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Thou Shalt Steal

Billy Hamilton is waiting.

It's mid-July, and the 22-year-old outfield prospect for the Cincinnati Reds is standing at baggage claim in the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, in town to play in the upcoming 2013 Triple-A All-Star game. Hamilton has already racked up 52 stolen bases by the mid-season break, 13 more than the next best total in Triple-A, yet a far cry from last year’s record-setting pace. As the bags tumble and wade around a lazy steel river, Hamilton hears his name being called.

He turns to see an unfamiliar man approaching him, something Hamilton has experienced with more and more regularity. He gained unexpected celebrity in 2012 after breaking the record for most stolen bases in a minor league season. He's since met the likes of veteran ball players such as Torii Hunter and celebrities such as Ashanti, in addition to those growing number of fan interactions onset by one-sided recognition. 

As the stranger approaches, he asks, “Are you Billy Hamilton?”

“Yes,” Hamilton replies, in his typically reserved tone.

“I’m Vince Coleman.”

A wide smile spreads across Hamilton’s face. It's his first time meeting the man whose record he broke, a man who once owned the label Hamilton is often tagged with today: fastest man in baseball.

The two exchange pleasantries for only a brief moment, but still long enough for Coleman to sneak in some sage wisdom. It’s a philosophy that guided Coleman throughout a 13-year career as one of baseball’s most prolific base stealers. 

“Don’t let them stop you. Don’t let them intimidate you,” Coleman instructs Hamilton. “You steal every time you get on.”

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“Base-running is such a lost art,” says Coleman. When he entered the league in 1985, it was an integral component of the game. Steroids had yet to muscle out the impact of speed, with teams stealing bases with far greater regularity. In ’85, major league teams averaged just 0.12 more home runs than steals per game, a significantly smaller gap than the steroid-inflated numbers of the late 1990s.

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But as the steroid era dies a loud, sloppy death, steals are again becoming more prevalent in the sport. In both 2011 and 2012, the average number of stolen bases per team topped 100, marking the first time the century mark had been reached in back-to-back seasons since 1998 and 1999. It's also resulted in people like Vince Coleman—who was brought in this year by the Houston Astros as an outfield/base-running coach—being sought out to teach players the value of solid base-running skills.

“Don’t get picked off, don’t get doubled up on line drives, don't make the first or third out at third base—that’s the 'how-not-to' coach,” says Coleman. “I’m the 'how-to' coach. I’m going to teach you how to get a lead, how to feel the balls of your feet, how to be in great athletic position once that ball is in the hitting surface.”

Coleman stresses the importance of always being in an athletic position in order to maintain your balance and not get caught flat-footed.

“The key to stealing bases is getting an aggressive lead; stay there, be daring, don’t let them intimidate you,” Coleman says. 

Part of that resolve comes from the art of reading pitchers. For Hamilton, it's a process that begins before the game even starts. He watches bullpen sessions to memorize a pitcher’s natural rhythm and throwing motion, making it easier in a game to detect when the pitcher changes that motion with a slide step or pickoff move.

“On first base, I’m really just watching [the pitcher] to make sure he comes set,” says Hamilton. “Watch his back foot. When it moves, I move.”

There are plenty of speedy players, but it's those nuances, those idiosyncrasies that set base runners like Hamilton and Coleman apart.

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Vince Coleman wasn't always fast, but he was always taking chances. As a teenager growing up in Jacksonville, he'd poke his head into Sunday School just long enough for his aunt to check in and see him before he scurried off to a nearby ballpark, playing pickup games with castoffs from Negro League tryouts. There, he attempted to replicate the speed and savvy of players like Lou Brock, Pete Rose, and baseball’s career leader in stolen bases, Rickey Henderson.

But the speed that Coleman would later become famous for had yet to manifest. So when it came time to attend college, Coleman chose to walk on to the football and baseball teams at Florida A&M, a Division II school located about two miles south of Florida State University's campus in Tallahassee. That’s when he found the bleachers.

Less than a week after graduating high school in 1978, Coleman was in FSU’s Doak Campbell Stadium, which at the time had recently expanded to seat nearly 48,000 fans. (It has since nearly doubled its capacity to 82,300.) Coleman knew that in order to succeed on both the baseball diamond and the gridiron, he needed to get stronger and faster. (Proof? Coleman wasn't walking on the football team as a speedy skill position player, but rather, like his cousin before him, as a kicker and punter.)

Determined, Coleman ran the steps of the stadium every day in the sweltering Florida summer with Army boots on his feet. “If you don’t get up on your toes running those bleachers, you’re going to fall on your face,” Coleman says. “That helps you develop a stride. And once you develop a stride, and you’ve got power and you’ve got strength, you can run all day.”

And run he did.

In 1981, Coleman led Division II with 63 stolen bases in 62 games. Professional scouts in attendance—primarily there to evaluate higher-profile teammates, like Hank Aaron’s son Larry—began to take notice of the 6-foot, 170-pound blur wreaking havoc on the base paths. A year later, Coleman was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals, but not until the 10th round, a slight (as far as he was concerned) that only served to fan his doubter-fueled fire. “I played with a chip on my shoulder,” Coleman says. “Every day when I hit that ballpark, I'm going to prove to you why I’m the best.”

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Billy Hamilton, however, was always fast. In fact, he can't remember a time when he was not the fastest player on the team, be it in baseball or football. Hamilton grew up an hour southeast of Jackson in Taylorsville, Mississippi, with a population just north of 1,300. It’s generally assumed, being a small town in SEC country and all, but the stereotype holds true: Taylorsville is a football-first city. Hamilton obliged his civic duty, playing wide receiver at Taylorsville High School, but he was drawn to the game of baseball thanks in large part to the talented Atlanta Braves squads of the late 1990s and early 2000s. “I really liked watching Rafael Furcal play,” Hamilton said. “Just watching those guys—Chipper Jones—it made me want to play.”

In 2009, Hamilton had a decision to make. He was selected in the second round of the amateur draft by Cincinnati Reds, who offered a signing bonus of $623,600. Yet the option of playing SEC football close to home at Mississippi State still lingered.

Ultimately, Hamilton's family understood that baseball was his first love, with Hamilton opting to take his speed to the base paths of rookie ball in Sarasota, Florida.

Only 18 years old, Hamilton endured his share of growing pains one would expect of a player only weeks removed from high school. He was learning how to switch-hit and read professional pitchers. In 43 games that first season, Hamilton managed a paltry .205 batting average, with nine extra-base hits and a pedestrian 14 stolen bases. 

In 2010, Hamilton moved up to the Reds advanced rookie ball team in Billings, Montana. He arrived at camp unsure of himself, a detriment to any baseball player, but particularly for a base stealer. There's a certain mindset, a cockiness that is necessary to successfully and fearlessly rack up stolen bases. It's no coincidence that a few of baseball’s greatest base stealers also double as a few of the game's biggest egos. Hamilton, on the other hand, was still a soft-spoken teenager from rural Mississippi.

Delino DeShields—Billings's first-year manager and stealer of 463 bases during a 13-year major league career—noticed the uncertainty in the wispy infielder and approached Hamilton early in the season. “You’re going to be a base stealer,” DeShields told him. “You don’t really know how fast you are, do you?”

It sparked a confidence in Hamilton that translated into on-field productivity. Under DeShields’s tutelage, Hamilton swiped 48 bags in 69 games while posting a .318 batting average, .383 on-base percentage, and .456 slugging percentage. Baseball America, a baseball magazine that covers the sport across all levels of competition, vaulted Hamilton to the top of the Reds prospect rankings before the 2011 season, rating him second behind only Aroldis Chapman, the damn-near-mythical flamethrower. The following year, Hamilton continued his steady on-field improvement, stealing 103 bases for Class-A Dayton.

By 2012, the now-confident speedster was poised to break onto the national scene.

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With three weeks remaining in the 1983 season—Vince Coleman’s first full year in professional baseball—the fleet-footed outfielder was tallying steals at a record pace for the Cardinals Class-A affiliate in Macon, Georgia. “I wasn’t no great hitter,” Coleman says, “but goddammit, whenever I got on base, you was in trouble.”

Despite missing a few weeks with an injured wrist, Coleman was on pace to easily surpass the previous minor league record of 123 stolen bases in a season, set two years earlier by Philadelphia Phillies prospect Jeff Stone. 

But Coleman wasn't the only prolific base stealer in the minors that year. Roughly 2,000 miles away in Bakersfield, California, Seattle Mariners prospect Donell Nixon was setting the exact same pace. As the season was winding down, Coleman made it a point to check the papers every day to see how he many steals he needed to keep the lead. Nixon ended the year with 144 stolen bases, finishing up his '83 season the day before Coleman’s final game. Coleman entered that contest against the Greenwood Pirates in Greenwood, South Carolina, with 142 steals. The team gathered before the first pitch to go over the gameplan, which was focused entirely on ensuring that Coleman broke the record.

But when he reached base the first time and readied to steal, the opposing pitcher had other ideas. “He knew I was going and there was nothing he could do to stop me, so he hit the next batter,” says Coleman. He remained undeterred, promptly swiping third base instead. Coleman's next time up, facing a new pitcher, he walked for the second time before quickly stealing second, tying him with Nixon at 144. And a few pitches later, in front of a reportedly robust crowd of about 135 at Greenwood’s Legion Park, Coleman snagged third, cementing his place in the record books.

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Like Coleman, Hamilton had no idea he was even approaching the record until midway through the 2012 season. Hamilton had never even heard the name Vince Coleman, and he certainly had no one to challenge him the way Nixon did with Coleman back in '83.

But while Hamilton was in Winston-Salem for the 2012 California-Carolina All-Star Game, someone pointed out to him that he was on pace to break the steals record. Fresh off a five-steal game, Hamilton entered the All-Star break with an incredible 80 stolen bags. The pace seemed nearly impossible maintain, especially considering the fact that Hamilton was rapidly outgrowing his competition in Class-A ball. He was soon called up to join the Reds Double-A affiliate, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos.

“I get called up to Double-A, and a bunch of guys were like ‘He ain’t gonna do it in Double-A. He’s not going to get that many in Double-A,’” Hamilton says. “So I just had to show off.”

Hamilton proceeded to steal five bases in his first four games with Pensacola, setting the tone for what proved to be his inevitable quest to break Coleman’s record. As Hamilton approached No. 145 late in the season, media attention began to grow. National websites were writing columns about that kid stealing all those bases in the minor leagues. SportsCenter ran highlights of his games. It was a far cry from the footnotes in local newspapers that once declared Coleman’s record.

On August 21, 2012, Hamilton and the Blue Wahoos faced off against the Montgomery Biscuits, needing three stolen bases to break the record. His first came in the bottom of the first inning when he swiped third. He then tied the record two innings later, stealing second. And moments later, on an 0-2 count, Hamilton darted off for third, sliding head-first into the bag, the newly crowned single-season king of stolen bases in all of minor league history.

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Hamilton would add 10 more stolen bases to close out the season, bumping his record up to 155. It's a nearly unfathomable number considering there was only one major league team in 2012 that stole more than 155 bases collectively in a 162-game season. Hamilton reached the mark all by himself in only 132 contests.

But this season hasn't been as sterling as that summer night against the Biscuits. After playing exclusively in the infield his entire life, Hamilton moved to the outfield in 2013. It didn't come as a complete shock; coaches had suggested he try shagging fly balls midway through the previous year. He started the 2013 season in Triple-A Louisville as a centerfielder and experienced some initial difficulties adjusting to the advanced level of play, hitting just .205 in April. But slowly, Hamilton has rounded into form, bumping his average up to .259 on the season. His stock has slipped some as he continues to adjust to hitting from the left side of the dish. The speed hasn't waned a bit though, with Hamilton leading both the International and Pacific Coast leagues with 72 steals, 26 more than second-place Dee Gordon of the Albuquerque Isotopes.

Coleman, meanwhile, is relishing every minute of being back in the game. He claims that Hamilton breaking his record wasn't the cause of his itch to return to the sport, but rather that it was simply a serendipitous call from Astros general manager (and former Cardinals executive) Jeff Lunhow. Still, having his name stirred up certainly didn't hurt. He's now welcoming a new and hopefully steroid-free era of baseball that will once-again place an emphasis on base stealing.

“I was one of the premier, dominant base stealers in the game, an everyday player, and I got pushed out because of the steroid era,” Coleman says, flashing the self-proclaimed cockiness that served him well as a big leaguer. “Speed, I never lost. I still got speed. I could steal a couple bases right now,” Coleman says, only half-joking. “But maybe not 100.”

And while Hamilton has already broken one of Coleman’s records, the young minor leaguer still has a few more to go. Coleman currently holds the major league record for most consecutive seasons of 100 stolen bases or more (3), and most consecutive stolen bases without being thrown out (50), a record Coleman believes is nearly unbreakable.

In order to chase those records, Hamilton first needs to get called up to the big leagues. He was disappointed that his record-setting season last year did not end in a September call-up to the big leagues, and he's hopeful that he'll get to make the trip to Cincinnati this fall.

For now, Billy Hamilton is still waiting. 

 

Photograph courtesy Pat Pfister