valley's manager, Edwin Rodriguez, watched his young player in centerfield.
Rodriguez wore gold-rimmed glasses and a razor-thin moustache. He was soft-spoken and deliberate.
He could see Josh was confused by the newness of failure.
When Josh jogged in at the bottom of the inning, Rodriguez caught him at the top step. He was discreet.
"I don't want you to get down on yourself," Rodriguez said. "I can see it in your body. You're a big part of the team. We need you."
Josh nodded his head. "Yes, sir."
Chuck LaMar, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays general manager, had flown up from St. Petersburg to watch the big game. LaMar sat eight rows behind home plate. Josh knew he was there.
In the seventh inning, Josh dug in hard at the plate, forcing himself to let the first one go by.
Four thousand fans were on his back. LaMar was talking on his mobile phone, but his eyes were trained on Josh.
There it was, down the middle. Josh had been fooled so many times before. He swung. A defiant smash to rightfield. Josh raced to first, then second. His double drove in a run.
Standing on second base, he smiled.
Forty minutes later, Dutchess Stadium was a madhouse. Hudson Valley defeated Utica, 7-1 for a spot in the playoffs.
Maybe Josh would find his groove again on his own, but Rodriguez wasn't taking any chances. He told Josh to report to the field early the next day for extra instruction. They would work on hitting.
The nights were turning brisk in New York, and the tips of the maple leaves were reddening. The Renegades took their fall tour of colors by bus, at night, between Utica and Hudson Valley in complete exhaustion. The Renegades would again face the Utica Blue Sox in a best-of-three series.
On the darkened bus, the lights of the highway cast silver across their sleeping bodies, heads tilted, mouths open.
The Renegades won the first game. Josh went 2-for-5.
They lost the second. Josh went 1-for-4.
The winner of the third and deciding game would play the Mahoning Valley (Ohio) Scrappers for the New York-Penn League championship.
WBNR-AM in New York carried the game live to thousands of listeners. When it was over, the radio announcer was screaming over the crowd:
"And there it is folks! The Renegades charge out to the mound, they are mobbing the pitcher, on the infield grass, there are hugs and leaps! Edwin Rodriguez is doused in Gatorade. Final score: 11-6, Hudson Valley!"
Josh Hamilton was back. To think he'd even questioned himself.
He went 4-for-6, with a home run, four RBI and two runs scored. He sent his batting average for the three-game playoff series screaming up to .400.
At midnight, he loaded onto the bus with his team. They had a seven-hour ride that night to Ohio. They would pull into the town of Niles at dawn, in the Monday morning traffic of Mahoning Valley. The next night they would play the first game in the New York-Penn League championship.
They got lucky. The Mahoning Valley Scrappers committed five errors in a sloppy first game of the three-game series. The Renegades won, 11-0.
Once again, they climbed back on the bus for the all night ride to Hudson Valley. They arrive home at dawn, stiff and bleary. In 12 hours, they would play for the New York-Penn League championship ring. One more game and it was theirs.
Josh was cresting a wave he'd never rode before. He was chasing a title in his first season of professional baseball. Victory relaxed him. No whooping or butt-slapping. No staring into the mirror, repeating motivational proverbs. "Ain't nothin' to say," he shrugged.
He sat down with a 3-pound plate of baked ziti. Before the game, he kissed his mother.
When Josh came to bat in the fifth inning, Linda Hamilton picked up the mobile phone and dialed Granny in Raleigh, N.C.
"He fouled that one off," Linda reported.
Forget the play-by-play, Granny said, just hold up the phone. Linda aimed it toward home plate where Josh had his bat cocked.
On the fourth pitch, Granny heard the unmistakable sound. Granny began hollering. The roar of the crowd was drowning her out.
"I heard the crack," she screamed, "Is it gone? I said, IS IT GONE?"
Linda screamed back into the phone. "IT'S GONE, MAMA!"
Josh's homer tied the score but it wasn't enough to help Hudson Valley defeat the Mahoning Valley Scrappers. The Renegades lost 4-1, tying the series.
The final game was scheduled for the next night. The winner would take the New York-Penn League championship.
The Scrappers weren't a big hitting team, but they chipped and dinked, moving runners methodically forward.
The Renegades liked to clock the daylights out of the ball. No polite little singles. They had eyes for the fence. There was a handful of big boomers on the team, and on some nights, they ignited each other. Josh had joined this elite circle.
But no one knew when they would spark.
On the morning of Sept. 10, Dutchess Stadium was groomed and manicured like a bride before a wedding. Several bags of grass seed had been stacked inside the Renegades clubhouse, with the sign: HOLY SEED FROM COOPERSTOWN.
The Renegades were physically spent. They were playing six games beyond their regular 76-game schedule. Some of the Renegades had already shipped their belongings home. The pitching coach said he was out of underwear, so let's win this one, fellas.
After infield and batting practice, they showered and stepped into their Hudson Valley uniforms for the last night. The lights of Dutchess Stadium blinked on.
In the dugout before the game, the Renegades gave a holy chorus of chants.
"Let's do this."
"Here we go, baby."
"Answer the bell, fellas, answer the bell."
"Gear up, fellas, chip away."
"Get the ring, baby."
"Get the ring."
The game took 2 hours and 37 minutes, with the raucous fans stomping and whistling from the very first whack, when they sensed it would be one of those nights. The boys were hitting.
Josh drove in two runs on three hits. In the ninth inning, a fog rolled in from the deep green of the Catskills, wrapping Dutchess Stadium in a mist.
When Hudson Valley made the last out, the Renegades charged the field. The championship was their, 11-3.
In a crazed jubilation, they leapt into each other's arms and piled their bodies high, a crush of ecstasy. Josh was buried in the bottom somewhere, his smiling face pushed against an elbow and an ear.
Fireworks blossomed in the night sky; the fog and the drifting sulfur made the infield a stage-lit cloud.
Certain things would move into the clearing and become visible -- a gold trophy, a maroon hat being tossed in the air, a joyous face, a weeping shortstop, a champagne bottle -- and then they would recede into the white mist, only to appear again in a different place on the infield.
Forty-five minutes later, the Hudson Valley locker room was a fermented pond of beer. Josh was still on the field, trying to satisfy the fans. He stayed and stayed. One pen ran out of ink and he found a fresh one. Most of the fans already had their Josh Hamilton Hudson Valley baseball card in protective plastic.
While he was still signing at the fence, four teammates crept up behind him.
"Daggone!" he yelled, laughing, drenched in champagne. "I didn't expect that"
His mother brought over a box of bats that had arrived from a manufacturer that day. They were black, embossed in silver letters: JOSH HAMILTON.
Josh wiped the champagne from his eyes and grabbed one of his new bats. He picked up a few balls and walked toward the empty field.
One of the local kids began tossing.
Crack. Crack. Crack.
Could they hear him in North Carolina?
All those Sundays in Raleigh, when the neighbors who lived around Athens Drive High would be undressing from their church clothes, and they would recognize the sweet, brutal sound.
They knew only one person would be hitting in the emptiness of Sunday.
Six weeks have passed since that night in Hudson Valley. On a far bigger stage, the New York Yankees are leading the Atlanta Braves two games to none in the 1999 World Series.
The Princeton Devil Rays, where Josh began his professional career as a rookie, ended the season with 25 wins and 45 losses.
"Learn from your summer," manager Bobby Ramos told his rookies on their last day in West Virginia. "You gotta treasure these things and put them into your body and mind. What we are doing here is to get you ready to produce in the Dome. I want to see you make a lot of money, have a nice girl, drive a good car."
That night, a barefoot boy came into the Princeton locker room, cluttered with dirty jerseys and torn batting gloves. The boy was looking for anything Josh Hamilton might have left behind.
"He's been gone a while," the clubhouse manager said.
Josh was named to the Appalachian League All-Star team.
Josh and most of his teammates from Princeton and Hudson Valley reported to St. Petersburg in late September for five weeks of instruction from the Tampa Bay coaching staff.
Josh had gained 12 pounds. Milkshakes and barbells had thickened him. His biceps were cut from quartz. He wore sideburns and had begun to shave the velveteen fuzz on his face.
He drove to the Devil Rays' training complex each day in his Trans Am, with the stereo blasting the Scooby Doo
soundtrack, and the license plate that announced I LOVE THIS GAME.
Tony and Linda Hamilton watched their son from the stands; they had followed him to St. Petersburg, taking a room at the players' motel, the Best Western Mirage on U.S. 19.
Instructional League ended Saturday.
Next season, Josh hopes to be promoted to the Charleston RiverDogs, the Devil Rays' Class A team in South Carolina.
In the meantime, he bought a house in Manatee County, and his mother stocked it with Kane's furniture.
The Hamiltons have already clocked the distance from Josh's new house to Tropicana Field: 33 miles.