KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Now it all makes sense. There had to be something that goads Billy Hamilton into doing everything fast. He talks quicker than John Moschitta Jr.. He eats with breeziness that would make Joey Chestnut blush. And when he runs – well, let's just say Billy Hamilton may run the bases faster than any baseball player in history, Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders included.
"It's the Dew," Hamilton said.
That's right. Forget the amphetamines, the 5-Hour Energy, the Monster, the Red Bull and every other dignity-sucking energy drink. Hamilton kicks it '90s old school. He pounds Mountain Dew like he's a Silicon Valley newbie on a coding bender. And with 104 stolen bases already this season for Bakersfield, the Cincinnati Reds' Class-A affiliate, he is riding the Yellow #5 wave to breaking the single-season stolen-base record in organized ball, Vince Coleman's 145 for Class-A Macon in 1983.
"There's something about Mountain Dew that gets me amped up," Hamilton said. "I feel like if I drink Mountain Dew, everything in my body gets ready to go. It helps me steal bases. Even the coaches will bring it to me."
None of the staff was there to sneak Hamilton his Hit Dew – that's what he calls it when he slugs it in-game – during Sunday's Futures Game, in which he led off and played shortstop in the USA team's 17-5 victory over the World team. He had a typical Billy Hamilton game. There was the groundout in the first inning, during which he eased up and still made it to first base in 4 seconds flat, a silly-fast time – and six-tenths of a second slower than what one veteran scout said he clocked Hamilton at earlier this season, the fastest in his 30-year career. And the error at shortstop, a position at which he may or may not stick.
Then there was the triple.
To watch Hamilton run is to see a finely tuned machine churning in beautiful synchronicity. Each of his pieces and parts flexes and tenses harmoniously, unleashing a torrent of fast-twitch fury. Hamilton drove a ball to center field, which Jae-Hoon Ha misplayed, and off he went, third base a birthright. He slid mostly for show. Sometimes it's as if God couldn't throw out Hamilton.
During his 82 games with Bakersfield – he's off to Double-A Pensacola after Sunday – Hamilton did the impossible enough to render the word meaningless. He stole second with impunity, third carte blanche. Catchers caught him 21 times, but only because he's still not a polished base runner.
One time, Hamilton, 20, stood on third and a teammate chopped a ball back to the pitcher. He looked Hamilton back to third base and threw to first. Hamilton ran anyway. He scored. It was a lot like the time a catcher threw a dropped third strike to first base and Hamilton dashed home from third.
Nothing was quite like April 20. It was 0-0, bottom of the ninth. Hamilton singled, then stole second and third. With one out and the infield drawn in, Juan Duran hit a pop-up. Second baseman Carter Jurica, a San Francisco prospect, wheeled back and caught the ball. Hamilton tagged up and went. On a pop-up to second. And he scored.
"That was it, "said Travis "Moose" Mattair, one of Hamilton's teammates with Bakersfield. "That's when I knew. I played with Anthony Gose in 2009. I thought he was the fastest person I've ever seen. Billy Hamilton blows him away."
Just for fun, Hamilton and Mattair once raced. Hamilton won. Running backward. In spring training, Hamilton, a switch hitter, gapped a ball for an inside-the-park home run that a trainer clocked at 13.9 seconds. Last year, Peter Bourjos, who may be the fastest player in the major leagues, circled the bases in 14.02 seconds.
The stories are told with such certainty they're almost apocryphal. There may not be a player with a tool commensurate to Hamilton's speed – not Bryce Harper's power, not Rick Ankiel's arm, not Brendan Ryan's glove, not Justin Verlander's fastball, not even Mariano Rivera's cutter.
The scouting scale goes from 20 to 80, and Gose, the Toronto Blue Jays center fielder on the short list of the game's speediest behind Hamilton, grades out as an 80.
"If I'm an 80," Gose said, "that means he's a 100."
Hamilton said he never realized how fast he was until he joined the Reds as a second-round pick out of Taylorsville, Miss., in 2009. Everyone from his hometown was fast, he said. He tried to muscle up and hit home runs, even though at 5-foot-11 and 150 pounds they didn't exactly come easy. The Reds figured he would grow into his strengths, and even after struggling to keep his batting average above .200 well into last season, he still stole 103 bases.
His manager then, Delino DeShields, stole 463 bases in the major leagues and tutored Hamilton on technique. And his manager this year, Ken Griffey Sr., tried to break Hamilton of his go-go-go ethos.
"It's in my head to go every pitch," Hamilton said. "I know I can use my speed and get away with things. I need to be smarter about it."
Still, it's not going to keep him from chasing Coleman. "I'm going for it," he said, the perfect answer to Gose's question: "He stole 100 bases in half a season. What else is there to do?"
There is also the promotion. While Hamilton believes he can help the contending Reds today – "If they called me up, I think I'd be ready for it," he said, proof, perhaps, that Mountain Dew also leads to excess confidence – his advancing to Pensacola proved emotional in Bakersfield.
Fans had kept track of Hamilton's stolen-base tally with a flipboard of numbers. Teammates never grew tired of his exploits, trying to figure out what, exactly, he'd do next. See a freak like Billy Hamilton, someone who's sometimes too special for words, and you don't want to let him go.
Before every game, the Bakersfield players sit around while they stretch and say something about their day. Hamilton's last game Friday felt more like a wake than anything. In addition to the 104 stolen bases, he'd batted .323 with a .413 on-base percentage for the aptly named Blaze.
"We were in mourning in our stretch," Mattair said. "It was sad. He's such a big part of this team. We all want success for him, but it was different to see him in his last game."
In the bottom of the first, as if he wanted to give his teammates something by which to remember him on his ascent to the big leagues, Hamilton took a sip of his Hit Dew, slapped a single to center field and then did what the fastest man in baseball – and maybe the fastest ever – does. He stole second base.
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