I had one fundamental purpose in mind for taking the trek up Interstate 15 to the home ballpark of the Lake Elsinore Storm. The Bakersfield Blaze were in town and I wanted to witness firsthand the derring-do of a young man who was generating some serious buzz throughout the world of professional baseball.
The player mentioned above is 21-year-old Billy Hamilton, a swift of foot shortstop who creates plenty of havoc for opposing teams. Yes, Hamilton is a solid .300 hitter and good with the glove, but it’s his legs that have earned him a reputation that proceeds him.
Simply stated, Hamilton is a speed merchant. The guy can flat out motor. To say he can scoot would be doing him an injustice. Sometimes he seems like a blur. On the basepaths, Hamilton would probably give Mercury a run for his money.
Hamilton entered Monday night’s Class A Advanced California League game with an amazing 98 steals in a mere 77 games. He was primed and ready to get to the century mark on this pleasant evening and since the logistics made it possible, I wanted to be there to see it happen.
At 6’1″ and weighing just 160 pounds, Hamilton doesn’t exactly fill out his uniform. His number 4 road black jersey with red trim seemed oversized and his grey pants were loose and baggy. But his close-cropped hair and understated goatee gave him an air of being cool. Hamilton looked as hip and smooth as a jazz musician.
But Hamilton got off to a sluggish and unimpressive start against the Storm. In his first at bat, Billy struck out swinging on a ball right down the chute that appeared quite hittable.
The shortstop’s next trip to the plate wasn’t any better. Not showing much plate discipline, Hamilton went fishing for a fastball down and away and got punched out for the second time. At that moment, this didn’t resemble a night that Hamilton would fondly remember.
However, circumstances changed in the top of the 5th inning when Billy demonstrated a more discerning eye and coaxed a walk. Then, after drawing two throws from Storm pitcher Burch Smith, Hamilton dug in and took off. Because Hamilton masterfully read the pitcher and got a great jump, Storm catcher Eddy Rodriguez was forced to rush his throw and it drifted into the sliding shortstop. As a result, the ball caromed into shallow right-center field which allowed Hamilton to get up and move onto third base. With steal number 99 secured, Hamilton needed to cop just one more to get to the coveted three-digit mark.
Billy’s next chance came in the 8th frame and he made the most of it. Hamilton didn’t get much wood on the ball but his little chopper towards short allowed him time to fire up the afterburners and he beat the throw to first by a step. And, after a trio of throw overs from reliever Greg Gonzalez and then bluffing to go on a called ball, Hamilton quickly spun to his right and was gone. A snap one-hop bullet from Rodriguez was on the money as Hamilton arrived just as the ball did. With the naked eye, it appeared to be a bang-bang play, one that could have gone either way.
But much to the chagrin of the Storm and a vocal home crowd, base umpire John Bostwick waved Hamilton safe and the 100 barrier had been reached. Quite an achievement at this stage of the season.
With well over 50 games left in the 2012 campaign and given his aptitude for pilfering bases, who knows where Hamilton will end up? Vince Coleman’s minor league best of 145 steals, set in 1983, is definitely in play and not beyond Hamilton’s reach.
One thing’s for certain, Billy will keep on running. Now, it’s just a matter of how far he’ll go.
Bakersfield Blaze.com, MiLB.com., MLB.com., Cincinnati Reds.com