Editor's note: This story previously had the wrong photo. It's been corrected, and we apologize for the error.
The biggest story in baseball this summer may be minor league base-stealing sensation Billy Hamilton, a 21-year-old Cincinnati Reds prospect who has stolen 105 bases in 89 games. That’s right, 105 steals – and we’re still in July. Hamilton is on a blistering pace that projects to more than 160 stolen bases this season. That would break the all-time professional baseball mark of 145 steals set by Vince Coleman in 1983 at Class A Macon, Ga.
Hamilton was recently promoted from Bakersfield (the Reds Class A team in the California League) to Pensacola (AA Southern League) and will likely remain with that club until the end of the minor league season on Labor Day. Sources say it is unlikely he will be jumped again this year to the Louisville Bats (AAA) – a club that could certainly use his help. (Wait until next year!)
But Hamilton could vault all the way to Cincinnati in September, when major league clubs are permitted to call up a few prospects for a look at what big league ball is all about.
And it might be more than a look-see for Hamilton and Cincinnati. The Reds just regained first place in the National League Central – a game ahead of Pittsburgh, and 4 ½ on top of the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals.
Hamilton, a shortstop hitting above .300 for the first time since signed by the Reds in 2009, is, of course, seasons away from being able to handle major league pitching. But his feet are fast enough. The 6-1, 160 lbs. speedster could be a factor in a game if he were, say, inserted as a pinch-running base stealer in the late innings of a tight game.
That’s an idea Reds fans have kicked around since Hamilton stole 103 bases last season at Dayton (A) Now others have begun to notice.
“I’m sure (Cincinnati manager) Dusty Baker is giving very serious thought to adding Hamilton to his roster in September,” says Sports Illustrated sportswriter/broadcaster Tom Verducci. “He could be a very potent bench weapon.”
A sharp contrast to the Reds’ slow boats to Covington
And if you’re thinking Hamilton might not have enough experience for crafty big-league relievers and catchers, he probably doesn’t. But he couldn’t do much worse than the current Reds cast, which is last in the National League in base stealing. If there were a statistic for it, the Reds would also be first in bonehead base running. The young Reds have some speed, but far too often seem to run themselves into trouble. Jay Bruce, for one, has accumulated several especially embarrassing moments on the base paths, and cost the Reds at least a couple games this season -- getting doubled off second, stopping a base too soon, etc.
None of that for Hamilton, a former high school football star, who turned down college scholarship offers as a wide receiver to play professional baseball.
Most teams today go in for “situational” stealing. They’re cautious, looking for the right spot to run. But not Billy Hamilton. He’s gets on, he’s going.
“I feel like I’m bringing back stolen bases,” Hamilton told Seattle Times writer Larry Stone, who took in Hamilton’s act at the recent Futures Game in Kansas City, part of the All-Star Game festivities.
“Last year, (going for his 100th steal) was kind of intense because it was at the end of the season,” Hamilton explained. “This year, it was more like, just another stolen base. I guess the excitement will come with 145. Or 146. I want to break it, not tie it.”
Hamilton notched no steals in the Future Stars game, but whacked a shot over the center fielder’s head and sped all the way to third for a triple.
The next batter, Stone reported, hit a come backer to the pitcher, who looked Hamilton back several times before rushing a throw to first, which was wild. Hamilton waltzed home.
“I could tell he was nervous,” Hamilton said. “He kept watching me. I’ve had a few times this year where the pitcher catches the ball, gives me one look, throws to first and I go. I feel I can put that pressure on pitchers now. It’s a good thing.”
A good thing in any league.
Hamilton notched just 14 steals in 42 games brief pro season in 2009, then 48 in 2010, before checking in with Dayton manager DeLino DeSheilds and Bakersfield skipper Ken Griffey. Both urged Hamilton to run on his own. Now at Pensacola, Hamilton has been joined by former Cincinnati star Eric Davis, a roving coach for the Reds who works with the system’s budding stars.
Kelch isn’t so hot on the idea
Not everyone thinks calling Hamilton up for a month is such a great idea.
Cincinnati broadcaster Jim Kelch, formerly the Louisville play-by-play man, told espnRadio 680 host Bob Valvano that he is not so sure about calling up a one-skill player for the pennant race.
“I’d like to see the addition of a player with who can help the team in more than one way,” says Kelch, who was formerly the play-by-play man for the Louisville Bats. “I don’t think we’re ready for another Herb Washington.”
Kelch is referring to Herb Washington, the superstar track star that maverick baseball owner Charlie Finley added to his Oakland A’s for the final month of the 1974 American League season. Washington was a world record holder for 50 and 60 yards, and could fly the 90 feet between bases on a ball diamond. He appeared in a game as a pinch runner, stealing 31 of 48 tries and scoring 33 runs.
But Kelch, and others, probably recall the embarrassing moment when Washington was inserted into a World Series game to pinch run for A’s star Joe Rudi -- only to be picked off first base Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Mike Marshall. The A’s did win the ’74 World Series.
The difference this time, of course, is that Hamilton is an everyday professional baseball player with experience in the cat-and-mouse game between pitcher, runner, first baseman and catcher. Though it is a jump from the Pensacola Blue Wahoos to the National League.
But while bleacher bums and media masterminds continue the Hamilton debate, the good news is Cincinnati continues to win. And, if called up, Hamilton might very well get an opportunity to change the course of a crucial game.
Coleman swiped 101 at Louisville
The record-holding Coleman continued his base-stealing ways after posting the record 145 at Macon in 1983. The next year he swiped 101 with the Louisville Redbirds, and then 110 in 1985 as a rookie with the St. Louis Cardinals.
A modern-times progression of the major-league steals record begins with Ty Cobb’s landmark 96 in 1915. Maury Wills stole 104 in 1962. Lou Brock grabbed 118 in 1974, and Rickey Handerson set the current standard with a stunning 130 stolen bases in1982.
Base Sliding Billy, the original Billy Hamilton
But for base-stealing élan of an earlier era, one might look to late-19th Century Hall-of-Famer Billy Hamilton – that’s right: same name, a century back – who stole 982 bases in a 14-year career, primarily with the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Beaneaters (NL).
Hamilton also scored an all-time record 192 runs for the Phils in 1894. He posted a .344 career hitting average, and was known as the greatest run-scorer of his day. The earlier Hamilton wasn’t just fast, but skilled at stealing, earning the nickname “Sliding Billy.”
Today’s Billy Hamilton slides headfirst.
And coming soon to a base near you.
Photo: Courtesy MILB.com