The legendary tales of Josh Hamilton (cont.)
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.'"