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Billy Hamilton Steals 100th Base, Fascinates

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Billy Hamilton stole his 100th base of the season on July 2. It's not like there's a bad time to write another fawning tribute to him, but it felt especially appropriate today.

Billy Hamilton of the Bakersfield Blaze. (Photo: Ricky Bassman)
Billy Hamilton of the Bakersfield Blaze. (Photo: Ricky Bassman)

Earlier this year, I went to a San Jose Giants game with two Important Internet Baseball Writers. A few seconds after the game started, the leadoff hitter chopped a routine grounder to short. The shortstop didn't tarry. There weren't any juggles, bobbles, or double-clutches. The shortstop made a perfectly acceptable throw on this routine grounder. The runner beat it out.

The best part: I had no idea who the runner was. Thought he was just some guy. Ol' Minor-League Pete, hustlin' for his supper. As such, my brain had difficulty processing what just happened. Routine grounder. Very, very routine. The shortstop came in about five steps. In another situation, it could have been a double play. Yet with this guy, it was a single. Huh. That's odd, I thought. Are the bases shorter in minor-leag ... no, no, that's a stupid thought.

Only when the Important Internet Baseball Writers started making a big deal about the runner's lead, and the pitcher's futile attempts to keep him close, did I realize that I was a moron who was missing the Billy Hamilton show. I could appreciate it in retrospect, but I regretted not knowing that Hamilton was the hitter when the ball came off the bat. I would have loved to see the ball bounce innocuously to short so I could think, "There's no way he beats this out, right?" Alas, I missed my chance. You only get a few of those sorts of experiences.

He did it again in the fourth inning. Exact same thing.

That's one way to describe the liquid excitement that is Billy Hamilton, the larcenous shortstop prospect in the Cincinnati Reds' system. Here's another way that's a couple-hundred words shorter:

Billy Hamilton stole two bases Monday night to give him an even 100 on the season in his 78th game of the season.

An even 100 stolen bases. It's July 3. For perspective, Rickey Henderson stole his 73rd base in the 78th game of his record-setting 1982 season. He didn't steal his 100th base until August 4 that year.

More perspective: When Henderson was Hamilton's age, he stole 100 bases in the majors. So let's hold off on anointing Hamilton the stolen-base king based on a season in the California League. But let's not hold off on getting a little giddy at the thought of Hamilton getting closer and closer to driving pitchers and catchers insane at the major-league level. He's a Molotov cocktail of stolen base, and the wick's lit. I don't even know what that means, but it's the kind of thing that Billy Hamilton makes you type.

Even more perspective, from the above article:

He becomes the second California League player to total 100 steals in a season since Donell Nixon had 144 -- also for Bakersfield -- in 1983.

Donell Nixon played in 208 major-league games. He stole 47 bases, and he was caught 18 times, hitting .275/.337/.333 over 396 at-bats. That's his whole career in the majors. And it's far more than most of his teammates in the California League got. It's a long, long way from the Cal League to the majors.

That isn't to say that Hamilton isn't a prospect. He most certainly is. He's one of the best. But Donell Nixon was a prospect too:

1983 21 A 144 24 63 82 .321 .391 .408

In fact, when you scour the stolen-base records from league to league, you don't see a lot of productive major leaguers. Vince Coleman, the minor-league single-season record holder, had a couple of really nice seasons. But Vince Colemans are the exception. Esix Snead (already plural) are the rule. So we can probably hold off on making reservations at a Cooperstown B&B for 2035. There will be time to revisit that idea if events warrant.

But there isn't a more interesting prospect in the minors. There might be better prospects. But there aren't any who are more interesting, who could show the baseball world something it hasn't seen for a couple of decades. Here's Hamilton stealing on a pitchout against the Carolina League All-Stars:

I want to watch that in the majors. So danged much. And we're getting closer. Heck, there's an outside chance that the Reds call him up when rosters expand and use him as a not-quite-secret weapon off the bench. But it's more likely that we're two or three years away from Hamilton cracking the starting lineup for the Reds. So we'll wait. And wait. We'll be patient, and then we'll wait some more.

The waiting is kind of ironic, at least alanisally. It seems inappropriate to wait so long for a prospect who is so pushy in every game he plays. But at least you get the same sense of impatience that Hamilton must have when he's on first base. He'll be here soon. Just not soon enough. I can't wait. Neither can the California League.