Pray for Billy Hamilton

Jeff Curry

No one knows if Cincinnati's supremely speedy young outfielder will work out as a big league player. But in a game with something of a weirdness deficit, Hamilton already delivers.

It's not entirely fair to say that baseball was weirder in the 1970s than it is today. Yes, the game was shaggier and less corporate and more heavily mustachioed and amphetamized to the point of frank psychosis and otherwise fairly close to legitimate wild-in-the-streets chaos an alarming/hilarious amount of the time. In comparison, today's game -- thwarted and grumpy and great, and richer than it has ever been -- is awfully tame.

But the weird old days of baseball were not significantly stranger than the country in which those games were played, which was entirely out of its damn mind. That era's baseball seems incorrigibly, implausibly batshit by today's standards -- here Dock Ellis throwing a no-hitter while frying on LSD, there Rick Monday tackling a fan trying to burn an American flag in the outfield at Dodger Stadium, with the acrid smoke of an apocalyptic Disco Demolition Night rising on the horizon. But it was as weird as its context, and not weirder. The baseball of that era was probably as accurate a reflection of its time as today's game is of ours, which is no less perverse or troubled, but performs its chaos in a different way.

The brazen racism and loud public anger of public life during the Nixon years is now a whinging ourobouros of self-victimhood and smug subtextual trolling; the riots are now comment sections and Facebook memes, which is quieter, if nothing else. Where there was once contentious politics, there is now a self-conscious and stalled-out meta-politics that functions as a uniquely depressing arm of the entertainment business. Everything is notably smoother. If a flag is set on fire at a baseball game, it's because someone at Turner Field really screwed up a fireworks bit.

Baseball has always been a business, but it's a bigger and more scientific one than it was years ago, and it both operates more like a business and feels more like a business than it once did. For the most part, the people who play the game -- who are both the labor force and the product -- behave as employees, reflexively policing themselves and adhering to a corporate code of conduct and doing their best to get ahead, inside and outside the rules, just as people do in every other place of work. The rewards are too great and the system too settled for it to be otherwise, really.

There is no reason to miss any of that old chaos, really, although we did get some decent music out of the deal. But that old angry roiling is still very much with us, in us, and in the culture. It's just tamped down, buttoned-up, and very carefully packaged. Baseball looks like this now, too, and if it's still great to watch it is also perhaps a little too well-packaged, and seemingly in need of an injection of happy, adrenalized chaos. We are getting to Billy Hamilton, now.

★★★

Baseball was as fundamentally conservative and prone to goofy groupthink in the not-so-halcyon '70s as it is now. But it was also weirdly wide-open in ways that go beyond the Wife-Swapping Yankee Pitchers clubhouse weirdness. The game, aesthetically, was loose in a way that it currently is not.

It was adventurous enough that the Oakland Athletics put Herb Washington in 105 games without ever giving him a plate appearance; Washington was exclusively a pinch-runner, and not even an exceptionally good one. Washington won a World Series ring in 1974. That same year, Mike Marshall pitched in a mind-boggling 106 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers, winning 15 and saving 21 and taking home the National League Cy Young for his trouble. This was not the unformed proto-baseball of the William Howard Taft years, when pitchers took the ball every other day and only stopped playing when the gout or syphilitic blindness finally took their toll. These games were played 40 years ago. Baseball has been this weird, this recently.

That game was not as demographically diverse as it is today, but it looked weirder -- there were more pudgy galoots and spindly glove-first shortstops and high-functioning potheads and aesthetic misfits than the sport is willing to countenance today -- and played even weirder than that. While it's unclear, this early in his career and this season, what Hamilton can and will do, we already know that he uses the one supreme skill he has to make the games in which he plays surpassingly weird and different-feeling.

Here he is tagging up on a pop-up that barely leaves the infield. Marc Normandin broke this play down in GIFs, and not one of them makes even a bit of damn sense.

And here he is cruising into second with a stand-up double on what otherwise appears to be a routine single to right field.

Billy-hamilton

There are a lot of things to enjoy, here, but my favorite in the GIF above is how hilariously poorly the play is conveyed. The director is cutting along the beats of a regular baseball game, but Billy Hamilton is involved, and so those beats do not apply. This makes itself apparent pretty quickly, if not quickly enough for anyone trying (and failing) to show us what's happening to do anything about it.

Hamilton does what he does, and the Cardinals react to it with shock and insufficient speed, and the broadcast itself just goes haywire, the camera whip-panning around in the recently vacated space where Hamilton used to be before finally settling, exhausted, on a quiet and mostly uninhabited patch of infield. Hamilton literally runs right out of the shot, is in places where he is not supposed to be much sooner than he was supposed to be there. No one knows what to do, and the player so suddenly on second base didn't even dirty his uniform in getting there.

It's by no means clear how good Hamilton will be as a big league player. He may not get on base well enough to be a top-of-the-order type, and he may not even hit well enough to be a bottom-of-the-order type, or he might. He will likely not match his absurd minor league numbers in the Majors, although it's a huge achievement that it's already easy to imagine him coming close. He won't be Rickey Henderson, because no one can be Rickey Henderson. He might be Eric Yelding or he might be Lou Brock. Whatever type of player Hamilton will become, he is not nearly done becoming it.

But there is already something special about what Hamilton is doing, both for baseball and to it, and it could not be more welcome or necessary. What's most dispiriting about baseball's more dour tendencies -- the way that a celebration of Hank Aaron turned into the umpteenth referendum on PEDs, the way that Yasiel Puig is reduced to an excuse for the airing of various barely related grievances -- is how predictable it is. The game is a livelier and more surprising thing, but there is also a stylistic same-iness to a lot of it. Hamilton -- tear-assing through it Roadrunner-style, chaos in his wake -- is a different thing entirely.

So, whether he makes an All-Star team or eleven All-Star teams, Hamilton has already done something significant. He makes the game stranger and more difficult to predict simply by being in it, and by being able to do things in a way they are not supposed to be done. He does more than challenge a series of baseball's most casually accepted expectations -- that a player will stop at first base on a single, or not tag on a pop up to what's basically deep second base.

He does that, too, but Billy Hamilton explodes them so thoroughly, so weirdly and wildly, as to make those expectations look deeply stodgy and silly. He opens the game up in a way no other player has in a long time, and in so doing makes baseball look and feel different. Every time he puts the ball in play or leads off a base, Hamilton implicitly is asking "why not?" Then he runs off without waiting for an answer. It's a rhetorical question, anyway.

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