Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Best. Crackhead-cum-Christian. Ever.

A WWOD? Photo Essay:
Josh Hamilton Blows Lines Minds at Home Run Derby

You have probably heard all about Texas Rangers centerfielder Josh Hamilton by now. You may still be reeling (or, at least, remembering) from the monumental blasts that he sent flying into the Bronx during the Home Run Derby Monday night at Yankee Stadium. It was the event that will most be associated with the final Midsummer Classic held at the House that Ruth Built.
Josh Hamilton is the ballplayer responsible for sports broadcasters (among countless others) reading the phrase "smoked crack" off of tele-prompters on a weekly, if not nightly, basis. Hamilton was the former No. 1 overall pick of the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays in 1999. He fell off the baseball map thanks in small part to injuries and in large part to a mammoth, intense narcotics habit. After being kicked out of the Major Leagues, Hamilton resurfaced last year with the Cincinnati Reds and was traded to the Rangers in December 2007. His story has been covered. And, covered and covered. And mentioned for the tenth time during telecasts when there are dozens of other subjects and topics begging to be discussed for the first time. Albert Chen's SI article on Hamilton's story is the place to start if somehow, someway ESPN and FOX didn't bludgeon you enough with his tale of wasted opportunity and wanton crack-smoking, boundless talent and the discovery of a certain personal savior.

I'm a man alone at the Home Run Derby. One ticket. One man. It's as perfect a night to be at the ballpark as you could ever ask for. The air is warm, the breeze is cool. My hot dog tastes better than the normal. It's almost like the concessionaires cooked the hot dogs tonight knowing that other people were going to be eating them rather than just because it was their job to heat them up. They're really pulling out all the stops for this final All-Star week at Yankee Stadium. The beer is a cataclysmic $9.50 per plastic cup. Which keeps me sober-er than normal longer-er than normal. Which was actually perfect. Who would've thunk it? It was calm, serene and laid back as the festivities got underway. There was no pressure or concern to see "your" team win. There were no Mets, no Yankees and no Red Sox in the competition and everyone could just enjoy the night. It was perfect.

The contestants in the Home Run Derby were Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla, Rays third baseman Evan Lonoria, Brewers outfielder (and the Hebrew Hammer) Ryan Braun, Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, Astros first baseman Lance Berkman, Indians centerfielder Grady Sizemore, Twins first baseman Justin Morneau and, of course, Hamilton. Going in, I would have put my money, if I were a betting man, on any combo of Braun, Berkman and Hamilton to reach the finals.

Lance Berkman is a switch-hitter but chose to club from the left side in the Derby and aim to pull the ball to the short porch in right field. I'd love to see him keep up his chase for the NL's Triple Crown (most HR, most RBI and top batting average) in the second half of the season. It's sort of strange to think that his first name is really Lance. Even when he is at home. Or at the grocery store. Somehow it doesn't seem strange to me that his name is Lance on the ballfield. Or on a baseball card. But elsewhere? Eek.

Last but not least in the first round is Josh Hamilton. The guy has more rehab trips under his belt than all but two of his fellow contestants had long balls in the first round. And those two, Morneau and Berkman, well, they just tied Hamilton's rehab mark, each hitting eight home runs to advance to the second round along with 2007 NL Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun. Meanwhile Hamilton's sweet, left-handed swing sends shot after shot into the darkening night sky. He is absolutely amazing. The guys in the Goodyear blimp are likely getting nervous. I am amazed. 53,000 people feel the same way. From my perch in the upper deck just up the third base line from the NL dugout I am perfectly situated to watch Hamilton pepper the right field bleachers and the upper deck with homer after homer.
The first Hamilton shot that really sent the crowd into hysterics was the one that smacked what seemed to be about halfway up the Bank of America sign above the right field bleachers. That was the first off three shots that traveled (or was estimated to have traveled) over 500 feet. The almost-capacity crowd (and there were a few empty seats up top) exploded. All that was missing from this jubilant explosion of wonder was Dikembe Mutumbo jumping out of a folding chair like he does at the NBA slam dunk contest, mouth agape and arms flailing above his head. Somehow Milton Bradley "massaging" Hamilton or a few players' kids asking for autographs between hacks didn't quite cut it. Either way, I couldn't help but think that there was a chance that this tatooed-Roy-Hobbs-alike was going to become the first player (unless, of course, Negro Leagues legend Josh Gibson really did do it) to hit a fair ball clear out of Yankee Stadium. I mean he couldn't really. But could he?

The tally climbed seemingly with each swing. Hamilton had more than double his closest competitors, who had the aforementioned 8 apiece. In fact, Hamilton had more home runs than his two closest competitors combined. It had already been a great ride for the fans. We had already been on our feet chanting "Ham-ill-ton, Ham-ill-ton." It was already something special. And, it hadn't even begun.

In fact, you could say that it wasn't until after that eighth out that Hamilton actually got locked in at the plate. Those first dozen or so? He was just getting warmed up. Now he was ready Once he reached 24 long balls he had more than the next three contestants (Morneau, Berkman and Braun) combined.

He would go on a tear the likes of which no one in Yankee Stadium will ever forget having witnessed. Each time he stepped to the plate he either took a pitch, letting it harmlessly slap into the catcher's mitt or he unleashed another powerful swing and sent another ball flying out into the stands And he still had those two out remaining in his back pocket.

Hamilton would hit 28 home runs in the first round of the 2008 Home Run Derby. And the final 13 of them came on consecutive swings of the bat. If he swung it was gone. After cracking his 28th blast of the round he finally relented. The next two balls to flee his bat stayed in the park.

As soon as he made his 10th and final out of the round he was mobbed by his peers and serenaded once more by the electrified crowd. During Hamilton's turn at bat, five balls landed in the upper deck in right field, one of which was about two thirds of the way up and seemed to be, from my seat, just a handful of seats from the end of the row and leaving the Stadium altogether. He hit a few balls into the black in straightaway center field and we all watched as one lucky fan got a sounvenier and then got assualted by a few of New York's finest for treading where paying customers can no longer tread. Some savvy Yankee Stadium employee had even cued up the theme music from The Natural. It was a happening.
During Hamilton's obligatory remarks with much beloved and belusted-after ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews, he was sure to make sure everyone in Yankee Stadium and at home knew from where he drew his power. And, no the answer was not copious amounts of mexican heroin. At least, not anymore. The answer was the one and only Jesus. And, no, not Jesus Flores, the catcher the Washington Nationals absconded with from the Mets farm system. He meant Jesus Christ. Out of Nazareth. And, not Nazareth College in Rochester, NY. What Hamilton wanted you to know is that he is very religious. Now. Seriously.

After having watched Hamilton inflict untold damage to baseball after baseball the crowd needed a break as much as his tattooed arms did. We filed out of the stands en masse to get beer from vendors and deposit used beer in the restrooms. In fact, the second round of the Derby seemed to start without anybody really noticing. Even after Berkman, Braun and Morneau each had their turns at bat not a single one had even come close to equalling what Hamilton had done in just the first round.

Not needing to do anything to join Justin Morneau in the Derby finals, Hamilton just came out for a few hacks in the second round. He hit four home runs on eight swings. Of course he did.

Morneau was dealt the task of following Hamilton and setting the pace for the final round of the Derby. The Twins first baseman opened up the finals with a mere five home runs. Surely, the mythical Josh Hamilton could top that. Right? Wrong.

In what seemed a lock to be the most anticlimactic moment of the All-Star break -- at least until the game itself dragged on late into the evening last night (err, this morning) with both leagues' best players watching from their respective dugouts as the second-tier-stars battled -- Justin Morneau managed to "win" the 2008 Home Run Derby. It was awkward.