Monday July 13th, 2009

ST. LOUIS -- Monday night's home run derby is being billed as the Albert Pujols Show, but even Pujols himself knows that no matter what he does, no matter how many home runs he hits and how many lights he knocks out on the Big Mac sign, this year's derby is destined to be quickly forgotten like every other derby. Except, of course, one, or more specifically, one man's one round.

It was only last July that Hamilton stepped out of a drug-addled past and into the national spotlight with an electrifying performance in the home run derby, where the former No. 1 pick and recovering crack cocaine addict belted a record 28 home runs in the first round at Yankee Stadium. It was a Hollywood movie brought to life, and a demonstration of raw talent so awe-inspiring that even this year's derby participants know they will not duplicate it.

"Yes, we all dream of putting on a show like that," said Pujols, the hometown and odds-on favorite in the derby. "But it's going to be tough to match."

That, of course, says less about Pujols than it does about the continuing power of the emotional theatrics put on in this same contest last year by Hamilton. Even if one of the eight participants -- Nelson Cruz, Brandon Inge, Joe Mauer, Carlos Peña, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Howard or Pujols -- manages to duplicate Hamilton's total of 35, or even approaches his record single-round total of 28, it will be nearly impossible to recreate the magic that saturated Yankee Stadium on what was literally a midsummer night's dream come true for the Rangers slugger.

The day of the derby, Hamilton recounted how he had a dream about being interviewed on the field at Yankee Stadium after partaking in the event. Beginning with that performance in the Bronx, Hamilton's career has been one long, sweet dream from which he hopes never to awake.

In the year since, he's written a best-selling book, been invited to the White House to speak out against drug use and, most importantly, inspired countless people to seek recovery. But the most public sign on the transformative effect that evening has had on his career is seen in the very fact that Hamilton can be seen in St. Louis this week. His enormous popularity is the reason he was voted a starter in the All-Star Game despite having missed half the season with injury and hitting just .243 with six home runs.

"I felt like I really didn't deserve to be selected," Hamilton said on Monday. "[But] I get more recognition now."

That began almost as soon as the derby ended. During Texas' trip through Minnesota, Chicago and Seattle to open the second-half, Hamilton sensed that he was being viewed differently. "I noticed [the impact] when I was walking down the street, [especially] in New York and Chicago," he said. "People would say, 'There's Josh Hamilton.' "

There has been no let up ever since. "It started the second I got here," he said of his arrival in St. Louis. "As soon as I got out of the car, I started signing autographs."

Hamilton's historic derby display turned all who watched it -- even his major league contemporaries -- into wide-eyed kids with memories to last a lifetime. "It was unbelievable, amazing," Pujols said.

"I sat there as a fan," said Justin Morneau, who actually won the derby by beating Hamilton in the finals. "To see what he did, how locked in he was and how far he was hitting them was amazing."

Not surprisingly, Hamilton has not been shy about rewatching his assault on the House That Ruth Built, and not only, he says, because "some people back home come over and they haven't watched it yet." He has also used it as a confidence boost when he slumps, a reaffirmation that the same person who did that can surely do anything. "I don't watch it to be arrogant or conceited," he said. "But just to say, man, I can do that."

Yet the immediate resonance of Hamilton's historic derby display wasn't quite obvious to him. "I didn't realize the magnitude of it until the second or third time I watched it."

Hamilton's star has grown so bright he's even illuminated those in his orbit. Clay Counsil, the then 71-year-old who served as his pitching coach that night, became a minor celebrity in his own right. "He cracks me up," Hamilton said. "He told me he was walking down the street and people were asking him for autographs. He said, 'You made me famous overnight.' "

That's not all Hamilton did, of course. He gave the home run derby a place in the nation's sporting consciousness it had never had before and may never have again. He moved the famously hostile crowd at Yankee Stadium the way no visiting player ever had. And he turned himself into a superstar. But all he wanted to do, he said, was "entertain some folks and give them something they'd never forget."

He did that, too.

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