Josh Hamilton circa 2004:
Failure, crack addict, bust, waste of talent.
Josh Hamilton 2008:
First half MVP candidate, Home Run Derby Champion*, Inspiration, Hero.
My cousin, Brad Zak (also a writer on Bleacher Report), texted me from his internship at the New York Post around 10 am the week before the Home Run Derby telling me that he somehow found two tickets to the Derby asking me if I want one.
It being 10am, I of course am still asleep. Why you might ask? Because I am a bum.
So I immediately texted him back at..11:28am, and tell him of course I would, wondering why that would even be a question.
He texted me back telling me he got tickets, but they are in the nosebleeds behind the foul pole in left field in row V—the seats, meanwhile, only go up to Z.
He claims this will test his theory that there is not a bad seat in the House that Ruth had custom built for him so he could hit all those home runs.
I drive up to the Stadium and it only takes me about 25 minutes as there is somehow no traffic.
I will also take this time to note that I am the only person listening to "Keg in the Closet" by Kenny Chesney on this hot, but pleasant enough summer evening in the Bronx. I meet Brad right outside the 161st Street Subway stop adjacent to Yankee Stadium around 5:50.
We go inside around 6:15 and want to try to catch a home run during batting practice seeing as we really did not think any of the righties in the derby were going to hit a 600 foot bomb.
We went to the lower level down in the left field seats, we stand right around the same place Aaron Boone hit that home run in the bottom of the 11th in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series.
And for those of you wondering why I had to clarify where I was standing, seeing as there really shouldn't be that much question to the words "lower level" and "left field", I must admit that sometimes I need to think about the good times to reassure myself that these dark ages won't last much longer.
We got there in time to see the last two groups of American Leaguers take their hacks in batting practice. We were lucky enough to see Josh Hamilton hit a few 475 foot shots in batting practice, and both got the feeling we would see something special out of him.
The National League then hit, and I took this time to really grasp how much we can take Yankee Stadium and the opportunity to see a game here for granted. I realized that I had not been on time for batting practice since I was maybe six years old.
My cousin also realized we had not been to Monument Park since we were little, a trip we must take before they close the Stadium up for good.
Hanley Ramirez hit a home run to the left field seats and we watch as a guy standing about 10 feet over to our left and in the next section of seats that is raised just a little bit higher than the aisle we were standing in puts his glove up to catch it.
I think he catches it until I see it laying on the ground beneath the feet of a small scrum of people now going for it. I see the ball, look at Brad, and then dive in. Brad follows close behind, more of the kind of guy who thinks things out.
I see the ball under this middle-aged man's foot—he is trying to keep the ball wedged there so he can somehow get down there and grab it before someone else in this crowd gets it. As I'm grabbing this ball I realize I don't really have an angle to tear this ball out, but I do realize that Brad is next to me and will have a better shot to get this then me.
In the greatest act of teamwork seen in New York City since the last time the Knickerbockers stepped on the floor at the Garden, I pushed the ball out from under this guy’s foot as Brad grabbed it. Mission accomplished.
Brad and I are so fired up we both punch each other in the chest and give enthusiastic high fives.
As we go back to where we were standing before we snagged that home run ball, we hear this guy repeatedly yelling at us things such as "Bet you feel really big stealing a ball from a bunch of little kids." Brad turns around and says "Hey I'm a kid too," which is right—I mean he is a 19-year-old college student.
The PG version of what I said goes along the lines of, "So what, I'm a horrible person, maybe you should've caught it, shut up old man."
He turned out to be one of those dumb New Yorkers who yelled at you until you yelled back, and then had nothing to say because he's not very quick. Score that a point for me.
We get to our seats upstairs around 8:30 and make our predictions as to who will win the home run derby. We have placed a five dollar bet on it in honor of our good friend Andrew Kupec, the possible starting QB of The Assumption College this fall, who has not stopped making gambling with us since he made a trip to the Belmont Stakes a few months ago.
I choose Josh Hamilton. Brad says with a smile, “Crap, I was going to choose him too.” We decide to change our bet to who will make the final and face Josh Hamilton.
I choose Chase Utley, which proves out to be a poor choice—story of my life. Brad thinks about either choosing Lance Berkman or Justin Morneau, but after hearing me talk about how overrated I think Morneau is and the fact that I made a bunch of anti-Canadian comments when talking about him, makes Brad choose the Canadian.
Brad also thinks that having 14 home runs at the break is a good sign. He also just likes to do things just to tick me off sometimes because he knows the only thing I would hate more than seeing Morneau in the final would be having to pay him five dollars to see Morneau hit in the final.
The home run derby gets off to an unusually quick start as Uggla hits six to start it off. The next few guys go and everyone finds the seats more than a couple times.
The Bleacher Creatures did not disappoint, starting a "We want Jason" chant about halfway through Evan Longoria's three home run round.
Ryan Braun almost wins the award for being the guy who hits little to no home runs before he goes on a tear late in the round and earns the right to move on with seven. Berkman and the hockey player each hit eight to move on.
Then Josh Hamilton comes to the plate.
As he came to the plate both of us moved to the edge of our seats, knowing something special was about to happen—the fact that this guy was even a home run derby participant is special.
It only took him three swings to turn a crowd of 53,000 into a state of delirium as he hit one off the big white Bank of America sign some 500 feet away.
From where I was sitting I was almost sure that ball went clear out of the stadium through one of the holes on top of Yankee Stadium’s famous façade because I was sure the ball was still rising and I had lost it in the whiteness of the sign.
He continued to pound home run after home run. When he got to eight outs, he hit an unprecedented 13 homers in a row. It got to the point where no one in the building was wondering if the next ball was going to be a home run or an out, but instead was wondering how far the next home run was going to go.
He finally got out when one of his all-star teammates suggested that he try and hit an opposite field home run, he took the challenge and hit it to the warning track.
Hamilton finished the round with 28, beating Bobby Abreu’s single round record of 24 home runs that he set back in 2005 at Comerica Park in Detroit while he was still with the Phillies.
Something that I thought was almost as remarkable about his record-setting performance was how the Yankee Stadium crowd got behind him like something I had never seen before. Hamilton may have been the first, and definitely the last, person from an opposing team (other than former Yankees) to have their name chanted by the Yankee Stadium faithful.
Not only that, but the volume of the crowd was incredible—the cheers were louder than any curtain call I had ever heard, and may have been louder than the applause received Roger “B12” Clemens on the night that he earned his 300th* win and 4000th* strikeout in the same game.
If you didn’t know any better you would’ve thought Hamilton was one of our own, thought that we were cheering for Derek Jeter.
When his first round was over, my future wife Erin Andrews interviewed him about the round he just had. During this interview he made a reference to a dream he had two years before, a dream where he was being interviewed at Yankee Stadium after participating in the home run derby.
The fact that he said something like this along with telling the whole crowd thank you, that hearing his name chanted gave him chills, reminds us that even in all the ugliness of the recent Steroid Era, there are still good, regular people in this sport, they’re still humans even though they can do completely out of this world stuff like he had just done.
Fans also have to appreciate the fact that they do not even need to question if this guy is taking anything because due to an agreement he made with MLB to get reinstated, he gets drug tested three times a week.
In the second round Hamilton only took eight cuts, hitting four home runs and four outs.
Braun and Berkman both put up good showings in the second rounds, but were both outdone by the guy who’s flag has a Maple Leaf on it—cementing Canada’s place as the softest country on the planet—who had nine to bring his dinger tally up to 17.
Morneau’s 17 home runs were now 15 behind Hamilton’s 32, and Hamilton only needed 14 outs to get that total.
As the third and final round began, I turned to Brad and made a comment about how I wished Hamilton were going first because since he was going second we weren’t going to see how many home runs this alien could hit.
I, of course, had to be proven wrong. Morneau hit a pedestrian five, but as Hamilton began to hit, we started to realize that maybe this guy really is human.
He got off to a slow start, and before we knew it, he had five outs already. Halfway done, Michael Kay asked the whole crowd to get behind this guy as he had done 13 times already that night.
The whole crowd seemed to get to their feet to cheer Ham on. By the time he had seven outs and only two home runs, the crowd realized he needed all the help he could get. They erupted, repeatedly yelling "Hamilton", and he promptly responded with a home run.
As he got to his ninth out, the chanting and applause got louder and louder, but Hamilton could not respond—this Hercules of a man could no longer find the strength to hit anymore out on this night in the Bronx—he was exhausted.
Looking around you could see people with their A-Rod and Jeter jerseys on with their hands on their heads and a stunned look in their eyes as if the Yankees had just lost another Divisional Series to the freakin’ Angels. It was quite a sight to see, a bunch of Yankee fans clearly upset that their new hero couldn’t pull it off.
Justin Morneau received his trophy in front of an already half-empty stadium, for hitting 22 home runs over the span of 30 outs, which is actually six fewer than Hamilton hit needing only 10 outs, but hey, who’s counting.
After the derby Morneau basically apologized for beating Josh Hamilton, something he should have done in 2006 when he beat out Derek Jeter in the MVP voting. While his numbers were more than respectable, .321, 34 home runs, 130 RBI, Jeter carried the Yankees on his back hitting .344, 14 home runs, and 97 RBI, while also scoring 20 more runs then Morneau and swiping 34 stolen bases.
I guess the voting committee forgot MVP means Most Valuable Player to your team, which some would even argue that Morneau was not even the MVP of his own team. This was the year that Joe Mauer led the league in batting average with a .347 average while also collecting 13 home runs and 84 RBI.
It’s also a lot easier to get 130 RBI when you’re hitting in the clean-up spot and you've got Mauer hitting like he did that year in front of you.
Here’s a fun fact—Joe Mauer turned down a scholarship offer from Florida State to play QB under Grandpa Bobby Bowden. Mauer has apparently made the right choice, while Drew Weatherford counts his blessings every time he throws another interception, thanking the good lord that Joe Mauer was a baseball player.
But all of that is for another time and place.
When it was all said and done, Morneau may have won, but Hamilton won the hearts of everyone who watched it. America loves guys like him, we love a guy who gets his ass kicked by life only get to back up off the mat and fight back.
Hamilton not only has overcome his addiction, but he doesn’t try to hide his past, he instead tries to use that as an example to people everywhere of how not to live your life and how it’s never too late to turn it around, you can’t help but appreciate that.
So now a man that used to drink Jack and smoke crack reads the Bible and packs a fat lip of Skoal during games. No wonder the people of Texas love him and no wonder the people of New York couldn’t help but fall in love with him.
A little side story to my night in the Bronx…
About halfway through the second round, I realize the guy next to me is calling his friend to his left by a very familiar name, for the sake of this story and the safety of all of those involved we’ll call him…Verdy because that’s his real name.
I realize that of course that’s Verdy, the same guy who used to work at Ramapo College Baseball Camp and that’s why I recognized him. So I nudged my cousin as a sign to pay attention because a good story is about to follow, and I started talking to him.
Zack: “Hey you used to work at Ramapo College Baseball Camp right?”
Verdy: “Yeah, why did you used to go there?”
Z: “Yeah I went there a few years back, maybe you might happen to remember Jason Phillips?”
(Time out: For those of you who might not know who the great Jason Phillips is, he had a seven-year career spanning from 2001 until 2007 with the Mets, Dodgers, and Blue Jays. He was a career .249 hitter with 30 home runs and 168 RBI.
The reason I say was is because I am confident that he will stay in the Japan League for the rest of his career.
Anyway, Jason Phillips does not have 20/20 vision, a problem many major leaguers might suffer from, but instead of wearing contacts, Phillips has always worn a kind of Rec Spec goggles throughout his career.
Now for future purposes in this story I will say right now that I do not have any problem with his choice of eye wear. I just think it’s pretty rare that you come face to face with someone who wears this unique eyewear.)
V: “NO WAY?! You’re butthead (PG) Zack?! Oh my god, you got me in so much trouble for that stunt you pulled.”
Z: “Yeah, I’m sorry but it was hilarious.”
V: “Of course it was, all the counselors loved it.”
Brad: “What’d you do?”
V: “This little crap (PG), decides it would be funny to bring a pair of scuba goggles to try to get Jason Phillips to sign them. Not only would Phillips not sign them, but he was pissed. Your little stunt cost us a couple thousand dollars.”
Z: “Wait, how’d that cost you a couple thousand?”
V: “He almost left, he didn’t want to talk to the campers after that, and Coach Martin had to pay him a couple thousand extra just to stay, and to try to stop him from going back to the Mets and telling the guy who was coming next week that Coach ran a camp that let the campers do whatever they wanted.
"So on top of paying him to stay, we had to pay him just so he didn’t talk too badly about our camp so we could try and keep getting Mets to come and talk to you guys.”
So not only was Jason Phillips terribly offended by the actions of a 13-year-old kid (not only would he obviously not sign my scuba goggles, but he wouldn’t even shake my hand after I apologized and told him I was only joking), he also had to try and swindle a couple extra thousand dollars out of a Division III baseball program who obviously runs camps like they do to try and help finance their season.
Hope you feel really big in Japan Jason; no one is missing the .208/1/12 you brought to the Blue Jays in 55 games last season.
Here's to keepin' it real, Jason Phillips.