Cincinnati Reds prospect Billy Hamilton stole three bases in the first three innings of a Class AA Southern League game Tuesday night in Pensacola, Florida, to run his season total to 146 stolen bases – breaking the professional baseball season record of 145 steals, set by Vince Coleman at Macon, Georgia, in 1983. Later in the game, Hamilton added another steal to lift his mark to 147 in 120 games this season.
Hamilton stole 103 bases last year with the Reds Class A farm team in Dayton, Ohio, and began this season with another Reds Class A team in Bakersfield, California. After swiping 104 bases for the Bakersfield Blaze, Hamilton was promoted in July to the AA Pensacola Blue Wahoos, where he’s kept right on running. Hamilton is expected to play for the AAA Louisville Bats sometime next season.
In the meantime, Hamilton may be called up to Cincinnati for a month in September, when major league clubs are permitted to carry extra hands after minor league seasons end on Labor Day. That would give Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker the chance to employ Hamilton as a pinch base runner. Hamilton would not, however, be eligible for post-season playoffs and a possible Reds World Series try unless called up prior to September 1. For that to occur, Cincinnati would have to drop a player from its current roster – which seems unlikely given the team’s tight chemistry. The Reds have been on a winning tear since July 1 and currently hold a seven-game lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Central Division.
Coleman, incidentally, followed his record season at Macon with 104 steals at Louisville in 1984, when the then Redbirds were part of the St. Louis farm system. He went on to be the sixth-ranking base stealer in big-league history. Rickey Henderson holds the major’s all-time mark, with 130 steals in 1982.
Hamilton’s stolen base quest has caught the attention of the national press. The 21-year-old Greenville, Mississippi native was featured in a front-page sports section story Monday in the New York Times. Hamilton acknowledges that he finds stealing bases, and taking extra bases on routine plays, more difficult at the AA level. “But I feel I’m doing pretty good,” he told Times writer Robert Weintraub.
“I feel like if I get my jumps, I know I’m cool,” added Hamilton. “When I get to first I’m confident I can’t be thrown out.”
At Bakersfield, Hamilton was managed by Cincinnati “Big Red Machine” stalwart Ken Griffey Sr., who gave Hamilton the green light to steal as often as possible. At Dayton, Hamilton was mentored by former Montreal Expos base-stealer Delino DeShields, whose son Delino Jr., just happens to be the next best base stealer this season in the minor leagues, with 86 swipes for two Class A clubs. Jim Riggleman manages Hamilton at Pensacola.
DeShields says Hamilton may be a part of a fleet new wave of players changing baseball.
“The game is meant to be played fast,” DeShields told The Times. “That’s the way we played before steroids, and the crackdown on the drugs is returning the game to the way it used to be.”
The impact is certainly being felt in the Cincinnati organization.
Louisville manager David Bell notes that Bats fans can be on the lookout for a burst of speed in coming seasons. “Dayton had a slew of speed last season, and now that speed is making its way up through the organization, season by season,” says Bell.
And Louisville and Cincinnati could use it. Those clubs are among the least likely in their leagues to attempt stolen bases.
Hamilton doesn’t correct those who say he may be the fastest man in baseball. But he demurred a bit when asked how he might fare against Olympic speedster Usain Bolt.
“I’m a competitor, so I’m going to say I could beat him” says Hamilton, though he admits he’d like his chances better if such a match race were held around the bases. The comparison is not totally unrealistic. Fans in Louisville and Cincinnati might recall the days when former Florida State All-American defensive back Deion Sanders flew around the base paths when he tried baseball. Sanders problem was his bat was only so-so … and his glove was oh-no.
While Hamilton could start next season at Louisville, it is believed the Reds would like for him to see more AA pitching at Pensacola. He’s currently hitting .315, but a lot of those hits are singles he’s legged out against beginning-level infielders.
The parent club may also wish to convert Hamilton from shortstop (where the Reds are well-armed with Zack Cozart in Cincinnati and Didi Gregorius at Louisville) to the outfield – where Hamilton’s speed could be a real factor. That change could begin next season at Pensacola, with a mid-season move on to Louisville, if things go well for Hamilton. The Reds have followed that course in the past with top prospects.
Photo: Courtesy MLIB.com