MOBILE, Ala. – From the top rows of Hank Aaron Stadium, the chorus of crickets and frogs is getting loud on this damp, slow night in the Southern League. Inside the ballpark, it’s pretty quiet in the late innings, with maybe 150 fans sticking around.
Until Billy Hamilton ambles to the plate.
“Here he comes!” bellows a beer-guzzling man in the box seats. “He’s going to the Hall of Fame!”
Well, we know this much: Hamilton eats fast, he talks fast and man, can he run fast. The Cincinnati Reds prospect is blazing around the bases this summer, on track to set the professional record for steals in a season.
The wiry, 21-year-old rocket went into the weekend with a combined 113 stolen bases for Double-A Pensacola and Class A Bakersfield. Come Monday, he’ll have 35 games left to swipe the mark of 145 set by Vince Coleman in 1983 for Macon in the South Atlantic League.
“I can’t be caught,” Hamilton says, nonchalantly.
OK, that’s a bit of an overstatement. He’s been nabbed 25 times, with pitchers trying all sorts of tricks to stop him.
But he keeps running, 90 feet at a time.
“That’s part of the makeup of a basestealer,” Coleman said Friday in a telephone interview. “Like a burglar breaking into a house. They’re not going to catch you, that’s how you think.”
“I haven’t seen the young man, I haven’t spoken to him. But I keep getting calls and emails about him. They say he has so much raw talent,” Coleman said. “I have no problems with him breaking my record.”
“I don’t have to count how many steals I have,” he says after an 8-6 win. “The fans let me know. They tell me how many I have.”
He is, however, totally aware of how he makes other teams jittery. There have been dozens of wild pitches, balks and wild throws when he’s on base, plus bunches of bobbles when he’s hit grounders.
“I can see the guys in the other dugout coming to the top step when I get on first,” he says. “It’s not like they want me to get on base, but I can hear them … ‘Run, Billy, run!’ ”
Along the way, Hamilton has made a name for himself, albeit a familiar name for baseball historians. In the late 19th century, “Sliding Billy” Hamilton stole more than 900 bases and reached the Hall of Fame.
“I didn’t know about him before,” Blazin’ Billy says. “I do now.”
Hamilton is hitting over .300 with an on-base average over .400. Some have speculated he could be a pinch-running weapon for Cincinnati during a playoff push, but the Reds don’t seem eager to rush him.