They knew him before. Before his rise. Before his fall. They knew him way before he was ever chasing the Triple Crown.
They all knew Hambone.
Ronnie Powell knew phenoms. Heck, there was one living under his roof. Powell had a phenom for a son. Landon Powell would grow up to become an extraordinary ballplayer, a strong-armed, switch-hitting catcher with an explosive bat, who would one day be a first-round draft pick of the Oakland Athletics.
But Landon, well, Landon was no Josh.
Alongside Josh's father, Tony, Ronnie Powell coached Landon and Josh through various youth sports. "I remember when Josh was eight years old in Pop Warner football and he looked like a weeble with that big helmet on," Powell says. "Josh would average about 30 yards every time he touched the ball. Nobody could catch him and nobody could tackle him. They either ran him out of bounds or he scored."
Powell recalls that in basketball Josh was a point guard, completely lefthanded, and his favorite move was to dribble down the left sideline, circumventing the entire defense and lay the ball in the basket, until inevitably he became the first kid his age who could dunk.
But most of Powell's memories of Josh as a kid revolve around baseball in the West Raleigh (N.C.) Little League. He remembers coaching Josh as a seven-year-old, when Josh played pitcher and shortstop, often at the same time. Eventually Josh had to be moved from shortstop to the outfield because his first baseman so feared catching Josh's bullet throws that he began ducking out of harm's way. Whenever Josh pitched, batters backed out of the box before he even began his windup and whenever Josh came to bat, all of the infielders retreated into the outfield, until finally complaints from opposing players' parents prompted Josh's promotion to a league of older kids. Josh and Landon played on a team sponsored by Mitchell's Hair Styling and wore purple jerseys. They won three state championships in a row.
In one of those state tournaments, Josh pitched a total of 24 innings and never allowed a hit. The next season Josh won a Home Run Derby against a bunch of boys nearly twice his size. At that time, Josh was still scrawny, but he was so athletic and coordinated that he could run backward faster than the other kids could run forward.
Mostly Powell recalls how much Josh loved to play. When Josh would see one of his teammate's shoes untied, he would tie it for him just to get the game going again. After his own Little League games, Josh would hang around the fields hoping that another team would fall short on numbers and he could volunteer to join them. If that didn't pan out, he and Landon would play Cupball, a form of baseball that involved a ball made of crushed soda cups from the concession stand. "Josh was always laughing and playing with this huge grin on his face," Powell says. "Baseball came so easy to him. The difference between Landon and Josh is that Josh was the thoroughbred that runs the race and Landon was the workhorse pulling the wagon around the track. Landon was a grinder. Josh was a freak."
Powell has never forgotten a conversation he had with Bob Sanderford, the father of one of Josh's teammates. "Bob was a former college basketball player who knew youth sports really well and knew sports at a high level," Powell says. "One day after a game when Josh had done something only Josh could do, Bob leaned over to me and he said, 'That kid's going to be the first player picked in the major league draft when he's a senior in high school.'"
Josh was 10.
When Jason Hamilton played for Clay Council's American Legion baseball team, his younger brother Josh liked to tag along to watch. "One afternoon at the end of baseball practice I said, 'Hey there, young fella, you want to hit some?'" Council recalls. "I didn't think Josh would. Most 12-year-olds would be intimidated around a bunch of 17-year-olds, but not him. He said, 'Yeah, man.' After a few pitches I looked at my other coaches and I said, "You see that kid hit? You see how that ball jumps off his bat? That kid's going to be something special.'"
Josh began to join Jason for regular batting practice sessions with Council. Afterward, Josh always asked Council to analyze his swing. "He would talk to me about his bat speed, his hip rotation, his weight shift," Council says. "Even as a teenager, Josh understood the mechanical part of the game. He was just programmed to be a major leaguer."
For many years, Council worked as a volunteer assistant coach at Cary High School. One afternoon he invited Josh to take batting practice with him at the school before his team's practice began. For 30 minutes Josh launched balls over the rightfield fence into a swamp where they could not be recovered. Finally, Cary's head coach, Jim Hourigan, came running onto the field yelling, "Get him out of here. Get him off my field. He's losing all of my baseballs."
Council told Hourigan that the balls belonged to him, but it didn't solve the problem. Josh eventually hit all of Council's baseballs into the swamp. Says Council, "I remember telling him, 'I can't afford to throw to you anymore. Every time I throw a pitch that's three dollars over the fence.' The next day Josh came back with four dozen new balls and he hit them out, too."
One summer day after a batting practice session, Council told Josh, "You really hit me good today, boy."
"If I ever get to the bigs and get in the Home Run Derby," Josh told him, "you're going to throw it."
Council replied, "Yeah, right."
How do you write a story about someone when you can't believe your own eyes?
When Tim Stevens, who has written about high school sports for the Raleigh News & Observer for the last 45 years, began watching Josh Hamilton play baseball, he kept seeing things he'd never seen before.
"Josh didn't just hit home runs, he hit them further then you'd ever imagine possible," Stevens says. "He hit one during the state finals into a light tower. It was like The Natural. He was bigger than life. It was hard to write about him sometimes, because it felt like his story was make-believe."
Stevens could believe because he was one of the few people who saw the ingredients behind Josh's success. He visited the Hamilton home and noticed the worn red clay path in the backyard, which led to a frayed net that struggled to contain the line drives Hamilton hit off his batting tee. He toured Josh's bedroom filled with home run balls, trophies, baseball cards and wallpapered with newspaper clippings about Josh. That bedroom struck Stevens as the perfect place to dream.
He interviewed Josh's father, Tony, so country strong that he claimed to have once bench-pressed 540 pounds, and Josh's mother Linda, a former college softball slugger, who first met Tony at a baseball diamond one night after she had clubbed a home run. Stevens also spoke to Jason, Josh's role model, who once hit in all 36 games of an American Legion season and later played college baseball. Stevens had never encountered such a baseball family.
After Josh's junior year in high school, Stevens recalls writing a story about local athletes and their summer jobs. One kid said he'd be lifeguarding at the pool. Another working at a fast food restaurant. Josh told Stevens that his summer job would be "baseball." Stevens once asked Josh what he did after a baseball practice or a game and he said, "I come home and I hit."
Says Stevens, "My favorite story about Josh from back then is how he went to the Walt Disney World complex nine or 10 times for different All-Star games and he never once entered a theme park. Josh was there to work. He was all baseball. That was his life."
Athens Drive High School's baseball coach, Stan Mozingo, couldn't find him shoes. They don't carry size 19 cleats at the local sporting goods store, so after making dozens of phone calls to shoe companies, Mozingo finally learned of a St. Louis Cardinals minor leaguer with feet as big as Josh Hamilton's, but the shoe supplier could only make the cleat in Cardinals red. Athens Drive's primary color is blue. So Mozingo finally settled on ordering a high-top rubber-studded football shoe designed for an offensive lineman. "When that shoebox arrived I had never seen a shoe that big," Mozingo says. "I thought to myself, 'What's Josh going to look like when the rest of him grows into that?'"
Mozingo coached Jason at Athens Drive and when he first spotted his younger brother as a seventh grader shagging flies at a Jaguars practice, he knew Josh could easily have started for him then. During Josh's freshman year, the Jaguars were struggling offensively, so Mozingo asked his players to take more pitches hoping to manufacture some runs through walks. Josh's mom and dad sat behind the third base coach's box chirping at Mozingo about making Josh take pitches.
"I'll never forget a game against Enloe High School when Josh got fooled on a breaking ball," Mozingo says. "I know this sounds crazy, but Josh stayed so focused on the pitch that it bounced in the dirt and then he hit it to the opposite field gap for a double. I turned to his mother and I said, 'You win. I will not make your kid take another pitch as long as he's here.' His mom just smiled and said, 'I told you so.'"
But even Hamilton endured his bad days. Mozingo recalls a game against Broughton High School when he brought Hamilton in as a relief pitcher and he got hit hard. Says Mozingo, "I walked out to the mound and I said, 'I'm not taking you out. I don't care how many they score. I want you to dig in and finish this inning.'" Before leaving the mound that day, Mozingo added, "You're going to be a first round pick. I know it. I can see it. So hang in there. This is good for you."
Before his sophomore season, Hamilton hurt his arm while working with a pitching instructor, so he acted as the team's designated hitter for most of that season. But then in the third round of the state playoffs at Lee County High with the game tied in the late innings and the Jaguars starting pitcher clearly spent, Tony Hamilton walked to the Athens Drive dugout and told Mozingo that Josh could pitch, but he could only throw 50 pitches. "I told my catcher not to waste a single pitch," Mozingo remembers. "Josh threw five innings on 50 pitches and didn't allow a hit. The kid had not thrown a pitch from the mound all season. It was the most unbelievable pitching performance that I've ever been a part of."
Mozingo quit after that season, a decision he still looks back on with some incredulity.
Says Mozingo, "When I left I told my successor, 'I'm the only coach in America stupid enough to leave a first round draft pick on the table. All you've got to do is make sure Josh Hamilton is on the bus and you don't take a wrong turn and miss the field and that kid's going to win you a lot of games."
It wasn't easy being Josh Hamilton's catcher. Cameron Mitchell was just a 15-year-old ninth grader when he first crouched down behind the plate to receive Hambone's heater.
"The funny thing about Josh was that he wasn't really a pitcher," Mitchell says. "He was throwing 96 miles an hour from the left side, he had a lot of movement, and he had no idea where it was going. He was very hard to catch. I put extra padding inside my mitt and wore a special batting glove with protection on the index finger and knuckles and I was still icing my hand between innings. How many lefties throw in the upper 90s in high school and aren't scouted as a pitcher? That's how good a hitter Josh was."
Mitchell prefaces every Hamilton story with a disclaimer: I know this is hard to believe, but....
"One time we were doing a drill hitting soft-toss to the opposite field," Mitchell recalls. "The rest of us were lucky to hit the ball out of the infield and Josh is smacking every ball 350 feet over the fence. It was crazy."
Mitchell often batted third, right in front of Hamilton in the Jaguars lineup, a decidedly perilous position. "When I got on first base I'd be scared because Josh could turn on a ball so fast and I was only 90 feet away," Mitchell says. "I was afraid I was going to get nailed and I didn't want to know what could happen if I did."
He recalls a time when Hamilton caught a ball with his back to the centerfield wall and threw a runner out trying to tag up and go to third base, Hamilton's throw never touching the ground. Hamilton could also stand on home plate and throw the ball over the outfield fence of any ballpark.
Mitchell played with Hamilton for two seasons. As a junior in 1998, Hamilton hit .636 with 12 home runs, 56 RBIs and 20 stolen bases, and as a pitcher he was 11-2 with 159 strikeouts in 87 innings. As a senior, Hamilton pitched less frequently, finishing 7-1 with 91 strikeouts in 56 innings and he rarely saw a strike as a hitter, but still batted .529 with 13 homers, 35 RBIs, 34 runs scored and 20 steals in 25 games.
"Everybody knew he was going to be a star, but Josh was so humble," Mitchell says. "He would often carry the equipment from the team bus to the field. I remember standing with him in the outfield before one game thinking, 'This guy is about to sign a baseball contract for millions and here we are hanging out talking about girls. Josh was just so good that you almost became numb to it. He hit the ball so far, threw so hard, ran so fast. He was just a spectacle."
One day in the spring of 1999 Mark McKnight traveled to Durham's Riverside High to watch Hamilton play for the first time. McKnight was an area scout for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays who owned the first pick in the major league baseball draft that June. Two of McKnight's colleagues, Tampa Bay's scouting director Dan Jennings and West Coast scouting supervisor R.J. Harrison went with him.
The trio watched Hamilton pitch the first five innings of the game. Then Hamilton shifted to centerfield for the final two innings. "He threw mid-90s on the bump and nobody could touch him," McKnight says. "Then when he moved into the field somebody hit a ball over his head and he ran back to the fence and caught it. Then he caught a ball in the gap, so we saw his range. Then there was base hit to centerfield with a runner at second and he threw a guy out at home plate. He also hit a home run that day out into the parking lot. We got to see everything he could do."
After the game, the three scouts drove to Honey's, a diner off of Interstate 85 in Durham. They sat in a booth and McKnight passed out three napkins and said to the others, "Let's write down our grades on all of his tools and then we'll compare them."
On the 20-80 scouting scale with 50 being average, McKnight forecasted Hamilton's future:
Hitting ability: 70
Power production: 80
Running speed: 65
Throwing arm: 80
Fielding ability: 70
The magic number 80 appeared repeatedly on the other napkins as well, a grade scouts are very reluctant to give. None of the three evaluators came up with a grade lower than 65. Comparisons were made to Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey, Jr. "I had been scouting for nine years and I had never put grades like that on anybody," McKnight says. "Finally, I said, 'This is the best young player I've ever seen.'"
At the beginning of Hamilton's senior season there were dozens of scouts at every Athens Drive game, but those numbers dwindled down to McKnight and a few others as it became clear that Hamilton would be a top pick. During one game Hamilton's father came to the dugout and told his son to dial down his fastball from 96 to 90, so scouts wouldn't be tempted to draft him as a pitcher. McKnight called Hamilton's arm a "bazooka" and he knew that he was a potential first-rounder as a pitcher, too, but he couldn't see wasting all of that talent on a guy who plays every fifth day.
As a senior Hamilton began taking batting practice with a wood bat to remove any doubt in the mind of scouts that he could hit with one. McKnight liked that for a power hitter, Hamilton rarely would swing and miss. He liked that his hands were so quick and strong that it reminded him of a kid swinging a wiffle ball bat. He liked that everybody he asked spoke glowingly of Hamilton off the field. "I couldn't find anybody to say anything bad about the guy," McKnight says. "He was Jack Armstrong, All-American boy. Even though Josh was from Raleigh, he was more like a country boy. He was simple. He was really into baseball and he really believed that he was going to play in the big leagues. It wasn't a false bravado. It was genuine."
One day McKnight took Hamilton to visit an optician who administered an eye test to measure Hamilton's hand-eye coordination. When a light flashed, Hamilton had to press a corresponding button as fast as he could. Says McKnight, "The optician told me, 'That guy has the best eyes I've ever tested. His night vision, his depth perception, everything is just off the charts. He's got 20-10 vision.' The only other player I'd ever heard of with 20/10 vision was Ted Williams. I thought, 'Man, this kid is too good to be true.'"
She doesn't feel comfortable sharing the story. But Susan Mobley can't resist. Because, she says, it is just so Josh.
Mobley, Hamilton's 12th grade English teacher, will never forget the day that Hamilton cut class. It was during his senior year and Mobley couldn't ever remember Hamilton cutting class before. In fact, he was paranoid about getting into trouble. Hamilton was Yessir and No, ma'am. He didn't smoke or drink alcohol. He was the kid who would give his grandmother a peck on the cheek before every game. The kid who chose not to go to his senior prom because it might put him in a compromising situation. But this day was different.
"One afternoon a female student of mine was having a personal need emergency," Mobley begins. "There was an item that a woman would need and she didn't have it and couldn't get it. It was very obvious that she needed to go home and change clothes, but for some reason she could not reach her family. Then she ran into Josh. As soon as Josh saw her, he didn't hesitate. He drove her home. He cut two classes and that was not a good thing for Josh to be doing. When he got back to school, he was called into the office and our principal Walt Sherlin asked him, 'Why did you leave school without permission to take this young lady home?'
"Well," Hamilton said, "she asked me."
"It was so typical of Josh that someone asked him for help and he gave it without thinking twice about the consequences to him, to his reputation as a baseball prospect or that he might get suspended," Mobley says. "I remember our principal called me in afterward and asked for my advice on how to punish Josh. It was a very touchy issue to handle, because Josh was doing the right thing and it was just so precious."
Mobley acknowledges that Hamilton was hardly her best student, but that nobody tried harder. He was quiet and many of his schoolmates had no idea who he was. "Josh could have been a big man on campus, but he didn't have that personality," Mobley says. "He was just a very unassuming young man. The kind of kid who made everybody feel like they were his best friend."
Before many home games at Athens Drive, Hamilton invited Ashley Pittman to his grandmother's house for cheese sandwiches. Pittman was a special education student. He had Down syndrome. He was also a manager for the baseball team. Hamilton sat beside Pittman on the bus during road trips and the two often led the team in singing, "Oh Happy Day" from the movie Sister Act 2. They became so close that Hamilton often spent his free periods in the special needs classroom.
After the Jaguars lost in the state playoffs during Hamilton's senior year, Hamilton heard that Pittman was sitting alone crying on the team bus. Hamilton immediately left his teammates to console Pittman.
"What's wrong, Big Ash?" Hamilton said.
"I'm sorry, Hambone," Pittman said. "It was my fault we lost the game."
"No, Big Ash," Hamilton said. "No one person ever wins or loses the game. We win as a team and we lose as a team."
"Does that mean I'm part of the team, Hambone?"
"Of course it does, Big Ash. You know that."
Big Ash hugged Hambone. Pittman smiled the whole drive home.
After the season, Athens Drive awarded the inaugural Ashley Pittman Award to honor the athlete who best exemplified character and sportsmanship. The winner was Josh Hamilton.
When Josh Hamilton was a young kid, he and his family attended an Indians game at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. After the game, Josh waited outside the ballpark hoping to get an autograph. He didn't get a single signature that day. Linda Hamilton told her son that that if he ever made it to the big leagues to never forget how he felt.
Hamilton has not forgotten his roots in the red clay of west Raleigh. After Mark McKnight helped make Hamilton the first pick in the 1999 draft, the scout stayed connected with Hamilton even after Hamilton had been suspended for drugs and had left the Devil Rays organization. The two spoke regularly during Hamilton's suspension and McKnight promised Hamilton that he'd be there to see it if Hamilton ever played again. Sure enough, McKnight was in Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark on Opening Day in 2007 tearing up as the crowd gave Hamilton a standing ovation.
Ronnie Powell has watched the two former Little League teammates, Josh and Landon, square off numerous times in the big leagues and he is always amused at how the two tease each other when they meet at home plate during one of Josh's at-bats.
Stan Mozingo spoke to Hamilton a few years ago at a sports banquet and they laughed together about how Hamilton still so hates to take pitches that he swings at the first pitch more than any other player in the majors.
Cameron Mitchell ran into Hamilton at the Raleigh airport recently and the two old teammates still found themselves talking about girls, only this time it was Hamilton's four daughters.
In recent years Hamilton has been known to sneak into Athens Drive High to surprise Susan Mobley and her English class.
Tim Stevens has interviewed Hamilton dozens of times over the years and Hamilton has answered every question candidly, no matter how painful those memories might be.
They all watched Hamilton hit a record-shattering 28 bombs in the first round of the 2008 Home Run Derby. Clay Council was on the mound at Yankee Stadium that night. Yeah, right.
Over the years since Hamilton left Raleigh, he has had no bigger fan than Ashley Pittman. Pittman followed his early career through the minor leagues and doesn't totally understand why Hamilton took a long break from baseball. Even through the dark days of his suspension, Hamilton always stayed in touch with Pittman. He attended Pittman's 25th birthday party and has phoned him on other birthdays since. Pittman has a closet full of gear signed by Hamilton. He wears a different Texas Rangers T-shirt every day and watches almost every Rangers game on television.
Last summer the Pittman family took a vacation to Arlington, Texas. Ashley attended six Rangers games as Hamilton's guest. Texas won them all. On July 4, Ashley watched postgame fireworks on the field with Hamilton. Then in Ashley's final game in Arlington, the Rangers trailed by a run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. With Ashley sitting directly behind home plate, Hamilton blasted a walk-off home run. "You're my good luck charm," Hamilton told Ashley after the game. "You need to come stay."
"It was the best time I've ever had with Josh," Ashley says. "We're still best buddies. He told me, 'I love you, Big Ash.' Nothing has changed."
They all knew Hambone.
They all know Hammer.