Rickey. Rock. Vince. Otis. Neon Deion. He saw them all in their primes, all those great burners. So when Ken Griffey, Sr. started hearing the great tales about this kid named Billy Hamilton in the Reds system -- this kid who was so fast he would steal second as the catcher was flipping the ball back to the pitcher, this kid who was so fast he would run from his shortstop position and make outrageous catches at the warning track, this kid who just might be The Fastest Ballplayer Ever -- when he listened to all the great tales, Griffey, of course, would roll his eyes. He's seen enough of these Next Big Things come and go.
Here's the thing about Billy Hamilton: "When you see him in person, he's even more unbelievable than what you hear," says Delino DeShields, one of Hamilton's former minor league managers. "He makes believers out of everyone."
The moment Griffey became a believer was during a game in April, two weeks into the season at Single-A Bakersfield, where Griffey is the manager and Hamilton was the shortstop. It was a scoreless game in the bottom of the ninth. Hamilton was at third base -- earlier in the inning he'd singled, stole second, and stole third. "The hitter was kind of jammed and he hit a pop fly to second," says Griffey. "I look over at third and I see Billy going back to the base, looking like he's getting ready to push off, and I'm thinking, Now what the hell is he doing? The second baseman had his back to the plate, he was on the edge of the outfield grass behind second base, and the moment he touched the ball, Billy took off. And he was gone. This is a pop fly to second base, and Billy tagged up and scored. Standing up."
Griffey laughs. "Thought I'd seen it all -- but I'd never seen that," he says. "I've seen all the great ones who could change the game with their speed. But Billy -- it's true, he's a little bit different."
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It is one of the most amazing stories in all of baseball, and it isn't taking place in Pittsburgh or Oakland or our nation's capital, and it has nothing to do with a knuckleball or a 19-year-old phenom with a faux-hawk. It is happening in the minor leagues and it's the story of Billy Hamilton and his pursuit of Vince Coleman's pro record for stolen bases in a season. In 1983, playing for Class-A Macon in the South Atlantic League, Coleman, a future All-Star with the Cardinals, stole 145 bases. On Saturday in Mobile, Ala., in a Double-A game between the Pensacola Blue Wahoos and the Mobile Bay Bears of the Southern League, Hamilton stole his 112th base of the season. A year after swiping 103 bases, the 21-year-old from Taylorsville, Miss., is on his way to shattering Coleman's record. (For the curious: The major league record is Hugh Nicol's 138 steals in 1887, and the Modern Era record is Rickey Henderson's 130 in 1982.)
Scouts are already calling him the Most Exciting Player in Baseball, and it's easy to see why. In a recent game in Pensacola, Hamilton hit an inside the park home run and circled the bases in a jaw-dropping 13.8 seconds and even appeared to slow down as he approached home plate. Everywhere he goes -- he began the year at Single-A Bakersfield and was promoted to Double-A Pensacola two weeks ago -- his legend grows.
"I started hearing the legend of Billy when he was in the Gulf Coast League [in 2009] -- these stories about how he was stealing on pitchouts, how he was tagging and scoring from second," says DeShields, who first managed Hamilton on the Reds' rookie league team in Billings, Mont. "The first time I realized just how fast he was, he was running from first and I was trying to hold him at third on a ball hit to the gap, but by the time I looked up he was already past me and had scored. I call him a ninja -- I look for footprints, but I never can find footprints."
The most unbelievable thing DeShields saw Billy do happened last year during spring training. "There was a ball hit to deep to leftfield, and the leftfielder throws his hands up because he's lost the ball in the sun," says DeShields. "I'm watching the ball, and thinking, This is trouble, and out of nowhere, I see this white flash, and I see that it's Billy, and he's running full speed. He ends up diving, laying out completely, and makes the catch at the warning track in leftfield. It was ridiculous. There isn't a player out there who would have caught that ball."
As for the title of Fastest Ballplayer Ever, DeShields thinks "it's not at all ridiculous to say that. He might be. I saw Marquis Grissom. Otis Nixon, I played with him. I've seen Deion Sanders run the bases. I've seen Vince Coleman. But I've never seen a player like Billy before."
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Billy could always do amazing things. And not just on the baseball field. His old little league coach, Jim Ford, likes to tell the story of the time he took Billy and his little league teammates bowling. "Billy was 13 and had never bowled before," says Ford. "He was like, 'So you put your fingers in the ball, you try to knock down those pins, and you get, what, two chances? Okay.' His first four rolls were strikes. He had a ridiculous score. I still have the card."
Billy was All-State at Taylorsville High School in baseball, basketball and football. He was a wideout and kick returner who turned down a football scholarship to Mississippi State. "Every offensive play was designed around Billy," says one of his old football coaches, Dusty Hillman, who was also his manager on the baseball team. "In practice he'd run backwards and guys still couldn't cover him. He was by far the fastest player I've ever seen."
But he was most dazzling on the baseball field. "I used to steal Billy on first move," says Ford. "Which meant that it didn't matter if whether that first move by the pitcher was to home or to first base, because if he threw it to first, they were never going to throw him out at second." In a big series against rival Richton High, with an army of scouts in the stands to see him play, Billy once tagged up and scored from second base. "Everyone saw that he scored, but the other team appealed, and the pitcher threw to second, and the ump called him out," says Ford. "The ump said, 'I'm not saying I saw it, but there's no way he scored. That's impossible. He had to leave early.'"
Later in that same game, one of the opposing hitters hit a line drive to the right centerfield gap, "between centerfielder and rightfielder and second baseman," says Hillman. "Billy comes racing across the field in a full sprint, and makes an over shoulder catch in the gap. This wasn't a soft-hit ball -- it would have been a double, the outfielders wouldn't have been get to it. A shortstop making a catch on a line drive in rightfield -- the scouts were all saying they'd never seen anything like that."
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No one knows just how big the Billy Hamilton story will get this year. There is Vince Coleman's steals record to be broken, yes, but there are also whispers that the Reds could promote Hamilton to Cincinnati down the stretch this season, that they may promote him and deploy him as a pinch runner in September and maybe in the postseason.
And Hamilton can do more than just run. He's hitting .324 this season with a .417 on base percentage, 20 doubles and 10 triples. "He can swing the bat," says Griffey. "If [the Reds] do decide to call him up, I know he can handle the job really well, and it's not just pinch hitting and pinch running. He can play. Billy can handle the bat pretty good."
When Griffey had Hamilton in Bakersfield, he began seeing strange things at home games. "People began showing up to the ballpark," he says. "We didn't draw that many, but you could see more and more bodies in the stands, and there was a buzz in the ballpark. They were there to see Billy run. And he didn't disappoint."
He adds, "When Billy arrives in Cincinnati, whenever that day will be, the crowds are going to show up even more. They'll be there to watch Billy run."