A Tale of Two Hamiltons

Sometimes, the universe works in mysterious ways.

In 2012, a shortstop in the Cincinnati Reds’ farm system set a minor league record by stealing 155 bases.  He stole them so often and with such exhilarating ease that fans and pundits wondered if they were witnessing a prototype; a burgeoning, transformative figure in the art of base running.  Twenty-one year old Billy Hamilton certainly looked the part – lean and lithe; his long, kinetic strides leaving vapor trails in the spaces between the bases he took.

Hamilton Record

And that record – 155 steals in a single season – was a remarkable accomplishment.  Consider the company he bested to get there – Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock, Tim Raines, Vince Coleman, Maury Wills.  None of them ever stole that many bases in a single year.

Coleman was the closest at 145 in 1983 while he was with Single-A Macon, and it was Coleman’s record Hamilton broke, by fully ten more steals.  Granted, the minor leagues are not the major leagues, not by a long shot.  And Henderson, Brock, Raines, Coleman, and Wills all had superb stolen base totals at the game’s most difficult level.

Still, 155 steals is a staggering number, no matter the league.  Just think about what goes into a single steal attempt, let alone over 150 successful ones.

In the time it takes a baseball to travel from the pitcher to the catcher – at 90 miles per hour – and from the catcher to a given base – at 75-80 mph – a runner must be able to cover 90 feet – 30 yards – and beat the baseball to the bag.  And he has less than four seconds to do it.

Throw Second

In fact, the players who do it well routinely complete the theft very near the three-second mark.  They are among the elite who can actually outrun high-speed projectiles – bipeds beating ballistics.

To complicate matters – or to add spice to the stew – a base stealer must be able to determine when a pitcher has committed his balance and body to throw a pitch to the plate and when he can still wheel around and throw towards the runner and the base.  The runner has to process this – has to know with certainty – what the pitcher will do at the very instant he begins to do it.

Because once a runner decides to leave the base, there’s no looking back.  He plants that first big stride in the ground and goes.  Those three seconds are incredibly unforgiving.

Hamilton Run2

In turn, the pitcher can disguise his intent – whether he will throw to the plate or back to the base – letting doubt delay a runner’s decision and increase the odds of the ball outspeeding the base stealer to the target.   It’s a hand of poker, without the self-important posturing.

Holding-Runners-On-Base

So, Hamilton’s record – his sheer bushel of beating thrown baseballs to bases – is impressive, indeed.

However, before bestowing Hamilton with any enduring crowns of base stealing exclusivity, it should be noted that he might not even be the best Billy Hamilton to blaze across the base paths.

That distinction is reserved for a speedy outfielder who pilfered his first big league bag 124 years before Cincinnati’s prodigy dazzled the modern game.

William Robert Hamilton earned the nickname “Sliding Billy” for his speed, his aggressive approach to the game, and, well, because, he slid so damned much.  However, there was good reason for all of that dirt on his uniform.

Sliding-Bill-Hamilton

He is one of five players in Major League history to steal at least 100 bases in a single season, and he accomplished the feat four times (1889-1891, 1894).  Hamilton still ranks third all-time in career steals.  His 914 stolen bases remained a big league record for 77 years until Lou Brock finally surpassed the mark in 1978.

Over the years, though, many have discounted Sliding Billy’s gaudy stolen base total due to when they were taken (1888-1901).  For instance, rules of the time allowed for such things like a steal being awarded for taking an extra base on a hit. Such quirky ordinances have muddied the concept of the stolen base from that period, especially when compared to the version tallied in the modern game.

However, if steals of that era were truly that diluted, the top career marks in the category would be littered with players from the late-1800’s.  However, of the Top 15 base stealers in Major League history, only two others could be considered contemporaries of Hamilton (Arlie Latham – 7th and Tom Brown – 13th).  Even so, Hamilton had over 170 more stolen bases than his closest peer from that time (Latham with 742) and accumulated them in three fewer season, to boot.

So, he was the elite base runner of his day, whether or not split hairs over the statistical classification of his many jaunts around the bases are applied.  He was the best at what he did when he did it – and by a fairly wide margin.

Billy-Hamilton-Phillies

But because he played most of his career before the advent of radio and decades before newsreels and, later, television and the internet, Sliding Billy pretty much slid his way right out of the public consciousness.

However, when another speedy player – coincidentally named Billy Hamilton – came along decades later but happened upon the spotlight at time when media attention was never greater, that singularity of name helped to rightfully bring attention back to the brilliant career of the 19th century star.

Although the elder Hamilton’s base running exploits were remarkable, his ability to get on base to do all of that burglary was even better.

His .344 career batting average is tied for 7th All-time in big league history, in a statistical dead heat with the great Ted Williams – all the way out to a fourth decimal point, actually.  Along the way, Hamilton topped the .400 mark in 1894, hitting .403 for the Philadelphia Phillies, and finished north of .380 on two other occasions.

And he was so selective at the plate that he led the National League in walks five times.  Combined with his exceptional hitting, that penchant for getting on base brought Hamilton another piece of history.  His .455 career on-base percentage still ranks as the fourth-highest ever.

Sliding Billy H

However, his most impressive deed on the field is at the very heart of the game itself.

If the entire object of the sport is scoring runs – which it is – Hamilton scored more of them in a single season than any player in big league history, ever.  In 1894 – the year he hit .403 – Hamilton scored 198 runs.  Since then, only Babe Ruth has gotten as close as 20 runs from the record (1921).  And in the last 50 years, only one player has gotten within 50 runs of the mark (Jeff Bagwell with 152 in 2000).

Although he was one of the game’s greatest players, his personality was more bookkeeper than baseball superstar – particularly one of that vintage.  Perhaps, it was that sedate persona during such an unruly time in the sport that limited his notoriety, because there was certainly more than enough spectacle to go around.

Ball players of the late-1800’s were a staggeringly rowdy bunch, often profane and habitually self-indulgent.

86chiwhitestockings

As for the staggering part (pun very much intended), many players imbibed so often and in such volume that they either drank themselves out of the game or, worse, to any early grave.  Alcohol infused shenanigans commonly resulted in brawls on the diamond and saloon melees off of it.  Coarse language at nearly every utterance was probably more acclimation than intentional vulgarity – wild milieus couldn’t help but produce wild denizens.

Perhaps, it was the uncertainty of the industry that drove the rollicking behavior.  If a player lost his metaphorical grip on baseball, he was likely doomed to a life of agrarian or industrial misery.  Few were educated enough to survive comfortably outside of the game.  So, while they were privy to celebrity and decent money, many lived like there wasn’t a tomorrow, because – for a lot of them – there wouldn’t be.

Delahanty

Amidst that, Sliding Billy was an anomaly.  He didn’t drink or cheat on his wife or curse repeatedly.  In fact, the only hell he raised was on the field, and, even then, it was his running that caused the ruckus and not an overly aggressive personality or borderline dirty play that were hallmarks of most of his contemporaries.

He lived modestly, saved his money, and led a quiet but honorable life.  Sadly, his spectacular play on the baseball diamond wasn’t enough to have saved his legend over the years.  It seems that history preferred stormy over calm. As proof, it took the Hall of Fame over two decades to recognize Hamilton’s accomplishments (the Hall opened in 1936; Hamilton was inducted in 1961).

Meanwhile, 19th century stars Mike “King” Kelly and George ”Rube” Waddell – both superb players but chronic drunks – were allowed Cooperstown entry 15 years earlier than Hamilton (Kelly was inducted in 1945; Waddell in 1946).  No doubt, the colorful yarns attached to Kelly and Waddell over time – whether brimming with hyperbole or not – helped to keep their names more ready at the recall when it came time to honor players from that era.  After all, few could forget a baseball star who once kept a pet monkey on his shoulder (Kelly) or another who would occasionally miss games to chase fire engines down the street (Waddell).

King_Kelly

However, it should be noted that Hamilton had significantly higher career totals in batting average, on-base percentage, hits, steals, and runs scored than Kelly (Waddell was a pitcher).  He was also a much better defensive player than Kelly and had far greater range.  What he did not have was a quirky, grandiose persona, and that, apparently, cost him the enduring recognition his playing record would seem to merit.

One has to wonder, then, if the modern-day Billy Hamilton – he of the 155 steals in a year – will be similarly swallowed by time, because he has also has a modest and unassuming personality.  In fact, Cincinnati’s Hamilton has a number of things in common with Sliding Billy of yesteryear.

There is the name, of course.  There is also the demeanor.  The current Hamilton is polite and gracious, never allowing the notoriety of the moment go to his head.  He works hard and mostly lets his accomplishments punctuate his play.

Hamilton Work

Then, there is the speed.  Both Hamiltons share that – the game-changing, unstoppable ability to propel themselves around the bases with extraordinary quickness.  And within that frantic realm is the stolen base.

Base stealing is in some parts brains, bravado, and birthright.  Players best suited for it study pitchers and their pickoff moves relentlessly.  Even then, they have to have the fortitude and faith to believe that they can outrun a thrown baseball.  Most importantly, they need the God-given ability to become a blur.

Hamilton run

The two Hamiltons truly have that – Sliding Billy’s 914 big league thefts and the modern Billy’s 155-steal minor league season are proof of extraordinary speed.  However, what remains to be seen is what the 21st century version of Billy Hamilton will produce at the Major League level.

So far in 2014 – his rookie season in the big leagues – Hamilton has stolen 43 bases in just over 100 games.  He has also been caught 16 times, the most in the National League.  That difference between major and minor leagues has been a bit problematic for Cincinnati’s wunderkind – a 150-steal season in the majors is still a ways off.  However, a likely 60-steal rookie campaign is not a bad way to start what could be the next great base stealing career.

Hamilton is also hitting a respectable .271, though his .299 on-base percentage could use some polish.  At 23, he has plenty of time to sharpen his skills, to truly weaponize his remarkable speed.  If he’s lucky he may even carve out a 14-year Hall of Fame career in the big leagues, become a lifetime .300 hitter and steal 900 bases.

hamilton-hof

If he does, it will be difficult to determine the better of the two Billy Hamiltons. Until then, the nod has to go to the player who did accomplish all of those things, even if history has given him the cold shoulder.  Hopefully, the universe will not be required to conjure up a third Billy Hamilton in order for us to rightfully celebrate the other two.

Sources:

http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/8291219/billy-hamilton-cincinnati-reds-prospect-sets-steals-record-147

http://www.thebatssignal.com/the-math-behind-billy-hamiltons-base-stealing/

http://www.stltoday.com/sports/baseball/professional/birdland/how-fast-did-molina-throw-that-ball-to-second/article_dc42994c-fea5-11e1-b8c1-0019bb30f31a.html

http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=hamilt002bil

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hamilbi02.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hamilbi01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/SB_career.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/awards/hof.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/R_season.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/k/kellyki01.shtml

http://sports.yahoo.com/news/billy-hamilton-s-immense-potential-isn-t-just-fantasy-165453900.html

Photos:

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Miami Meltdown

Jeffrey Loria is a sleaze.

Loria, owner of Major League Baseball’s Miami Marlins, recently dismantled his team by trading its five best – and most expensive – players to Toronto for a handful of cheaper prospects, the balance sheet trumping the scorecard with unabashed clarity. Worse still, the demolition – which actually began in July when disgruntled All-Star third baseman Hanley Ramirez was shipped off to the Los Angeles Dodgers – comes less than a year after Miami’s brand new stadium, Marlins Park, was christened.

The ballpark, a $515 million dollar state-of-the-art athletic palace – complete with aquariums behind home plate and an immense retractable roof, was supposed to usher in a new era of style and success to South Florida. Instead, thanks to Loria, it is now home to little more than the echoes of broken promises and a hollowed out player roster. Rather than a sparkling home for a dynamic team on the rise, Marlins Park is more like a ghost ship, an eerie shell of what was supposed to be.

And the sadistic punch line? Miami taxpayers are on the hook for $300 million of the stadium’s gaudy price tag while Loria laughs all the way to the bank. According to Forbes Magazine, the franchise is now worth $450 million, which includes a 25% equity increase the moment the ribbon was cut on the new stadium. And without the pesky impact of a high payroll on operating expenses, the bottom line for Miami’s penurious owner looks rosier and rosier – the wreckage of a livid and heartbroken fan base notwithstanding.

Despite calls for Major League Baseball to intervene, there’s little chance of mediation of any consequence, because Loria has done this before without so much as a strongly worded reprimand as punishment. In fact, the last time he eviscerated a big league franchise Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig saw fit to not only give Loria an escape from the team he destroyed but also approved a loan for him to purchase a new club.

Selig, it should be noted, was a former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers before assuming the role of acting commissioner in 1992 – a position designed to be the impartial arbiter between labor and management. So, as Selig brimmed with conflict of interest, it was of little surprise that he dealt Loria the most favorable hand possible after the latter wrecked his first team and will likely do nothing after Loria decimated his second team.

And that first team, the Montreal Expos, was utterly and irrevocably wrecked – with Loria manning the bulldozer that leveled every last trace of them.

The Expos had been in Montreal since 1969 and had built an uneven but colorful history in Quebec. Outfielder Rusty Staub, affectionately nicknamed “Le Grand Orange” for his bright carroty hair, was the team’s first star.

Future Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Gary Carter headlined contending ball clubs in the 1980’s, which also featured speedy outfield star Tim Raines and pitching stalwart Steve Rogers.

In 1994, the Expos had the best record in baseball with Canadian-born slugger Larry Walker leading the way. Unfortunately, a players’ strike interrupted the season and dragged on long enough to force the cancellation of the entire post season. So, the year Montreal was most suited to win a championship there was no championship to be won.

Behind the scenes, Loria had parlayed his initial $30 million investment in the franchise into a managing partner role with the team in 1999. As a sign of things to come, he failed to secure English television and radio deals for the 2000 season, meaning the only way fans could follow the Expos when they played on the road was to listen to French radio broadcasts. The unprecedented media invisibility hinged largely on Loria’s insistence on uncompetitive fees for the broadcast rights.

Even then, it was clear that he was in it for the money and couldn’t care less about much else.

However, professional sports teams have a symbiotic relationship with the cities in which they play. These teams necessarily become part of the cultural fabric of the area. While they provide excitement, jobs, and fractional identity to cities, they also need support and revenue from residents in return. And the tacit agreement that holds it all together is that the team willingly fields an entertaining and, hopefully, winning product.

When profit supersedes that equation, though, the relationship with the public can deteriorate quickly. In Montreal, Loria’s disdain for anything that would curtail his personal stake in the club doomed the team.

On the heels of the radio/TV debacle, Loria also demanded a publicly financed new ballpark – largely to increase the equity of the franchise – for a team that lost at least 90 games for three straight seasons. And the city of Montreal was in economic hardship already and simply did not have the ethical indifference to prioritize a baseball stadium over schools and hospitals.

So, Loria turned to Major League Baseball to bail him out.

Had Bud Selig a less gelatinous spine, he might have made sure Jeffrey Loria stayed at least 250 yards from a Major League Baseball franchise for the rest of his days. Instead, Selig took the unprecedented step of having the rest of the league purchase and own the Expos in 2002, run them despite competing against them for two full seasons, and shuttled them off to Puerto Rico for 22 “home” games as a way to “internationalize” the sport (and garner a tidy sum for holding such games abroad).

The Expos staggered through the 2004 season before being sold to Ted Lerner and moved to Washington, D.C., leaving a trail of betrayed fans in Quebec – a funny way to promote internationalization of the game, indeed.

As for Loria, Selig not only absolved him from the mess in Quebec he arranged for a $38,5 million loan, enabling Loria to become the majority stake holder in the then-Florida Marlins. The inmate had not only run one asylum and left it in ruins he had been given money to escape the wreckage and run another one.

Just as he had in Montreal, Loria again pushed for a publicly financed stadium for his new team. However, this time, he got it.

In an apparent sign of good faith, Loria spent the 2011 off season signing some of the biggest free agents in the game as a much ballyhooed run up to the grand opening of the new ballpark.

Shortstop Jose Reyes signed a six-year, $106 million deal. Three days later, veteran left-handed pitcher Mark Buehrle signed a four-year, $58 million contract. Closer Heath Bell was also added to the roster for three years and $27 million. In less than a week, the Marlins added three marquee players and $191 million to their payroll. Flamboyant manager Ozzie Guillen, whose fiery antics were the stuff of reporter’s dreams but had also gotten him run out of Chicago, was brought in to lead the team – and the publicity machine.

It seemed like Loria finally understood the responsibility of a franchise to its community. But like much else in his baseball life, he hadn’t the stomach for much of anything other than his own interests. When the team got off to a slow start and struggled to climb in the standings, he began to disassemble his expensive creation.

Starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez and third baseman Ramirez were jettisoned at the trade deadline in July. After a miserable last place finish, Guillen was fired and Bell was traded to Arizona. In the coup de grace, Reyes, Buehrle, star pitcher Josh Johnson, catcher John Buck, and outfielder Emilio Bonfacio were sent to Toronto.

In the end, Loria’s good faith with the city of Miami had lasted all of ten months.

As for what lies ahead for the Marlins, perhaps outfielder Giancarlo Stanton – the team’s lone remaining standout – put it best. After the Toronto trade was announced, Stanton, a 23-year-old slugger who hit 37 homers in 2012, tweeted, “Alright, I’m pissed off!!! Plain & Simple.”

A lot of fans in Miami echo the thought, and many more in Montreal sympathize.

Not that any of it makes a difference to Jeffrey Loria. He’s a sleaze – Plain & Simple. It’s just too bad he has a friend in such a high place in the game.

Sources:

http://www.nbcmiami.com/news/local/Marlins-Park-Cost-Taxpayers-a-Lot-But-It-Brings-Economic-Benefits-Too-146032985.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A10599-2004Jun27.html

http://content.usatoday.com/communities/dailypitch/post/2011/12/jose-reyes-on-the-verge-of-jumping-to-miami-marlins/1#.UKV8_Yc73a4

http://www.usatoday.com/story/gameon/2012/11/13/marlins-giancarlo-stanton-pissed-off-about-trade-blue-jays/1703393/

Photos:

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