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Billy Hamilton’s speed thrills the minor leagues

Billy Hamilton shifted his weight from one foot to the other, a little bit of a dance solo as he stared at the pitcher. He wanted to run. Billy Hamilton always wants to run.

It was the bottom of the ninth inning of a scoreless tie and he had already stolen second and third base. Now he could almost feel the pull of home plate.

The batter popped up weakly; the second baseman retreated slightly to make an easy over-the-shoulder catch.

That’s when Hamilton improbably broke for home, scoring the winning run without a tag.

“I’d never seen that one before,” said Bakersfield Blaze Manager Ken Griffey, who has been in professional baseball for almost 40 years.

Up in the broadcast booth, Blaze announcer Dan Besbris was dumbfounded. “A man is just not supposed to score from third on a pop up to the second baseman,” he said.

But no one is quite like Billy Hamilton on the basepaths, so fast he has 104 stolen bases — the most in professional baseball.

Stealing history

Once baseball was filled with marvelous base stealers. Legends such as Maury Wills, Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson. But in the ‘90s, the art of the stolen base gave way to the power game of sluggers boosted by performance-enhancing supplements.

It’s been 25 years since the last major leaguer, Henderson, stole 100 bases in a season.

Dodgers shortstop Dee Gordon currently leads the major leagues with 30 stolen bases, a pace that would put him just shy of 57 for a full season.

The art of the steal: Is it becoming lost in baseball?

After 82 games in the minor leagues, Hamilton was on pace to swipe 163, which would obliterate the baseball record of 145 set by Vince Coleman in 1983 for Class-A Macon in the South Atlantic League.

Hamilton has been such an unstoppable force on the bases that he’ll now have to pursue the single-season steals record in double A. On Tuesday he was promoted to the Reds affiliate in the Southern League, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos.

Bakersfield’s rivals in the California League will miss the excitement Hamilton brings to the game, but not the havoc his speed and daring create.

“You just really can’t stop this kid,” Lake Elsinore hitting coach David Newhan said. “He’ll get a lead as far as you’ve ever seen and he’ll get back standing up or easily diving. And then when he decides to go, it’s over.

“We have a kid, Rico Noel, who has the second-most stolen bases in baseball — he’s got 61 — and he’s almost getting lapped by this guy. It’s silly.”

Hamilton is a 21-year-old shortstop from Taylorsville, population 1,340 in southern Mississippi. He was chosen in the second round of the Major League Baseball draft in 2009, turning down a scholarship to play wide receiver at Mississippi State.

At Taylorsville High, he was no great threat on the bases.

“Not at all,” Hamilton said. “I was trying to hit home runs all the time. I wasn’t thinking about stealing bases.”

His first season in rookie ball, he stole just 14 bases in 43 games. But the next year, a coach saw his potential on the bases and worked with him. That season he stole 48 in 69 games.

A light went on.

Born to run

Everyone agrees Hamilton is gifted. He is not just fast but he can accelerate to top speed in an instant. The base paths seem smaller when he runs. He’s a slim 6 feet 1, 160 pounds with squared shoulders, and when he explodes on the bases his arms and legs become tight, compact blurs.

“He’s fast and quick,” Griffey said. “That’s a deadly combination.” Last season at lower level Class-A Dayton, Hamilton’s confidence on the bases grew. He had 103 steals in 135 games, a prelude to this season. Now he has become wildly confident on the bases. He takes huge leads, daring pitchers to try to pick him off.

“He’s extremely aggressive,” said Lake Elsinore’s Noel. “He doesn’t let many pitches go by before he steals. Basically first pitch, he goes. He just takes off.”

Hamilton does everything fast. He talks in rapid fire cadence, and his eyes seem to be constantly darting, as if looking for the next opening.

Elsinore first baseman Tommy Medica said Hamilton is pleasant enough while on first, though the conversations tend to be brief. “He’s normally only over there for a couple of pitches,” Medica said.

Hamilton has become a more prolific base stealer in 2012 partially due to his improved hitting and patience at the plate. He hit .323 for the Blaze with an impressive .413 on-base percentage. His bunting has improved, and he walked 50 times.

“It’s like I’m getting better now,” Hamilton said.

Billy the thief 2.0

He is not the first Billy Hamilton to tear up the bases.

After Henderson and Brock, the third greatest base stealer in baseball history is “Sliding” Billy Hamilton, who retired in 1901 from the Boston Beaneaters with 914 steals.

That Billy Hamilton is in the Hall of Fame, though this Billy Hamilton was unaware of his namesake until a couple of years ago.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” he said, “but then I had friends back home trying to look me up on Google and then up popped Sliding Billy Hamilton.”

Billy Hamilton of 2012 doesn’t yet have a nickname. But infielders are on edge the moment the switch hitter leaves the on-deck circle.

“For infielders he changes everything as soon as he steps in the box, because you know you have to speed everything up,” Lake Elsinore catcher Eddy Rodriguez said. “Routine ground balls turn into base hits for him.”

Besbris, the announcer, said, “There’s a palpable change in the atmosphere” at the ballpark when Hamilton is at the plate. He turns singles into doubles, doubles into triples. Infielders rush throws.

And when Hamilton gets on first, there is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind what’s about to happen.

“As soon as he gets on base, there’s so much pressure put on the defense,” Griffey said. “He causes so many things to happen.

“Everybody’s tensed up. Even the crowd gets into it, home or away, because they know he’s going to run, just not when.”

Hamilton, though, seems strangely at ease. He said he no longer concerns himself with tactics used to try to hold him close to the base or pick him off.

“It’s a super feeling,” he said. “I don’t care what you do; I can steal a base.”

Billy and the bigs

So when might Billy Hamilton hit the big leagues?

Even though the Reds have a rookie of the year candidate at shortstop and another top prospect at the position in Triple-A, it could be sooner rather than later.

At the All-Star break, the Reds trailed the Pittsburgh Pirates by one game in the National League’s Central Division, and Hamilton’s speed could prove a difference maker down the stretch.

Bill Bavasi, the Reds’ vice president of scouting and player development, said that whether Hamilton gets called up in September would depend on how he performs at double A. At some point, though, the call will come.

“His future,” Bavasi said, “is in the big leagues.”

sports@latimes.com


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