Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, who will start in his fifth All-Star Game Tuesday night in Kansas City, is no late bloomer.
Even in elementary school, Hamilton stood out on the baseball field. His teammates included another future major league player and several future college players. Hamilton just set a record for the most All-Star votes, but his biggest fans remain those who saw him first.
“We had some good players in the league, but Josh was undoubtedly the best,” said Landon Powell, who played for the Oakland A’s for three seasons.
“He wasn’t the biggest guy. He is huge now, but he grew. Back then there were bigger guys,” said former University of North Carolina baseball standout Wes Moyer. “But Josh was the fastest, threw the hardest and hit it farther than anyone.”
As Hamilton developed into a No. 1 overall pick, the biggest question was whether he would make it to the major leagues as a pitcher or outfielder.
Brandon Shipwash, who was two years younger, played against Hamilton in American Legion but never batted against him. He almost did once.
“Josh was out there throwing 97, 98 and you didn’t think he had a really good idea where the ball was going,” Shipwash said. “I was on deck when we made the final out. I wasn’t sorry.”
Hamilton’s feats are legendary. His former teammates joke about one home run that went “962 feet,” another that crossed Highway 64, dozens of tree-top shots, a pitcher who intentionally walked him after getting two strikes, and another who tried to and still gave up a home run.
As Powell worked his way through the minor leagues to the majors and Hamilton battled his well-chronicled addictions, Powell often talked about his childhood friend.
“In the locker room we’d talk about who was the best player we’d ever seen, and I’d always say Josh,” Powell said. “The guys would say they’d never heard of him or that he’d never make it. I’d tell them that Josh Hamilton was the best player – the fastest, the strongest arm, the most power – that I’d ever seen. I’d tell them that he was a Hall of Famer.
“He missed some years with his personal problems, but I still think he can make the Hall of Fame. He is that good.”
Phillips was a coach in the West Raleigh baseball program and later an assistant at Lee County High when Hamilton played at Athens Drive. He later was the Apex head baseball coach and now is the Apex High athletic director.
“You could tell Josh was going to be great when he was in Little League, but by the time I saw him in high school I witnessed how unbelievable he was as a baseball player,” Phillips said. “He had the best bat speed that I have ever seen.
“If God was to create a perfect baseball player it would be a copy of Josh. His physical size and speed always have been impressive.”
Once when Hamilton was a junior, the rumor was that Hamilton, who was scheduled to pitch, was sick and wouldn’t play.
“We get to Athens and find out he had been running a fever all day, but came to school late so he could play,” Phillips said. “Not only did he play, but he pitched with a fever and shut us down throwing consistently over 90.”
Phillips fondest memory of Hamilton was an act of kindness directed toward Phillips’ young son Taylor.
“Josh befriended him and always had time to speak to him,” Phillips said. “When Athens came to Lee that spring, Josh played catch with Taylor in front of their dugout before the game. A great ballplayer and a great person.”
Shipwash was a freshman at Clayton High and was on the Johnston County American Legion team when he played against Hamilton’s Fuquay-Varina team. Shipwash works in construction now.
Shipwash remembers Hamilton demonstrating why he was the nation’s best amateur player in 1999:
“I was pitching and fell behind 3-0 and decided that I was going to walk him,” Shipwash recalled. “I wasn’t going to throw one down the middle and watch him launch it.
“I threw a fastball at least a foot outside. No human being on the planet could hit it. But Josh reached way over and with one hand swung at it. It probably went 962 feet. I just stood there, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
Church grew up playing with Hamilton in the West Raleigh baseball program. Once, Church and Hamilton had a little league home run contest, won by Hamilton. Church played at Garner High and Mount Olive College. He works at N.C. State.
“It seemed like every time we played, Josh hit a long home run. I know at Garner he hit a bunch in the trees,” Church said.
Church said he never doubted whether Hamilton would be a major league player. The West Raleigh All-Star team won the state one year, and Hamilton played even though he was only 10.
“He had it all – power, speed, arm. He had everything that you possibly could want in a ballplayer,” Church said. “I’m not close to being surprised by what he’s done.
“It was simply a matter of whether he’d make the right decisions off the field.”
Cary’s Council is a longtime baseball man. He has coached for years in recreation programs, in American Legion and in high school. He never coached Hamilton, but coached Hamilton’s older brother Jason. Council pitched to Hamilton during the 2008 All-Star Home Run Derby.
Josh would come to Jason’s legion practices and shag fly balls. One day to reward Josh, Council invited him to take a few cuts.
“He was just a little kid and he was hitting line drives everywhere. Most 12-year-olds wouldn’t want to be hitting with a bunch of 18-year-old guys, but Josh wanted to hit. He’d hit any time,” Council said.
Council said he couldn’t wait for Josh to become old enough to play on the Cary Legion team, but the year he was eligible, the players were reassigned. Hamilton went to Fuquay-Varina instead.
“I’d work with Landon (Powell at Apex High) and Josh (Athens Drive) in the off-season, and I was helping coach the high school team at Cary,” Council said. “Josh would come over and wear us out. As a coach, I remember thinking, ‘Is he ever going to graduate?’”
Moyer grew up playing with and against Hamilton. Moyer played at Apex High and for the Apex American Legion team. Moyer later played at the University of North Carolina. He is a managing partner at Modern Woodmen of America.
Moyer never saw anyone throw harder than Hamilton.
“He threw it 97, 98, 99,” Moyer said. “He was so much faster than anybody else you’d see in high school. And to me Josh always had an unorthodox motion. That distracted you and then he’d throw it 97.”
Hamilton hit the longest ball Moyer ever saw. “Right field was the deepest part of the park at Apex, and the ball Josh hit seemed to still be rising when it got to the pine trees. You hear about a ball being hit so far that they never find it,” Moyer said. “That ball may have ended up over (Highway) 64 somewhere.”
The final memory was different. Hamilton was playing Legion ball at Fuquay and had a 2-2 count when the catcher stood up and extended his glove, indicating an intentional walk.
“By then, nobody was pitching to Josh,” Moyer said. “Everybody was walking him.”
Powell was a standout at West Raleigh alongside Hamilton; their fathers, Ronnie Powell and Tony Hamilton, were the coaches. Powell played at Apex High and was an All-American at the University of South Carolina. He played with the Oakland A’s and caught Dallas Braden’s perfect game in 2010. He is in the Houston Astros’ organization and playing in Triple A Oklahoma City.
Powell moved from shortstop to catcher because of Hamilton. Initially, the two boys alternated between shortstop and pitcher on the Mitchell Hair Styling team, but eventually Hamilton overpowered the youthful catchers.
“They moved me to catcher because most of the guys couldn’t catch him because he threw so hard,” Powell said. “Josh had to catch me, too, after we found a left-handed catcher’s mitt.”
Peoples was the Wake Forest-Rolesville High coach and did some scouting for professional teams.
Peoples, who was coaching at Wake Forest-Rolesville High in 2009, said he knew Hamilton was going to be a top draft pick as a pitcher.
“He was left-handed and he threw in the high 90s,” Peoples said. “No way he could be better prospect as an outfielder.
“But I was wrong.”
Caldwell pitched at Wake Forest-Rolesville High and later at N.C. State. He currently is a baseball instructor and coach working in Saudi Arabia.
Caldwell and Hamilton squared off in a 1-0 regular season game in 1998 in which Hamilton threw a no-hitter and drove in the only run with a ground out. He struck out 15. Caldwell allowed a lead-off single that led to an unearned run. He struck out 16.
Caldwell was amazed by Hamilton before the game started.
“I can clearly remember watching Josh warm up before the game,” Caldwell said. “He was standing at the right field foul pole and throwing balls to the left field foul pole on a line to get loose for the game! Athens had two or three guys in a relay line just so they could just get the ball back to Josh. I had never seen anyone throw a baseball that far before.”
Hamilton had good control that day and a good curveball.
“Josh was a phenomenal pitcher with tremendous upside,” Caldwell said by email as he prepared the Saudi team for a tournament in Poland. “Throws strikes, check. Left-handed, check, 95mph-plus fastball, check. Nasty slider, check. Deceptive delivery, check.
“I am not schooled in projecting players, but If Josh had decided to focus on pitching, I’d bet he would be just as good of a pitcher as he is a player. I also remember his feet were somewhat distracting when you were trying to hit off of him because it looked like he had skis on.”
Caldwell had a simple, effective formula for pitching to Hamilton, one he thinks major league teams should employ today.
“Throw him nothing he can get his bat on, and if you walk him, so what.”
Coached Hamilton during his freshman and sophomore years. He now works at Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt publishing.
Mozingo’s best memories of Hamilton are off the field. Mozingo remembers taking Hamilton to the Dairy Queen to have his first Blizzard and Hamilton dropping by his home to have a soft drink.
He told Hamilton when he was a freshman that he would be a first-round draft pick.
“We were playing Broughton and we were getting shelled,” Mozingo said. “We brought Josh in and they hit him hard. I went out and told him that I wasn’t going to take him out. That he was a freshman, but he was going to grow up some. I told him I trusted him and that he was going to be great one day.
“I think he grew up a little.”
The next year, Hamilton pitched little because of an arm problem but in a playoff game against eventual state champion Lee County High he came in with a 50-pitch limit.
“I told the catcher to not waste a pitch. Just let Josh throw,” Mozingo said. “He threw five no-hit innings against the eventual state champions with just 50 pitches. It was the most amazing pitching performance I ever saw.”
Hamilton liked to swing at the first pitch, he still does, and Mozingo occasionally made him take the first pitch because Hamilton was chasing some bad pitches. Mozingo took the restriction off after seeing an incredible hit.
“Josh was completely fooled. The ball hit a foot in front of the plate,” Mozingo recalled. “He hit that ball right off the ground into the gap for a double. He could hit anything.”
Athens Drive teammate and current Crescent State Bank executive.
Holladay made the Athens Drive varsity as a freshman. Some seniors planned to shave his head until Hamilton, a junior, stepped in.
“He said for them to give him five swings and if he didn’t hit three, or maybe four, out, that it would be fine to shave my head,” Holladay recalled.
“That was the end of it. I don’t think they ever asked Josh to do it, and he was a junior, but just knowing that he didn’t want them to do it was enough to stop it.
“But that was Josh. He was a great guy. Just a tremendous teammate and so much fun.”
Holladay said you had to be alert in practice, though, because Hamilton hit the ball so hard that there was little reaction time.
Holladay also remembered facing Hamilton in little league. Hamilton was 11 and Holladay was 9.
“He threw so hard,” Holladay said. “He had some control, but not great control. I was scared to death. He hit me with a pitch on the very bottom of my shoe, on a cleat. I remember running to first thinking how lucky I was.”
The veteran Fuquay-Varina High baseball coach was Hamilton’s American Legion coach at Fuquay-Varina.
Hamilton hit 18 home runs in 16 games for the Legion team in 1998. His statistics were so sensational that assistant coach Tom Hayes has them posted at the Hit and Run baseball and softball complex in Fuquay-Varina
Senter said he remembers Hamilton’s great love of the game as much as he remembers his home runs.
“He played hard all of the time,” Senter said. “He loved baseball and just wanted a chance to play.”
He also remembers Hamilton’s final game as an amateur.
Tampa Bay had sent its top executives to the game to see their eventual No. 1 pick one last time, and Hamilton had hit a couple of balls completely out of the Garner High complex during batting practice. But in the game, Garner intentionally walked Hamilton four times.
“The one time they pitched to him, he hit one over the flag pole in right center,” Senter said.
Hamaker is a former West Raleigh teammate. He played at Apex High and for Apex American Legion. Hamaker is currently a youth pastor at Palmetto (Ga.) Baptist Church.
Hamilton hit Hamaker with pitches on the ankle in consecutive at-bats during a Legion game in 1998. Hamaker was pitching when Hamilton came to the plate.
“I looked at Wes Moyer and told him that I was going to hit Josh,” Hamaker recalled. “He had hit me twice and my ankle was bruised and hurting. … But the umpire overheard me and told me not to hit anybody.
“I decided I was going to throw it inside, which wasn’t a good move. And I shouldn’t have said out loud that I was going to hit him. He hit it right back up the middle and it went right through my legs.”
McKnight was the area supervisor of scouting for Tampa Bay in 1999 and is the current national supervisor of scouting for Cincinnati.
McKnight was grieving from the recent death of his father when he saw Hamilton for the first time in 1999.
Hamilton pitched and played the outfield. McKnight saw Hamilton throw 94-96 mph fastballs, hit a home run, race back to catch a ball hit over his head, cut off a hit in the gap, try to beat out an infield hit and throw out a runner at the plate.
“You could scout a player seven times and never see one player do that many things,” McKnight said.
Two other Tampa scouts were with McKnight that day. Scouts grade on arm strength, power, hitting, fielding and running on a 20 to 80 scale. Hamilton got 80s on arm and power, 70s on batting and fielding and a 65 on speed.
“He also looked like a first-round pick as a pitcher,” McKnight said.
The imperfection of scouting was illustrated later that spring, though. Hamilton struggled at the plate in a game against Eastern Wayne High’s Sam Narron, an eventual major league pitcher.
“Sam handled him pretty well,” McKnight recalled. “There was a scout from another organization and as he left he said, ‘Well, Hamilton sure isn’t a first-rounder.’
“To me it was like the time one of my school buddies and I were talking about Bo Derek in ‘10.’ I said she was a beautiful woman and he said, ‘But she has fat kneecaps.’ Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
“Josh Hamilton and Brien Taylor down at East Carteret were the most amazing prospects that I ever saw.”
McKnight recalled meeting in Hamilton’s home and sitting up past midnight listening to a comedian’s recordings of prank calls.
“Josh came into my life at a special time,” McKnight said. “I was grieving, of course, but suddenly this unbelievable player came into my life. It was an incredible time.”
Boykins is the head coach at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg. He was a former Little League teammate and played for Apex High and Apex American Legion.
Boykin didn’t throw hard and he experimented with several pitches, including a knuckleball.
“I had never thrown a knuckleball in a game, but thought it would be a good idea to try to throw one to Josh,” he said. “I don’t know how far he hit it because I never turned around. It was over the fence, over the pine trees, over the road and somewhere in the tobacco field.”
Boykin was catching when he saw another Hamilton home run.
“It was just like in ‘Bull Durham,’” he said. “Our pitcher thought he’d come inside with a pitch and challenge Josh. I knew what was going to happen, but I slid over inside and set up and just waved my hands. No signal. Throw what you want.
“I have never seen a pitch hit more perfectly. It was just beautiful. I had a great view.”