• The statistics are truly amazing for a player making the jump from the Short-Season A-ball all the way to the major league level, but, that isn’t why the story of Cincinnati Reds center fielder Josh Hamilton is a movie waiting to be made. The fact that Hamilton has seized a job in the Reds’ starting lineup and is a strong early candidate for National League Rookie of the Year is just a small part of his incredible story.

    Hamilton was made the first overall pick by the Devil Rays in the 1999 June amateur draft after a career in which he excelled as both a hitter and a pitcher at Athens Draft High School in Raleigh, N.C., where he was by all accounts the All-American boy, a kid who didn’t smoke, drink, or even attend parties. However, Hamilton’s life and not just his career spiraled downward once he got into professional baseball. He became addicted to crack cocaine and wound up being suspended for three seasons from 2003-05 by Major League Baseball for violating its drug policy. Hamilton finally got back on the field last season with the Devil Rays’ Hudson Valley farm club in the New York-Penn League, and hit just .260/.327/.360 in 15 games before undergoing season-ending knee surgery.

    Despite the thin resume and ugly past, the Reds were intrigued by Hamilton’s raw ability. Thus, they arranged a deal at the winter meeting in which the Chicago Cubs selected Hamilton from Tampa Bay in the Rule 5 draft and sold his contract to the Reds; the Rays failed to protect him on the 40-man roster, perhaps figuring that his track record would keep from being piced.

    As a Rule 5 player, Hamilton must stay on the major-league roster all season or be offered back to the Devil Rays for half the $50,000 draft price. There’s now little chance of that. “He’s one of our best players,” said Reds utilityman Ryan Freel, who began the season as the center fielder before yielding to Hamilton. “He’s a superstar waiting to happen.” Only 25, Hamilton is hitting .288/.391/.661with six home runs in 19 games. He is living up to that great potential he showed back in his high school days in Raleigh before descending into a personal hell.

    “I’ve always been confident in my abilities as a baseball player,” Hamilton said. “Still, I’ve hardly played for four years, so I don’t know if anybody really knew what to expect. I felt once I knocked the rust off and got back into the routine of playing every day that I could be successful. Yet, I didn’t think it would happen this quickly. I just feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to be in the major leagues and especially fortunate to be getting the chance to play.”

    Hamilton has made the most of the opportunity, hitting his sixth homer in just 46th at-bat. Only four other active major-leaguers reached six homers faster in their careers:

    PLAYER, TEAM               SEASON(S)  AB
    Carlos Delgado, Blue Jays  1993-94    32
    Jeff Francoeur, Braves     2005       40
    Matt Kemp, Dodgers         2006       40
    Craig Wilson, Pirates      2001       44

    Hamilton is also on pace to hit his tenth homer before his 100th at-bat. Shane Spencer set the major league record by hitting 10 in 66 at-bats for the Yankees in 1998, and is one of only five players to do so in under 100 at-bats since 1985:

    PLAYER, TEAM               SEASON(S)  AB
    Shane Spencer, Yankees     1998       66
    Kevin Maas, Yankees        1990       77
    Benny Agbayani, Mets       1998-99    88
    Mike Jacobs, Mets          2005       91
    Sam Horn, Red Sox          1987       99

    Jacobs is the only player still active, and is in his second season as Florida’s starting first baseman after being acquired in a trade from the Mets. The other four eventually flamed out without making much of an impact.

    Whether Hamilton will break that trend remains to be seen, but he has learned not to look too far into the future. After all, he is a recovering drug addict, a situation that causes him to lead a lifestyle quite a bit different than the typical major-league player. “I never carry more than $20 in my pocket ,and my wife and I only have one vehicle in Cincinnati, and she is in charge of it,” Hamilton said. “That’s the best way to go, because it reduces the temptations. You can’t buy drugs with only $20, and I won’t have the urge to drive around and possibly find trouble if I don’t have the keys.”

  • While Barry Bonds continues his pursuit of Hank Aaron‘s all-time home run record, he realizes that he may not hold the title long. He knows Alex Rodriguez is quickly moving up the charts with a torrid April. The 42-year-old Bonds has hit eight home runs for the Giants this season to raise his career total to 742, just 13 behind Aaron. Rodriguez leads the major leagues with 14 homers for the Yankees, lifting his career total to 478 at the age of 31.

    Despite cooling a bit this past week, Rodriguez is on pace to hit an implausible 103 homers this season, but even a slower pace from here on out, he could shatter Bonds’ single-season mark of 73 set in 2001. Bonds said he would have no problem with relinquishing his six-year hold on that record. “I would be ecstatic if he broke the record. It wouldn’t bother me one bit,” Bonds said. “Records are what the game is about because excitement brings people to the stadium. Somebody else does it, that’s awesome. Go on, A-Rod, do your damn thing. Keep that look in your eyes because it’s solid. … It’s great. It’s phenomenal to watch. I hope he hits 100, I really do.”

    Bonds certainly doesn’t care if Rodriguez would supplant him as the all-time leader. “I hope he does that, too,” Bonds said. “I don’t care. I’m happy with me. I’m happy with what I do. Whatever that is, I’m happy with it. Whatever someone else does, I’ll be happy for them, too.”

  • While Bonds is thriving at 42, a couple of left-handed pitchers, Arizona’s Randy Johnson and San Diego’s David Wells, are still plugging along in their 40s. Johnson and Wells helped set an admittedly obscure record when they faced each other last Tuesday at Chase Field in Phoenix as their combined age of 87 years, 200 days was the oldest ever by a pair of lefty starters in a major-league game. The old record stood just 12 days as the New York MetsTom Glavine and Philadelphia’s Jamie Moyer were a combined 85 years, 163 days when they faced each other April 12.

    “At least, I can still go out and compete,” said Wells, who was 43 years, 339 days on the day of the record-setting game. Wells got the win despite allowing five runs and eight hits in five innings. Johnson struggled in his first start of the year after beginning the season on the disabled list while recovering from off-season back surgery as he gave up six runs and six hits in five innings.

    Johnson will make his second start today at home against San Francisco. “Overall I was pretty happy, but there is still a mountain to climb,” Johnson said. “My velocity was fine. I have to have better location. Spring training is over. I’m looking for results. When I did give up hits, there were extra base runners on base. I like to think my endurance will be a lot better and my location will stay with me a little better as time goes on.”

  • If San Diego shortstop Khalil Greene played every game away from Petco Park, he might be the National League’s Most Valuable Player. And f Los Angeles Angels right-hander Ervin Santana pitched every game at Edison Field he might be the American League’s Cy Young Award winner.

    Since breaking into the major leagues in 2003, Greene has hit .279/.341/.516 on the road but a paltry .232/.299/.361 at home. Wells and former Padres manager Bruce Bochy, now with San Francisco, believe Greene’s struggles at home are mental. However, Greene disagrees. “It’s more physical,” Greene told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “When you hit a ball in most places, it gets to the gap. It’s going to be a double or a home run. At home, you don’t see it as much.”

    On the other hand, Santana is 21-5 with a 3.01 ERA in 31 career home starts, but a dismal 9-14 with a 6.77 ERA in 28 starts away from Anaheim. “I think it’s more about stuff and approach and getting comfortable in a game than whether he’s wearing a white or gray uniform,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia told the Los Angeles Times. “Ervin needs to take this basic package on the road and get more consistent with it before he tries to expand his repertoire.”

From the rumor mill: Despite his comments to the contrary, those around the Yankees are convinced Rodriguez will opt out of the final three years and $81 million remaining on his 10-year, $252-million contract, and become a free agent at the end of the season. Rodriguez will likely be looking for a seven-year deal in the $140-175 million range. … Speaking of players not coming back to The Bronx, there are many who believe oft-injured right-hander Carl Pavano-the ‘American Idle’ as the New York Post‘s George King refers to him-has pitched his last game in Yankees pinstripes. … Continuing on the subject of players not returning in 2008, chances are good that Mark Prior has pitched his final game with the Cubs after undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery this past week. … The Cubs are also likely to have a new shortstop in 2008. Manager Lou Piniella has fallen in love with the play of scrappy utility man Ryan Theriot, and he will likely replace Cesar Izturis, who has a $5.45-million club option for next season that probably won’t be picked up. … Detroit would like to add a left-handed reliever to take the place of Jamie Walker, who left for Baltimore as a free agent last winter, and are reportedly eyeing the Cubs’ Will Ohman and Texas’ C.J. Wilson in possible pick-ups. … Reclamation project Sidney Ponson is 1-3 with an 8.44 ERA in his first four starts for Minnesota, and in danger of losing his spot in the rotation. The Twins have plenty of younger options, including left-hander Glen Perkins in their bullpen and lefty Kevin Slowey and right-handers Scott Baker and Matt Garza at Triple-A Rochester. … Pittsburgh says Salomon Torres is still the closer although he has blown three of 10 save opportunities and has a 7.36 ERA after 12 relief appearances this season. However, the Pirates also know they have other closing options in their bullpen, including young right-handers Matt Capps and Jonah Bayliss, along with veteran righty Shawn Chacon, who had 36 saves for Colorado in 2003 (but also a 7.11 ERA). … Tampa Bay won’t announce anything until after the season, but look for a nickname change from Devil Rays to either Ray or Sun Rays in 2008, along in a switch of color schemes from the current green and black to a likely yellow-and-blue combination.

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