Wild Card Book Tour

This is the first time I’ve done a Wild Card book tour. Actually, I didn’t even get the book. But I’m such a sucker for sports books and triumph-over-the-odds stories that I thought I’d post the first chapter here so the rest of you can get sucked in like I did. πŸ™‚

It is time to play a Wild Card! Every now and then, a book that I have chosen to read is going to pop up as a FIRST Wild Card Tour. Get dealt into the game! (Just click the button!) Wild Card Tours feature an author and his/her book’s FIRST chapter!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back

FaithWords (October 13, 2008)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Josh Hamilton is currently the 27-year-old Center Fielder for the Texas Rangers. In the offseason he lives in North Carolina with his wife Katie and their two daughters

Visit the author’s website.

Product Details:

List Price: $23.99

Hardcover: 272 pages

Publisher: FaithWords (October 13, 2008)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1599951614

ISBN-13: 978-1599951614

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

THE MAN WATCHED silently, his arms crossed. He sat directly behind home plate, halfway up the concrete bleachers, a lone figure in the West Raleigh Exchange ballpark. I didn’t know who he was, or why he was there, but occasionally I’d catch my daddy glancing up at him from his spot on the field. They’d exchange polite nods like two men sharing a secret language.

I was practicing with my brother Jason’s team, like I always did. The team, made up of eleven- and twelveyear- olds, was coached by our father, Tony Hamilton. I was six at the time, almost seven. I ran around shagging balls and getting to hit at the end of practice. Jason β€” whom I always called “Bro” β€” was always encouraging to me when he probably could have told me to stay home or at least stay out of the way.

The day the man sat in the stands, I made a diving catch in the outfield that nobody could believe. I was running from right- center toward center field and diving till my body was parallel to the ground as I caught a ball about six inches off the ground.

I was six years younger than most of the players on Jason’s team, but I could do things on the field they couldn’t do. I lived to play ball, and I had precocious ability from the time I picked up a ball. Bro and I would play in the yard or across the street at the cemetery, and I refused to accept our age difference as a valid reason for his superiority. I couldn’t beat him β€” he’s four years older than I am, and four years is a huge age difference for a long, long time β€” but I always thought I could. Whatever we played, whether it was basketball or wiffle ball, I went into every game convinced this was going to be the day.

The time I spent practicing with Jason’s team was my favorite time of the week. My team, at the coach- pitch level, was not a challenge. When the season started, I was the typical little boy, thrilled to put on his baseball clothes and get to the season’s first practice. Once I got there, though, I was disappointed that my teammates couldn’t keep up.

My daddy coached my team, too, and my momma always came to our practices. After the second or third practice of my coach- pitch team, once we were in the car and nobody could hear, they told me they could tell I was easing up on my throws and maybe not swinging as hard as I could when I was taking batting practice.

“I don’t want to hurt anybody,” I told them.

They shook their heads. “You play the way you know how to play,” Daddy said. “Those other boys need to get used to catching balls that are thrown hard, and if you start trying to hit the ball so it won’t hurt anybody, you’re going to get into bad habits that’ll be hard to break. You need to be a leader and they’ll catch up.”

When I thought about it, I realized that Jason didn’t let up on me when we were playing together, and he was four years older. These guys were my age, so maybe they would get better and learn to react the way I did.

The next practice I threw as hard as I could, and it resulted in some missed throws and some tears. I got up there and hit the way I would if I was playing in the cemetery with Bro, and my teammates kept moving back till there was nobody in the infield. The parents watching shook their heads and started talking and laughing among themselves. They’d never seen such a little person do the things I could do.

As we got closer to the start of the coach- pitch season, the parents started to wonder whether I could be moved up to a more advanced level. There was nothing malicious about their concern; a move would help everybody involved. They were equal parts amazed and afraid β€” amazed at the speed at which I could throw the ball and the power with which I could hit it, afraid that their lessadvanced sons might find themselves unprepared and in the way of one of my throws or hits.

I could hear them up there, telling grandparents and friends, “That kid’s going to hurt somebody.” By the time I was six, I could throw the ball about 50 mph, probably twice as fast as most of the kids my age. The parents’ concerns were legitimate, and they were never malicious or angry. In fact, they were very supportive of my quest to leave the team sponsored by Hamilton Machine β€” a business owned by my dad’s cousin β€” and move up to play with my brother. The sooner the better, as far as they were concerned, since they believed it was just a matter of time before one of their boys lost a few teeth or got a concussion.

Their fears became real in our first game, when I fielded a ball at shortstop and threw it across the infield as hard as I could to get the runner. There was a problem, though β€” the first baseman either never saw the ball or didn’t react fast enough to catch it. He stood there with his glove turned the wrong way as the ball smacked into his chest. He went down like a sniper got him, and I think he started crying before he hit the ground. I felt terrible.

* * *

The mystery man in the concrete bleachers stayed till the end of practice. Afterward, he came down and talked to my daddy. They walked off to where no one could hear them and spoke for a few minutes. There was some talk among the older kids in the dugout that he was there to see me, but I couldn’t tell whether they were fooling with me.

When the discussion was over, my daddy and the man shook hands and the man walked to his car. We carried the equipment to the truck and waited. When Daddy climbed into the cab he looked straight ahead and said, “Well, Josh, that man I was talking to is the president of the whole Tar Heel League. He drove all the way from Charlotte to watch you play. He heard about you and needed to see for himself. And, well, you’re on Jason’s team now.”

I guess you could say that was the first time I’d been scouted. I was six years old, closing in on seven, and Bro was eleven. In the Tar Heel League, his team was the equivalent of majors in Little League, and everyone on Bro’s team was somewhere between fifth and seventh grade.

Until I showed up. When that happened, the team had acquired a first- grader.

I later learned the Tar Heel League had never done something like this before. The local board couldn’t decide to do something that drastic, and the parents’ complaints had traveled all the way to the top. The president decided he needed to see me before he made a ruling, and his decision made everyone in our pickup truck happy. I got to play on the same team with my Bro, and my daddy had to coach only one team.

I think it made everyone on my old Hamilton Machine team happy, too. They thought it was cool someone from their team got moved up, and they didn’t have to worry about catching one in the teeth.

It wasn’t all perfect, as my daddy found out soon enough. At our first game, after the lineup was posted in the dugout, I had a question.

“Daddy, why you battin’ me last?” I asked in my sixyear- old southern accent.

“‘Cuz you’re the youngest one, that’s why.”

I didn’t like that answer, and every game I said something when I saw my name in the ninth spot in the order. “Come on, Daddy, what are you batting me last for?” He never budged, though. That nine spot always had the same name: J. Hamilton.

In my mind, the team’s worst hitter hits last, and I wasn’t the worst hitter on the team. I turned seven in May and two weeks later, I hit my first real home run. A twelve-year-old named Larry Trantham was pitching, and he threw me a fat one over the middle of the plate. The ball hit the bat square, right on the sweet spot of the barrel, and I drove it over the fence in left- center. It’s hard to explain, but on contact, I felt nothing. It’s one of the best feelings in the world.

* * *

Life in the Hamilton household revolved around family and baseball. You couldn’t tell where one started and the other stopped β€” not on a dare.

I wasn’t a bad student, but given the choice between playing ball and memorizing parts of speech, I wanted the ball.

It was a family tradition. My parents, Linda and Tony, met at a ballpark. My daddy was warming up for a softball game on one diamond while my momma was playing a game on a field next to him. He looked over once and saw her hit a ball about fifty feet beyond the left-field fence, and everyone on his team just shook their heads and pointed to the spot where the ball landed. The next time up, the same thing happened, except the ball went even farther.

At this point, my daddy had seen enough. He walked over to her field and told someone, “I’ve got to meet that girl.” He did, and within weeks they were dating and before long they were married.

My father grew up on his family’s hog and chicken farm in Oxford, North Carolina, about forty miles north of our house in a rural area west of Raleigh. Momma grew up in the house next door to us, on the same piece of property about fifty yards away from our front door.

Like everyone in this part of the world, we were surrounded by pine forests. To this day, I know I’m home more by the smell of those trees than anything else. Across the street there’s an old, small cemetery where we used to run around and hit baseballs or golf balls, maybe shoot our BB guns. Five or six years ago someone was buried in an old family plot, but when I was growing up there wasn’t much action there. Down the road a huge piece of land is owned by North Carolina State University, and our favorite fishing hole was on it, not more than a threeminute walk from the house.

We were never more than a mile from a good fishing hole.

It was a good childhood. We weren’t rich, but I don’t think we knew that. I don’t think Jason and I knew what rich was. We played ball and went to school and pretty much had the run of the place. We hung out as a family and didn’t see much need to go out, even as we reached high school age. We were pretty content in our little corner of the world. We had everything we needed.

My grandmother on my mother’s side lived right next door to us, in the same house my momma grew up in. This was the place Bro and I went to be spoiled with cookies and ice cream and grilled- cheese sandwiches. Mary Holt is an old- fashioned southern lady, more of a friend than an authority figure. My nickname from the time I started playing baseball was “Hambone” and I called Granny “Grambone.” If we got in trouble at home, we’d always find our way over to Granny’s house to escape. Whatever we had done to get in trouble didn’t seem like such a big deal to her. She was the safe haven, and it was a role she enjoyed. I think she had a soft spot for me because I was the youngest and I shared her name β€” Joshua Holt Hamilton.

Granny never missed a ballgame. We didn’t make a conscious effort to invite her to the games; it was just understood that she would be ready to come with us when it was time to go. My games, Jason’s games β€” it didn’t matter. She was there. Before every game, for good luck, I would walk over to where Granny and my momma were sitting and give each of them a kiss on the cheek.

From the time we started playing baseball, one of the major lessons we learned in our family was to respect the game. And a big part of respecting the game was respecting the people you play with and against. My daddy went out of his way to make sure he wasn’t favoring his sons on the baseball field, and since I always wanted to please him and my teammates, I usually packed up all the gear after practices and cleaned the dugout after games.

My ability drew more attention to me, but I always put pressure on myself to go beyond people’s expectations. I didn’t want to be treated differently because I was a good player; I loved to play the game, but it didn’t mean anything beyond that.

My parents taught us to be humble. My mom was an awesome slow- pitch softball player, one of the best in the area. She played first base and pitched, and the tales of her hitting exploits are repeated to this day. People around Raleigh who watched her play swear she could hit a softball four hundred feet.

Our parents raised us on the idea that a ballfield was the best place to be. They believed that sports keep kids out of trouble and headed in the right direction, whether they pick up a ball after high school or not. My daddy loved sports and played baseball, but he grew up in a family that felt it was much more important to work on the farm than to do something frivolous like playing ball. The demands of work limited his opportunities to play sports, but he played whatever he could whenever he could β€” baseball, softball, football, martial arts.

My daddy is big and strong, country strong, with forearms like pillars and shoulders wide as a doorway. He never had any formal strength training, but he set the unofficial YMCA bench press record in Raleigh with a lift of 540 pounds.

His limited opportunity to play sports made him determined to make sure we were able to take advantage of every possible opportunity.

My daddy coached Jason and me until we got to high school, and he wasn’t the type of dad/coach who let us do whatever we wanted. His teams were disciplined. He made us keep our shirts tucked in, and he preached accountability, making sure we never left our bats or any other equipment for someone else to pick up.

We rarely crossed him, but once when I was eleven I didn’t run hard enough to first base on a popup and he got all over me. We were playing some kind of championship game, and he told me I embarrassed him on the field. He never stayed mad, but I knew better than to do it again. From then on, I ran out every ground ball and every popup like my hair was on fire.

I was never pressured to play ball. The perception of my parents as hard-driving stage parents was never accurate. I played because I loved to play, and because I was good at it. If I had told my parents that I didn’t want to play baseball, I honestly think they would have been fine with that. They would have been surprised, but they would have thrown themselves into whatever activity I chose to replace it.

They made sacrifices for us. Jason and I knew it at the time, but I don’t think we completely understood the level of sacrifice until we got older. Daddy was, and is, a hard worker who got up early in the morning to go to his job as a supervisor for the Wonder Bread factory in town. Momma worked for the North Carolina Department of Transportation. She washed our clothes after dark, when the utility rates were lowest, so we could save money to spend on gas and food for our baseball trips.

My daddy always made sure he had a flexible enough schedule to work around my baseball games. To do this, sometimes he had to go to work at some ungodly hour so he could get his work finished in time to leave for the game. I would hear him leaving the house at three or four in the morning during the summer after we had gotten home after midnight from an AAU baseball tournament somewhere in the state. His bosses, in general, were understanding and appreciated his devotion to both his job and his family.

He got a new boss when I was twelve, the summer after I finished playing in the Tar Heel League and started playing traveling AAU ball in the summer for a team in Raleigh. One Friday my daddy did what he always did when the schedule got tight: He got to work at 2:00 a.m. so he could leave by noon and drive me three hours to a game.

As he walked to the time clock to clock out for the day, this boss stopped him.

“Tony, where are you going?”

“Got a ballgame,” my daddy said. “I’m done for the day.”

“You know, I need you here this afternoon. You need to stick around.”

My daddy explained the arrangement he had with the bosses at the factory. As long as he completed his work for the day and it didn’t cause any disruption β€” and it wouldn’t have in this case β€” then he was free to go. He was a dedicated worker and went out of his way not to cheat anybody.

The new boss wouldn’t hear any of it. He repeated his desire to have my daddy stick around for the rest of the afternoon. At this point, my daddy felt he was being tested, challenged just to see how he would react. This was not always a smart move for the person doing the challenging. My daddy just stood there with his timecard in his hand, waiting for his boss to make the next move.

“Tony, I’ve got a question for you: What’s more important, the ballgame or your job?”

My daddy didn’t hesitate at all. He didn’t answer him directly, but he looked this new boss right in the eye and slid his timecard into the clock until it clicked. He put the card back in the slot, calmly walked out of the factory and never worked another day for Wonder Bread.

* * *

We went to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, one year for an all-star tournament, and I pitched the first game. Early in the game I threw a pitch behind a little kid on the other team. When it was his turn to hit the next time through the batting order, he dragged his bat to the batter’s box with tears running down his cheeks. He stood outside the box, crying and looking at the third- base coach to see if he might spare him this moment and send him back to the dugout.

Instead, the third- base coach walked toward him and said, “It’s okay, get up there and hit. He’s not going to hit you. Be a big boy.”

He looked at the coach and sobbed, “It’s too fast.” By now everyone in the stands was trying not to laugh at this poor kid, who probably should have been allowed to walk back to the dugout and put his bat down rather than be scarred for life by his behavior in a Tar Heel League game.

Finally, he agreed to get in the box. Everyone cheered and told him he could do it. He stood as far from the plate as possible and looked ready to bail at any moment. He held his bat on his shoulder, showing no intention of even thinking of swinging.

And so I wound up, and threw.

I was eleven years old, and I threw the ball about seventy miles per hour. The problem was, I didn’t always have any idea where it was going. Pinpoint control was not part of my game. I don’t know whether hearing the coach promise that I wasn’t going to hit him messed with my head, but I wound up and threw a fastball that thumped into the kid’s back, right between his shoulder blades.

I felt terrible. This was the last thing I wanted to do, and maybe I tried so hard not to do it that I guaranteed that I would. I don’t know, but if you thought he was crying before he got into the box, you can’t imagine what he was doing now.

He was lying there perfectly still and screaming at the top of his lungs. “He hit me! He hit me!” It was like the ball stunned him or something, hit him right in the spine. The coaches and the umpire ran out to him, trying to convince him to get up and take his base, and he kept screaming: “I can’t move! I can’t move!” The only body part undamaged, it seemed, was his mouth.

In the course of all this screaming and crying, someone decided it would be a good idea to call an ambulance. I stayed on the mound, flipping the ball to myself repeatedly. It was a habit I had, part of my inability to be still, and also something I did when I was nervous or embarrassed. I didn’t go down to the plate and get involved with the kid, though, because I was always taught to just throw the ball and not worry about hitting someone. I felt bad for him, but at the same time, it was his job to get out of the way of a bad pitch.

He stayed on the ground for what seemed like forever, long enough for the ambulance to arrive and the paramedics to get out to the batter’s box. When they lifted up his shirt they saw the stitch marks from the baseball on his back. Eventually the paramedics and coaches convinced him that he could stand up and go on living, that he had indeed survived his encounter with this left- handed freak of nature and his wild fastball.

Years later, when I had been out of baseball and somewhat forgotten, my daddy was on a jobsite and he got to talking with some of the men there about baseball. He mentioned that he coached in West Raleigh, and this one guy said, “Do you remember that kid named Josh Hamilton who threw the ball a hundred miles an hour when he was eleven?”

My daddy said, “Yes, I do.”

“Is that guy still around?”

“Yeah, he’s still around. Somewhere.”

“Well, one time I was playing against him and I didn’t want to bat but they made me anyway, and he hit me right in the back. That hurt worse than anything in the world. I’ll never forget that.”

“Nope,” my daddy said. “Neither will I.”

“What do you mean? You were there?”

“Josh is my son.”

The guy started laughing and shaking his head.

“You tell your son I never played past Little League after he hit me. That boy scared me to death.”

* * *

There was a game in my last year in the Tar Heel League, when I was twelve years old, that I came to the plate five times and hit five home runs. I think after the third one the coaches and pitchers for the other team kept pitching to me just to see what would happen.

People saw me as different, something special, but they wanted me to succeed. I was always encouraged by other parents and coaches, and I attribute this to the way my parents taught us to behave. I never pimped a home run, not then or now, and I always went out of my way to praise my teammates for their achievements. I understood my talent for what it was β€” the ability to excel on the baseball field. It didn’t deserve special treatment or a different set of rules.

During that summer, when I was twelve, I made my parents a promise. I said, “If I get drafted and get some money, I want you guys to retire. We’ll use the money to pay off all your bills and you guys can come with me.”

At twelve years old, I was good enough to dream. I could look around at the kids I was playing against and see that it wasn’t a ridiculous leap to think that I could someday make money playing this game. My idea β€” to free my parents from all their hard work and repay them for their devotion β€” was a fantasy life as expressed by a twelveyear- old. Playing baseball for a living was the greatest thing I could ever imagine. My parents were always happiest when they were watching me play ball, so this seemed like the perfect solution for all three of us.

My parents tried to dismiss my comment.

“That sure is a nice thought, Josh,” my momma said. “We’ll see about that when the time comes.”

I played basketball, too, and some soccer. When I was twelve, I played on a basketball team with Johnny Narron Jr., whose father was a major-league scout and a former minor-league ballplayer. Johnny Narron Sr.’s brother, Jerry, was a former big-league backup catcher who played eight seasons for the Yankees, Mariners, and Angels. At the time I started playing basketball with his nephew, Jerry was the third-base coach for the Texas Rangers.

The Narrons were a famous baseball family from Goldsboro, North Carolina, not far from Raleigh. Jerry and Johnny had an uncle named Sam who played in the major leagues for only twenty-four games β€”four in 1935 and ten each in 1942 and 1943. One of their cousins, also named Sam, pitched in one game for the Rangers in 2004. There were Narrons all over baseball.

The first time Johnny came to watch me play basketball with his son, he told someone in the stands he couldn’t believe what a good athlete I was. As someone who was trained to evaluate athletic ability, his eye was drawn to me immediately.

“Those boys better be ready when he throws them a pass,” Johnny said to some of the other parents. “I’ve never seen a twelve- year- old with that kind of strength.”

One of the other dads told Johnny, “Well, if you think he’s good at basketball, you ought to see him play baseball. He just plays this sport for fun. He plays baseball for keeps.”

The parents proceeded to tell Johnny the stories about the Tar Heel League putting me on a majors team when I was six years old. They told him about my no- hitters on the mound and my four-and five-homer games at the plate. As a professional, he was used to hearing exaggerated stories from parents and friends, but these people had no reason to make bloated claims. He didn’t let on that he was an associate scout for the Atlanta Braves at the time, but he filed it away and made a note to take the time to watch this Josh Hamilton kid play baseball before everybody knew who he was.

* * *

I played football my freshman year in high school, but after that my parents and I made the decision to concentrate on baseball. I was becoming strong, and the skills I picked up playing soccer (footwork) and running track (speed) would serve me well on the baseball field. My daddy started working with me on strength, buying a ten-pound medicine ball and giving me exercises to beef up my wrists and forearms to increase my bat speed.

Jason was out of the house by now, off at UNC Greensboro going to college and playing baseball. Jason was a power-hitting catcher who was a heck of a ballplayer β€” and a tough high school quarterback β€” but never quite good enough to be considered a pro prospect.

With Jason out of the house, my parents were free to direct all their attention toward me and my baseball career. I played varsity as a freshman at Athens Drive High School, and during that summer I started using a wood bat along with the standard aluminum high school bats. Without saying it, my daddy and I were pretty sure I was going to have the opportunity to play professional baseball directly following high school β€” that was the goal, anyway β€” and anything that helped me get there faster was worth the effort. And since professional scouts said their toughest job was projecting how well an amateur player could make the transition from metal to wood bats, we decided we would remove the mystery as best we could.

We thought of everything, or at least tried to. And if it sounds like pressure, it really wasn’t. We were preparing for pro ball by the time I was fifteen, but the only pressure I felt was the pressure I put on myself. Baseball is a game of failure. You can’t expect to succeed every time you go to the plate, or strike out every hitter, or throw out every baserunner. Accepting failure was the toughest lesson I had to learn. I was so hard on myself I had to fight the urge to expect perfection.

Johnny Narron returned to my life when I was fifteen years old. He asked me to play for a fall prospect team he was coaching. Johnny, who was still scouting for the Braves at the time, hand- picked the team based on ability. Johnny’s son was on the team, and so was Matt Robertson, whose father, Jax, is an assistant general manager with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Johnny couldn’t wait for his brother Jerry to come home after the big- league season so he could watch me play. He told Jerry, “You’ve got to come see this kid; you’re not going to believe him.” I was playing anywhere β€” pitcher, first base, outfield, catcher, shortstop. I didn’t care, as long as I was in the lineup and having fun. I loved to catch. Johnny would tell me, “You know, Josh, there aren’t any left- handed catchers,” and I would say, “I don’t care, it’s a lot of fun.”

I don’t know whether Jerry Narron got sick of hearing about this fifteen- year- old kid in Raleigh, but Johnny didn’t get sick of telling him about me. The big- league season ended, and Johnny got right back to telling Jerry that he needed to come see me play.

“I’m coming out to see your son Johnny play,” Jerry insisted.

“Oh, yeah, come see Johnny play,” Big Johnny said. “But you’ve got to see this kid Josh Hamilton.”

Johnny tells stories about what I did when I played on that team. Once we were running first-and-third plays in practice while I was catching and Matt Robertson was playing shortstop. I came up and threw the ball to Matt, who was cutting the ball off behind the mound, and it got on him so fast he either never saw it or couldn’t react in time. It hit him right in the neck, and he went down like he might never get back up.

Another time I threw a ball from first to the shortstop to start a double play during infield practice and the ball tailed off just as it reached Johnny Narron. I threw it hard β€” probably too hard β€” and he couldn’t stay with it. It caught him square in the ankle, and he walked with a limp for about a week.

This was a fifteen-year-old prospect team, and everybody on the team was identified as a potential star player in high school. I was part of the first wave of the specialized baseball teams β€” the travel teams, prospect teams, AAU teams β€” that are now a huge part of youth baseball. There weren’t many rules; coaches or local scouts put together teams and then tried to find similar teams in the area to build a schedule. I probably could have been playing with the eighteen- year- old prospect team, but I was with my friends and besides, it was another example of people not wanting to set a precedent by advancing a player beyond his age group.

As Johnny Narron Sr., said, “A lot of times you see a twelve- year- old who is physically advanced, and eventually the other kids catch up to them. The strong kid matures earlier and is stronger, but he tops out. Things even out by the time he reaches high school. But in Josh’s case, nobody ever caught up with him.”

* * *

Ever since I was twelve, when I dreamed out loud about signing for enough money to pay off my parents’ debts and bring them to the pros with me, I had my sights set on being a professional baseball player. I wanted to make sure I took care of the details, and decisions such as hitting with a wood bat were calculated to maximize my chances.

This was a family thing. Everything I did was a family thing, baseball foremost among them. My daddy was part of the decisions I made, from using a wood bat to choosing the right summer team. But what some people perceived as pushing was simply supporting. The issue of hard- driving parents pushing their kids to earn a scholarship or get a contract is a serious one, but that wasn’t what Tony and Linda Hamilton were all about.

Yes, we were preparing for the day when I could reach the level I wanted to reach. And yes, they were part of it. But they weren’t stage parents, or helicopter parents, or whatever other negative descriptions you want to use. My parents never berated a coach or forced me to do anything I didn’t want to do. I honestly think I could have decided to quit baseball and they would have been fine with it. They would have been disappointed, and they would have reminded me that I was wasting my God-given talent, but in the end they would have said, “Well, if that’s what you want to do,” and that would have been it.

That wasn’t a factor, though, since my whole life revolved around the game. I developed routines the way big- leaguers did. I would park my ’89 Camaro in the tree- lined parking lot behind the baseball field at Athens Drive and get dressed out of the trunk. I always blasted the same two songs: “Double Trouble” by Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Brand New Key” by Melanie. They were my baseball songs, and I never got sick of them. And I continued to kiss my momma and my granny before every game.

My daddy stopped coaching me before high school, and I brought the values he instilled in me to high school baseball. I always made sure to be respectful to the other team and the umpires. I always made sure to clean up the dugout after the game.

There were a lot of people who helped me improve, by giving me either instruction or opportunity. One of the men I always admired was Clay Council, who helped run the American Legion program in Cary. My brother played Cary Legion, and Coach Council was an assistant coach on that team. Whenever I didn’t have practice or a game, I would go to Jason’s practices and shag balls and hope to get in a few swings at the end of practice. That’s how I met Clay β€” he would always have time to throw a few to the thirteen-year-old who was hanging around with his older brother. And he’d always smile and talk to me at the games when I was chasing down foul balls so I could get the free hot dog that came with every ball you returned to the concession stand.

Coach Council was a quiet, friendly man with a deep North Carolina drawl. He was about sixty years old when I met him, and he had already devoted a good part of his life to helping local teenagers become better ballplayers. He was a great batting- practice pitcher, and it seemed he could throw for hours and hours. As long as someone wanted to hit, Coach Council was there to throw.

He became part of the landscape of amateur baseball around Raleigh, and even though I played on the Fuquay- Varina Legion team, I would occasionally see Coach Council at the various high school fields, always throwing to whoever wanted to hit. Because my daddy was someone who volunteered his time to coach youth baseball, I was always aware of the sacrifices other coaches were making for me and my teammates. I noticed that ballplayers didn’t always thank him for his time, and it made me more conscious of thanking him or any other coach.

Clay was one of those men who get forgotten when the boys pass through high school and move on to college or the pros. He worked at the Raleigh- Durham airport and spent much of his free time helping kids. He kind of blended in, never demanding anything, giving only instruction and encouragement. He and I both loved baseball more than anything in the world. I never felt as happy as I did when I was on the ballfield, and he looked like he felt the same way.

After I got drafted, I saw Clay at one of the fields during a Legion game and I told him right there, “If I ever get asked to be in the Home Run Derby, I’m going to ask you to throw to me.”

I told him that every time I saw him after that, and he always had the same answer, “That’s nice, Josh. I’d sure like that.”

Copyright Β© 2008 by Josh Hamilton