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C H A P T E R
THE MAN WATCHED silently, his arms crossed. He sat directly behind home plate, halfway up the concrete bleachers, a lone figure in the West Raleigh Exchange ballpark. I didn't know who he was, or why he was there, but occasionally I'd catch my daddy glancing up at him from his spot on the field. They'd exchange polite nods like two men sharing a secret language.
I was practicing with my brother Jason's team, like I always did. The team, made up of eleven- and twelveyear- olds, was coached by our father, Tony Hamilton. I was six at the time, almost seven. I ran around shagging balls and getting to hit at the end of practice. Jason — whom I always called "Bro" — was always encouraging to me when he probably could have told me to stay home or at least stay out of the way.
The day the man sat in the stands, I made a diving catch in the outfield that nobody could believe. I was running from right- center toward center field and diving till my body was parallel to the ground as I caught a ball about six inches off the ground.
I was six years younger than most of the players on Jason's team, but I could do things on the field they couldn't do. I lived to play ball, and I had precocious ability from the time I picked up a ball. Bro and I would play in the yard or across the street at the cemetery, and I refused to accept our age difference as a valid reason for his superiority. I couldn't beat him — he's four years older than I am, and four years is a huge age difference for a long, long time — but I always thought I could. Whatever we played, whether it was basketball or wiffle ball, I went into every game convinced this was going to be the day.
The time I spent practicing with Jason's team was my favorite time of the week. My team, at the coach- pitch level, was not a challenge. When the season started, I was the typical little boy, thrilled to put on his baseball clothes and get to the season's first practice. Once I got there, though, I was disappointed that my teammates couldn't keep up.
My daddy coached my team, too, and my momma always came to our practices. After the second or third practice of my coach- pitch team, once we were in the car and nobody could hear, they told me they could tell I was easing up on my throws and maybe not swinging as hard as I could when I was taking batting practice.
"I don't want to hurt anybody," I told them.
They shook their heads. "You play the way you know how to play," Daddy said. "Those other boys need to get used to catching balls that are thrown hard, and if you start trying to hit the ball so it won't hurt anybody, you're going to get into bad habits that'll be hard to break. You need to be a leader and they'll catch up."
When I thought about it, I realized that Jason didn't let up on me when we were playing together, and he was four years older. These guys were my age, so maybe they would get better and learn to react the way I did.
The next practice I threw as hard as I could, and it resulted in some missed throws and some tears. I got up there and hit the way I would if I was playing in the cemetery with Bro, and my teammates kept moving back till there was nobody in the infield. The parents watching shook their heads and started talking and laughing among themselves. They'd never seen such a little person do the things I could do.
As we got closer to the start of the coach- pitch season, the parents started to wonder whether I could be moved up to a more advanced level. There was nothing malicious about their concern; a move would help everybody involved. They were equal parts amazed and afraid — amazed at the speed at which I could throw the ball and the power with which I could hit it, afraid that their lessadvanced sons might find themselves unprepared and in the way of one of my throws or hits.
I could hear them up there, telling grandparents and friends, "That kid's going to hurt somebody." By the time I was six, I could throw the ball about 50 mph, probably twice as fast as most of the kids my age. The parents' concerns were legitimate, and they were never malicious or angry. In fact, they were very supportive of my quest to leave the team sponsored by Hamilton Machine — a business owned by my dad's cousin — and move up to play with my brother. The sooner the better, as far as they were concerned, since they believed it was just a matter of time before one of their boys lost a few teeth or got a concussion.
Their fears became real in our first game, when I fielded a ball at shortstop and threw it across the infield as hard as I could to get the runner. There was a problem, though — the first baseman either never saw the ball or didn't react fast enough to catch it. He stood there with his glove turned the wrong way as the ball smacked into his chest. He went down like a sniper got him, and I think he started crying before he hit the ground. I felt terrible.
* * *
The mystery man in the concrete bleachers stayed till the end of practice. Afterward, he came down and talked to my daddy. They walked off to where no one could hear them and spoke for a few minutes. There was some talk among the older kids in the dugout that he was there to see me, but I couldn't tell whether they were fooling with me.
When the discussion was over, my daddy and the man shook hands and the man walked to his car. We carried the equipment to the truck and waited. When Daddy climbed into the cab he looked straight ahead and said, "Well, Josh, that man I was talking to is the president of the whole Tar Heel League. He drove all the way from Charlotte to watch you play. He heard about you and needed to see for himself. And, well, you're on Jason's team now."
I guess you could say that was the first time I'd been scouted. I was six years old, closing in on seven, and Bro was eleven. In the Tar Heel League, his team was the equivalent of majors in Little League, and everyone on Bro's team was somewhere between fifth and seventh grade.
Until I showed up. When that happened, the team had acquired a first- grader.
I later learned the Tar Heel League had never done something like this before. The local board couldn't decide to do something that drastic, and the parents' complaints had traveled all the way to the top. The president decided he needed to see me before he made a ruling, and his decision made everyone in our pickup truck happy. I got to play on the same team with my Bro, and my daddy had to coach only one team.
I think it made everyone on my old Hamilton Machine team happy, too. They thought it was cool someone from their team got moved up, and they didn't have to worry about catching one in the teeth.
It wasn't all perfect, as my daddy found out soon enough. At our first game, after the lineup was posted in the dugout, I had a question.
"Daddy, why you battin' me last?" I asked in my sixyear- old southern accent.
"'Cuz you're the youngest one, that's why."
I didn't like that answer, and every game I said something when I saw my name in the ninth spot in the order. "Come on, Daddy, what are you batting me last for?" He never budged, though. That nine spot always had the same name: J. Hamilton.
In my mind, the team's worst hitter hits last, and I wasn't the worst hitter on the team. I turned seven in May and two weeks later, I hit my first real home run. A twelve-year-old named Larry Trantham was pitching, and he threw me a fat one over the middle of the plate. The ball hit the bat square, right on the sweet spot of the barrel, and I drove it over the fence in left- center. It's hard to explain, but on contact, I felt nothing. It's one of the best feelings in the world.
* * *
Life in the Hamilton household revolved around family and baseball. You couldn't tell where one started and the other stopped — not on a dare.
I wasn't a bad student, but given the choice between playing ball and memorizing parts of speech, I wanted the ball.
It was a family tradition. My parents, Linda and Tony, met at a ballpark. My daddy was warming up for a softball game on one diamond while my momma was playing a game on a field next to him. He looked over once and saw her hit a ball about fifty feet beyond the left-field fence, and everyone on his team just shook their heads and pointed to the spot where the ball landed. The next time up, the same thing happened, except the ball went even farther.
At this point, my daddy had seen enough. He walked over to her field and told someone, "I've got to meet that girl." He did, and within weeks they were dating and before long they were married.
My father grew up on his family's hog and chicken farm in Oxford, North Carolina, about forty miles north of our house in a rural area west of Raleigh. Momma grew up in the house next door to us, on the same piece of property about fifty yards away from our front door.
Like everyone in this part of the world, we were surrounded by pine forests. To this day, I know I'm home more by the smell of those trees than anything else. Across the street there's an old, small cemetery where we used to run around and hit baseballs or golf balls, maybe shoot our BB guns. Five or six years ago someone was buried in an old family plot, but when I was growing up there wasn't much action there. Down the road a huge piece of land is owned by North Carolina State University, and our favorite fishing hole was on it, not more than a threeminute walk from the house.
We were never more than a mile from a good fishing hole.
It was a good childhood. We weren't rich, but I don't think we knew that. I don't think Jason and I knew what rich was. We played ball and went to school and pretty much had the run of the place. We hung out as a family and didn't see much need to go out, even as we reached high school age. We were pretty content in our little corner of the world. We had everything we needed.
My grandmother on my mother's side lived right next door to us, in the same house my momma grew up in. This was the place Bro and I went to be spoiled with cookies and ice cream and grilled- cheese sandwiches. Mary Holt is an old- fashioned southern lady, more of a friend than an authority figure. My nickname from the time I started playing baseball was "Hambone" and I called Granny "Grambone." If we got in trouble at home, we'd always find our way over to Granny's house to escape. Whatever we had done to get in trouble didn't seem like such a big deal to her. She was the safe haven, and it was a role she enjoyed. I think she had a soft spot for me because I was the youngest and I shared her name — Joshua Holt Hamilton.
Granny never missed a ballgame. We didn't make a conscious effort to invite her to the games; it was just understood that she would be ready to come with us when it was time to go. My games, Jason's games — it didn't matter. She was there. Before every game, for good luck, I would walk over to where Granny and my momma were sitting and give each of them a kiss on the cheek.
From the time we started playing baseball, one of the major lessons we learned in our family was to respect the game. And a big part of respecting the game was respecting the people you play with and against. My daddy went out of his way to make sure he wasn't favoring his sons on the baseball field, and since I always wanted to please him and my teammates, I usually packed up all the gear after practices and cleaned the dugout after games.
My ability drew more attention to me, but I always put pressure on myself to go beyond people's expectations. I didn't want to be treated differently because I was a good player; I loved to play the game, but it didn't mean anything beyond that.
My parents taught us to be humble. My mom was an awesome slow- pitch softball player, one of the best in the area. She played first base and pitched, and the tales of her hitting exploits are repeated to this day. People around Raleigh who watched her play swear she could hit a softball four hundred feet.
Our parents raised us on the idea that a ballfield was the best place to be. They believed that sports keep kids out of trouble and headed in the right direction, whether they pick up a ball after high school or not. My daddy loved sports and played baseball, but he grew up in a family that felt it was much more important to work on the farm than to do something frivolous like playing ball. The demands of work limited his opportunities to play sports, but he played whatever he could whenever he could — baseball, softball, football, martial arts.
My daddy is big and strong, country strong, with forearms like pillars and shoulders wide as a doorway. He never had any formal strength training, but he set the unofficial YMCA bench press record in Raleigh with a lift of 540 pounds.
His limited opportunity to play sports made him determined to make sure we were able to take advantage of every possible opportunity.
My daddy coached Jason and me until we got to high school, and he wasn't the type of dad/coach who let us do whatever we wanted. His teams were disciplined. He made us keep our shirts tucked in, and he preached accountability, making sure we never left our bats or any other equipment for someone else to pick up.
We rarely crossed him, but once when I was eleven I didn't run hard enough to first base on a popup and he got all over me. We were playing some kind of championship game, and he told me I embarrassed him on the field. He never stayed mad, but I knew better than to do it again. From then on, I ran out every ground ball and every popup like my hair was on fire.
I was never pressured to play ball. The perception of my parents as hard-driving stage parents was never accurate. I played because I loved to play, and because I was good at it. If I had told my parents that I didn't want to play baseball, I honestly think they would have been fine with that. They would have been surprised, but they would have thrown themselves into whatever activity I chose to replace it.
They made sacrifices for us. Jason and I knew it at the time, but I don't think we completely understood the level of sacrifice until we got older. Daddy was, and is, a hard worker who got up early in the morning to go to his job as a supervisor for the Wonder Bread factory in town. Momma worked for the North Carolina Department of Transportation. She washed our clothes after dark, when the utility rates were lowest, so we could save money to spend on gas and food for our baseball trips.
My daddy always made sure he had a flexible enough schedule to work around my baseball games. To do this, sometimes he had to go to work at some ungodly hour so he could get his work finished in time to leave for the game. I would hear him leaving the house at three or four in the morning during the summer after we had gotten home after midnight from an AAU baseball tournament somewhere in the state. His bosses, in general, were understanding and appreciated his devotion to both his job and his family.
He got a new boss when I was twelve, the summer after I finished playing in the Tar Heel League and started playing traveling AAU ball in the summer for a team in Raleigh. One Friday my daddy did what he always did when the schedule got tight: He got to work at 2:00 a.m. so he could leave by noon and drive me three hours to a game.
As he walked to the time clock to clock out for the day, this boss stopped him.
"Tony, where are you going?"
"Got a ballgame," my daddy said. "I'm done for the day."
"You know, I need you here this afternoon. You need to stick around."
My daddy explained the arrangement he had with the bosses at the factory. As long as he completed his work for the day and it didn't cause any disruption — and it wouldn't have in this case — then he was free to go. He was a dedicated worker and went out of his way not to cheat anybody.
The new boss wouldn't hear any of it. He repeated his desire to have my daddy stick around for the rest of the afternoon. At this point, my daddy felt he was being tested, challenged just to see how he would react. This was not always a smart move for the person doing the challenging. My daddy just stood there with his timecard in his hand, waiting for his boss to make the next move.
"Tony, I've got a question for you: What's more important, the ballgame or your job?"
My daddy didn't hesitate at all. He didn't answer him directly, but he looked this new boss right in the eye and slid his timecard into the clock until it clicked. He put the card back in the slot, calmly walked out of the factory and never worked another day for Wonder Bread.
Copyright © 2008 by Josh Hamilton