On Monday night, the old man walked toward the pitcher’s mound at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, reached into the basket of pearly-white baseballs and began to do what he does best.
To be sure, nobody at the ballpark had more fun during the final round of the Triple-A All-Star Home Run Derby than the man throwing the pitches. Two things fans saw:
Clay Council, 77 going on 7, who still has that infectious Little League love for the game, had the biggest smile on the field, particularly after he was introduced as the greatest batting practice pitcher of all time. And Clay Council made Derby winner Allan Dykstra look good.
Council’s most famous hitting pupil, Josh Hamilton, knew he would.
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“He has one slot,” Hamilton said last week. “And it’s a good slot.”
Hamilton helped make Council famous that night in New York, long after Council helped make Hamilton the hitter he is.
Council coached Josh’s older brother, Jason. Josh tagged along to batting practice. That’s when and how Council met Josh. Council, a former minor league catcher who has coached teams in Cary and Raleigh for decades, threw batting practice to everybody – and still does – but he saw something in Josh. Even then.
In separate interviews, both told stories of Hamilton losing dozens of Council’s baseballs, hitting home runs into the trees at Cary High.
“Yeah, quite a few,” Hamilton said. “But the bad thing was, when we’d lose them, growing up we had to go find them, as much as we could. In the woods.”
Hamilton always had help, though: Council was looking, too.
Over time, their relationship grew. As Hamilton got bigger and the home runs traveled farther, those sessions ended with the same message.
“I’d say, ‘Look guys, the way y’all are hitting me, if you ever get to the big show, hit in a home run derby, or want to look good, let me know. Y’all hit me hard,’ ” Council said, taking a quick break from coaching a summer camp at Athens. “ ‘We’re going to do it, coach. We’re going to do it.’ Josh always ended with the same thing: ‘If I ever get to the bigs, home run derby, you’re going to pitch.’ ”
Said Hamilton: “Story was when I was 12 years old, I told him if I ever entered a home run derby, I’d like him to throw to me. So it was pretty special when I was able to call and ask him if he wanted to do it.”
When Hamilton called in 2008, Council was scared out of his mind.
“Josh said, ‘How would you like to throw in Yankee Stadium?’ ” Council said. “I said, ‘Man, that’s a little bit out of my comfort zone.’ I said, ‘How many do you think will be there?’ He said, ‘About 55,000 and millions more on TV.’
“I said I might have a heart attack. He said, ‘We’ll have a medical staff on alert.’ ”
Council paused long enough to spit some chewing tobacco before re-engaging in the conversation.
“Can you imagine throwing in Yankee Stadium? I said, ‘Josh, what if I get out there, choke up and can’t throw a strike?’ He said, ‘So be it. I want you to throw.’ ”
That concept, of course, is ridiculous to anyone who has watched Council throw. Council is so accurate he used to tell Hamilton to hold out his bat, and he’d hit it. He demonstrated for Rick Reilly, and hit the bat on the first pitch.
Council has thrown millions of batting practice fastballs. He has never done the math, but it breaks down something like this: 300 pitches, at least four days for 40 weeks for nearly 60 years.
“I wish I had a penny for every one I threw,” he joked.
There is a 60-year secret to his success, too; the reason Hamilton felt so comfortable facing him again.
“Same speed, same location,” Council said. “Sometimes I brag on myself. I hit the bat pretty good. If you swing in the same spot, I’ll make you look good.
“Occasionally if I throw a ball, I’ll say, ‘I lost it. I lost it.’ But I’m 77 years old and I’ve been throwing BP for 60 years. I believe I could do it blind-folded.”
But the major league home run derby was different. Yankee Stadium isn’t Athens Drive or Cary High. Picture the scene in Hoosiers, when Gene Hackman comforts his small-town basketball players by having them measure the height of the goal, length of the free-throw line. Same game, bigger gym.
Council said he rode with Hamilton and other All-Stars to Yankee Stadium, spent time in the dugout. As the moment drew near, Council nervously approached Hamilton.
“I said, ‘Josh, I made a mistake. I’m terrified.’ He said, ‘Let’s go pray.’ ”
So Hamilton and Council walked into an equipment room, where Hamilton, acting as Hackman, quickly broke the tension.
“Josh said, ‘God, please give Clay the strength to get through this, not have a nervous breakdown or heart attack,’ ” Council recalled. “I said, ‘Amen. Amen to that, brother.’ ”
Council knew if he could just get the first pitch over, not bounce it 5 feet short of the plate or over the catcher’s head, a lifetime of muscle memory would conquer all nerves.
“First pitch was right … down … the … middle,” Council said. “Of course he took it, you know, to get his timing.”
The second pitch split the heart of the plate as well.
“And he hit it into the third deck,” Council said. “Then he got into that 13 straight, and the crowd started chanting Ham-il-ton, Ham-il-ton. From then on I could enjoy it. … (ESPN’s) Erin Andrews interviewed me, that was worth the trip right there.”
Hamilton hit a record 28 homers in the first round and advanced to the final, which meant another round and another 40 pitches for Council.
He watched one more Monday night, Dykstra’s towering shot that landed deep in the seats in right-center. Before the season, the Durham Bulls called Council and asked if he’d like to throw the championship round of the Triple-A Home Run Derby.
His answer? “If I’m living, I’ll be there. I’m looking forward to that.”
Monday’s round was merely the latest, but health willing, it’ll be nowhere near the last.
“The arm still feels great,” Council said, smiling. “Can’t say that for the rest of the body, though.”
Council embraces his celebrity status. A few weeks after throwing to Hamilton in the 2008 Home Run Derby, Hamilton’s team, the Texas Rangers, asked him to throw BP during their team derby. He then played in their alumni game.
Hamilton left the Rangers in 2012 and signed with the Angels. Last summer, Council visited. Hamilton introduced him to his manager, Mike Scioscia, who had a request.
“Next time you come to a game,” Council said, “arrive early and throw BP to our team. I said, ‘Are you serious?’ He said, ‘Yeah, man. You can throw any time you’re here.’ ”
For a while, it seemed everywhere Hamilton went, Council went, too. ESPN’s Andrews ran into Hamilton a few years after the Derby and asked about Council. Hamilton couldn’t wait to share that nugget.
“She asked, ‘How’s your buddy Clay?’ ” Council said, grinning again. “I said, ‘She did not.’ Josh said, ‘Yes she did. … How’s your buddy Clay?’
“I got more claim to fame out of that hour’s pitching than I did 40-some years of coaching high school, legion. One hour in Yankee Stadium is my claim to fame.”
Not to those who know him best. Not to Hamilton. The bright lights of Yankee Stadium were magical, but the real magic is Council’s dedication to helping others in the Triangle achieve their baseball dreams.
“That’s his life, he just spends time out on the fields, gets to know the kids, throws batting practice to them, that’s what he does,” Hamilton said. “There’s things people enjoy, things that people look forward to. Helps them continue to get up in the morning. Baseball is his life. Says a lot about him, how much he’s given back to the community, to the kids. Never wanted nothing for it … just one of those guys. Just enjoys doing it.” Orange County Register Angels beat writer Jeff Fletcher interviewed Josh Hamilton for this story.