Today's installment of the Dragons Memories feature is told in the first person about an incredible season in Dayton for a young man now poised to make his mark in the big leagues. This story is my own, based on the things I saw and remember, many of which were shared by the Dragons fans at Fifth Third Field who became part of the story.
In my 26 years broadcasting Minor League Baseball, I have seen some great individual performances. I saw Randy Johnson long before anyone ever called him "the Big Unit." I called Alex Rodriguez's first career home run in professional baseball, and I saw Torrii Hunter make a game-saving catch that I still identify as the greatest play I have ever seen. But in terms of pure impact on a team, on the fans, and on the games he played in, I have never seen anything even remotely resembling Billy Bases, the Man of Steal, Billy Hamilton.
If you have listened to my broadcasts, you know that I enjoy the process of following not only the current Dragons players, but also those players who have passed through Dayton and continue to play in the Reds system, and those future Dragons players playing at Billings or Goodyear, guys we will see in the days or years ahead. So from the time the Reds draft a player, I try to talk to anyone who has seen him play and get a feel for his very specific set of skills, to borrow a line from the movie, Taken.
In 2010, I interviewed Billings broadcaster Joe Block and asked him about the players on the Mustangs, one level below the Dragons on the organizational ladder. I had worked alongside Joe in another league, and I knew he would avoid the temptation to exaggerate when discussing the players.
"What are your impressions of Billy Hamilton?" I asked Joe. "Would you rank him among the fastest players in the league out there, as his reputation would suggest?"
Joe chuckled for a moment, and then offered a deadpan reply. "He is the fastest player in this league, and some scouts say he is the fastest player in baseball since Deion Sanders." That was a rather clear endorsement.
As some of the Reds roving instructors passed through Billings and then made their tour to Dayton, I would ask them about Hamilton. One legendary tale was already growing. Some managers in the Pioneer League were employing a rather unique strategy when Hamilton got on base. Instead of asking pitchers to do their best to hold Hamilton close to first base, and hoping catchers could gun him down, they were simply conceding the base. No pick-off throws, no slide-steps, no pitch-outs, nothing…just letting him take the base. They were basically taking the attitude that any effort to shut him down was wasted effort, not worth the aggravation, because no matter what they did, they could not stop him. I heard that, and it just didn't seem possible. Little did I know that I would later see the same thing in Dayton.
Billy finished that 2010 season in Billings with 48 stolen bases in 69 games. He stole five bases in one game. As the 2011 season approached, it was clear that he was coming to Dayton, and I was anxious to see this player with my own eyes.
When the team arrived in Dayton in 2011, there were several potential stars on the team, and I spent some time with everyone. When I talked to Hamilton, I asked if he was the type of player who liked to set statistical goals. He indicated that, yes, he did have goals. He noted that in 2010, he stole 48 bases at Billings, and since the Dragons play twice as many games as the Billings club, his goal was to double his stolen base output, to 96.
When he said 96, I held back a smile. Our club record for stolen bases in a season was 37. In our first 11 years, no player had stolen more than 37 bases in a season, and he had just told me his goal was 96. Of course, as things turned out, he was actually selling himself a little short.
Stolen base potential, much like home run potential, is often exaggerated. Over my career as a broadcaster, I had seen a lot of supposedly blazing fast players end up being something short of the product that was advertised. I thought back to 1996 when I was in Fort Wayne. At our pre-season media luncheon that year, the Fort Wayne manager told us that his athletic shortstop, Cleatus Davidson, would be a threat to steal 70 or 80 bases over the course of the season. Unfortunately, Cleatus was an example of the old baseball adage, you can't steal first base. Halfway through the season, Cleatus was gone. His stolen base total stood at exactly two. In later years, Davidson would routinely surpass the 40 mark. But as Hamilton started his season in Dayton, I remembered the remarks about Davidson 15 years earlier.
At the same time, I weighed in on a story I had been told by former Major League star Bill Doran, now a key figure in Reds player development. He relayed a story to me from spring training that March. Hamilton was playing shortstop when a high fly ball was hit toward left field. The outfielder, Juan Duran, was staring straight into the Arizona sun as the ball approached, and eventually, he lost sight of it completely. The ball made its downward approach, apparently destined to fall for an extra base hit. Suddenly out of nowhere, Hamilton, from shortstop, sprinted past Duran and caught the ball on the dead run, his momentum carrying him to the warning track. Wow!
It did not take long to get my first look at Hamilton's base stealing ability in a Dragons uniform…in the first inning of the first game. Hamilton, hitting in the lead-off spot, opened the first inning on opening night with a single. On the first pitch to the next hitter, Kurtis Muller, Hamilton took off for second base. The catcher's throw went toward second. No contest. We had just witnessed stolen base number one. Little did we know what we were getting into.
As I watched Hamilton over the first weeks of the 2011 season, it was clear that this was no ordinary base stealer. When he reached base, he ran. Every time. Usually on the first pitch. The opposition knew this, of course, and they did everything they could to stop him. There was no cat-and-mouse game between Billy and the pitcher. His unspoken message was simple and direct. "Throw to first base as many times as you want to, but as soon as you throw home, I am running." Time after time, the pitcher would throw to first, and Billy would dive back in, always barely beating the throw. Four, five, six times, the pitcher would throw over. Eventually, he would get around to delivering a pitch, and there went Billy. I told my broadcast partner, Mike Couzens, that the opposition should pitch-out on every pitch with Billy on base, because he was going to run on the first pitch, every time.
Three weeks into the season, he had 18 stolen bases. He was only batting .212 and his on-base percentage was only .287, so the fact that he had 18 steals in 22 games made you ask the obvious question: If he starts hitting, how many bases is he going to steal? We would eventually learn the answer.
Aside from the stolen bases, Hamilton brought something else to the home dugout at Fifth Third Field. He brought energy, every game, every inning. He was a constant force in motion, a lightning bolt on the field, and a never-ending subject of conversation off it. Every game the Dragons played, the opposition knew the Dragons had a weapon that they had no answer for. Every time the Dragons took the field, the opponent knew that they were at a disadvantage before the game even began. We had a player with a skill so far beyond the norm that it became almost a privilege to watch. And he had the perfect person to teach him the art of base stealing, Dragons manager and former Major Leaguer Delino DeShields, a great runner in his day.
I don't remember exactly when it happened, but it did not take long. As the month of April moved along, the fans at Fifth Third Field began to anticipate each stolen base before it happened. As soon as Hamilton reached base, you could hear a murmur start to grow in the ballpark. Everyone wanted to see what would happen. Billy would get to first, and the fans would grow agitated with the unending pick-off attempts. Eventually, off he would go. Safe, and the crowd would roar. Many times, he would then steal third. On the few occasions when he would get a poor jump off first and get thrown out, the fans would still applaud to acknowledge their appreciation.
I remember one game in May, a very rare night when Billy was not in the starting lineup (he played in 135 of the Dragons 140 games, despite leaving the team to return home to Mississippi to attend a funeral at one point). In the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game, the Dragons advanced a runner to second base with one out. It was a perfect time to bring in Billy as a pinch runner, and as Delino signaled to the dugout to send Billy in, the excitement level reached a fever pitch. I remember saying to myself, "this is really fun to be a part of."
He entered the game as the potential winning run. Would he try to steal third? Surely not, a steal of third is dependent in large part on the element of surprise, and in this instance, there was no surprise element whatsoever. The shortstop was practically straddling second base to hold him close. The pitcher turned and threw to second time after time. No one steals third under these conditions. On the first pitch, he was gone. Safe! I couldn't belief it. I looked down at our dugout, and our players were jumping, laughing, yelling. That was his impact on the game, as the Dragons would go on to set a franchise record for victories in a season. Aside from the measurable stats and the extra energy, he had to have set an all-time record for most throwing errors caused, and most balks induced. With Hamilton running, either out of the batter's box or on an attempted steal, every defensive throw was rushed. Every fielder tried to compensate for Billy's speed. Often times, the end result was something good for the Dragons.
Before the end of May, less than two months into a five-month season, Billy had broken the club record for stolen bases in a season, and by the halfway point, he had 53. His most amazing week of all was ahead. Unfortunately, the home fans never saw it. It all happened on the road.
On August 21st at Lansing, he opened the game with a base hit. On the first pitch to the next batter, Ronald Torreyes, he stole second. On the second pitch, he stole third. The next night, still in Lansing, he again opened the game with a base hit. On the first pitch to Torreyes, he stole second. On the second pitch, he stole third. Lansing was doing everything they possibly could to prevent all of this from happening, but it was all a waste of time. The third night, he again opens the game with a single to center field. On the first pitch, he steals second. Now with Jefry Sierra batting, the second baseman walks over and stands on second base and stretches out with his glove pointing toward the pitcher, holding Hamilton on second, just like a first baseman would do. They finally found a way to slow him down. Delino gave him the hold sign. Lansing sacrificed an infielder to do it, but they found a way to keep him from stealing third. To attempt to do so against that alignment would have been suicide, even for Billy. The next night, we travel to Great Lakes to play the Loons. For the fourth straight night, Hamilton opened the game with a hit. On the first pitch, he stole second base. Four straight nights, six steals, just in the first inning alone, on a grand total of six pitches. I asked Delino after the game if he had ever even heard of anything like that. He just laughed.
On August 29, Billy stole his 96th base of the season, reaching the goal he had set for himself at the start of the year. The magical 100 mark was in sight. On September 3rd at Fifth Third Field, Hamilton stole second base to reach 99, breaking the Cincinnati Reds all-time organizational record, set in 1988 at 98. This is an organization that has been playing baseball for well over 100 years and he now had more steals than anyone else before him. Moments later, with Hamilton standing on second base, the roar of the crowd began rising. It was a special moment, spontaneous in many ways. There had been no stadium announcement when he reached 99, but Hamilton's exploits had become well-known to even casual followers. The Dragons fan base knew they were about to become part of something historic. The atmosphere became electric. On the next pitch, he broke for third. Safe, and number 100 was in the record book. In his next game, he stole three more bases to finish the year at 103.
As the regular season ended and the Dragons got set for the playoffs, I sat in Delino's office. I had come to enjoy hearing his refreshing thoughts on our club, and many times, we would exchange observations about anything related to baseball. I would often pick his brain to get the perspective of a longtime big league player who I had come to respect. On this night, we were discussing the announcement of the Midwest League's 2011 Most Valuable Player. Pondering the thought that it was the Dragons with the league's best record at 83-57 including a second half record of an amazing 48-22 (the best half my team had ever had in my years in baseball), I said to Delino, "he would never get the honor because he does not have the stats to support it, but if you want to talk about MOST VALUABLE, we both know who the Most Valuable Player in the this league really was this season." I didn't even need to say the name, Billy Hamilton, but Delino knew exactly who I was referring to.
Hamilton's 103 stolen bases made him a national name. It seemed to me that each season, the media tended to select one Minor League player to focus on, from Strasburg to Harper, and now to Hamilton. Since that season, I have repeated the same thought over and over when asked by fans about Hamilton's big league future. If he hits well enough to play every day, you will see a player that will impact the game in ways that no one else ever has.
In 2012, Hamilton broke the all-time professional baseball record when he stole 155 bases in the Reds system. In 2013, he was called up to Cincinnati. On September 3rd, he made his Major League debut against the Cardinals, setting up a matchup for the ages with St. Louis' perennial gold glove catcher, Yadier Molina. In a 0-0 game in the bottom of the eighth inning, he took his lead at first base, waited out several pick-off throws, and then he was off. Safe! Minutes later, he would score what turned out to be the only run in a 1-0 Reds win.
In his month with the Reds, Hamilton attempted 14 stolen bases, mostly in critical, game-on-the-line situations. The first 13 times, he was safe. In his final effort, he was finally nailed. In 13 games, he stole 13 bases, making him the Reds second most productive base stealer over the full season. Only Shin-Soo Choo, with 20 stolen bases in 154 games, had more.
Hamilton's base stealing process brought him instant attention in Major League circles. For those of us who saw him at Fifth Third Field in 2011, we expected nothing less. Tomorrow, January 25, Billy will be back in Dayton with the Reds caravan. I think I will ask him if he has a goal for stolen base numbers in 2014.