As a member of the Dayton Dragons in 2011, he ran his way to becoming the most talked-about prospect in all of Minor League Baseball. Yet just two years earlier, a case could have been made that baseball might have been his third-best sport. In September of 2013, he set the baseball world on fire despite barely stepping into the batters box. Now, he is the starting center fielder for the Cincinnati Reds, hoping to launch a long career as an impact Major Leaguer. He is Billy Hamilton, the 63rd and most recent former Dragon to reach the Major Leagues.
Hamilton grew up in Taylorsville, Mississippi, a small town in the south-central part of the state with a population of only about 1,300. Before Hamilton, the town had never produced a professional baseball player, though interestingly, it had sent three players to the National Football League, including quarterback Jason Campbell, a college star at Auburn who is now with the Browns.
Hamilton was a three-sport star at Taylorsville High School. As a basketball player, he was unstoppable, averaging 35 points and 10 assists per game as a senior. In one game, he scored 54 points and hit nine three-pointers. As a football player, Hamilton played wide receiver, and played it well enough that he received attention from many major college programs. He signed a national letter of intent to play in the Southeastern Conference at Mississippi State University.
In June of 2009, he became the first athlete from Taylorsville High School ever to be selected in the Major League Baseball draft. He was taken by the Reds in the second round, as the 57th player selected. He passed up the chance to pursue a career in football and signed with the Reds. His first season of professional baseball produced rather modest results as he batted just .205 with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Reds. However, he followed that season with a greatly-improved performance in 2010 in the Pioneer League with Billings, where he batted .318. He also led the league in stolen bases with 48 and began to draw attention with his blazing speed. Going into the 2011 season, Baseball America ranked Hamilton as the #2 prospect in the Reds organization, behind only Aroldis Chapman. The magazine commented, in a manner that now seems rather understated, that "Hamilton's speed ranks among the best in the minors."
Hamilton opened the 2011 season with the Dragons. He struggled at the plate early that season and at one point, considered the possibility of aborting the organization's request that he convert from a right-handed hitter to a switch-hitter. Success from the left side of the plate was elusive over the first two months of the 2011 season. Through May 29th, his overall batting average stood at just .195.
Still, Hamilton's impact on the Dragons was tremendous, as documented in this edition of Dragons Memories. Starting from the first inning of the first game, Hamilton went on a base stealing blitz that opposing teams simply had no answer for. On May 25, with more than three full months of the season remaining, he broke the Dragons club record for stolen bases in a season when he swiped number 38.
By season's end, Hamilton had 103 steals, the most ever by a player in the Reds organization, Major League or Minor League. He was named as the shortstop on the Midwest League's Full-Season All-Star Team, and his batting average finished at a respectable .278. From July 1 through the end of the season, Hamilton played in 62 games and batted .333. It was during this period that he emerged as the player that looked like a potential star in a Reds uniform.
Hamilton's performance in Dayton in 2011 carried over to 2012, when he became professional baseball's all-time stolen base king. Over a season split between Single-A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola, he stole 155 bases, the most in a single-season in baseball history. He also batted .311, showing that the late-season improvement of 2011 with the Dragons was no fluke.
Hamilton spent the 2013 season at the Triple-A level with Louisville, but when Major League rosters expanded on September 1, he was called to Cincinnati. He made his Major League debut on September 3 as a pinch runner for Ryan Ludwick and stole second base, then eventually came around to score the only run in a Reds 1-0 win over the Cardinals. Five of Hamilton's first six appearances with the Reds came as a pinch runner, but on September 18, he got his first start in a game against the Astros. Hamilton collected three hits and stole four bases in the game. He went on to steal four more over the next three games. By the end of the day on September 23, he had started only two games but was a perfect 13 for 13 as a base stealer. Two days later, he was thrown out for the first and only time as a big leaguer in 2013. His exploits became common discussion on ESPN and virtually every other media outlet covering baseball.
Hamilton is one of the most popular players ever to wear a Dragons uniform. His impact on the game and the fans has been described in great detail. More than any other player, his contribution extends beyond anything that can be measured in statistics. For 2011 Dragons fans, the blazing trail he took while leading the team to a franchise record 83 wins will not be forgotten.
Click here for Billy Hamilton's career statistics, photos, and video highlights.