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Billy Hamilton Is Keepin' It 100

The Steroid Era killed base stealing. The "new" Billy will bring it back.

By J.R. Gamble September 26, 2012, 11:21 AM EST

Billy_hamilton_stolen_base

Billy Hamilton is a name synonymous with trendsetting base – stealers in baseball.  The stolen base has always been an exciting and crowd –pleasing play, but its importance has fluctuated throughout the sport’s evolution.

The “old” Billy Hamilton is a 19th century stolen base pioneer. He is one of just three players, along with Rickey Henderson and  Vince Coleman , with three seasons of 100 or more steals  “Sliding William”, as he was called, swiped 937 bases,  3rd all-time in MLB history. He established the stolen base as a potent offensive weapon in the early stages of baseball’s modern era.  Then Babe Ruth came along. He made it all about the homerun, until exciting base stealers like 9-time stolen base champ Luis Aparicio, Maury Wills and Lou Brock dashed onto the scene. Their aggressive base running made the steal a big deal again.

Then The Steroid Era, which began in the mid 90’s, once  again increased baseball’s reliance on home runs and made big-time base stealers, a thing of the past.  Managers felt no need to use risky tactics like stealing, the hit-and-run and sacrifice bunting. 

These days, managers are retooling their run-producing strategies.  As the Steroid Era comes to an end, homers are down again. Teams built on pitching and speed like the Tampa Bay Rays are competing with homer-heavy teams like The Yankees.

 Emerging from this philosophical shift is the “new” Billy Hamilton.  Hamilton, a Cincinnati Reds prospect, stole baseball’s spotlight, swiping an eye-popping 155 bases and smashing Coleman’s 1983 minor league record of 145.  Hamilton, who split his 132 games between Single A Bakersfield and Double A Pensacola,  has the rare combination of speed and flair that Henderson displayed while stealing a record 130 bases for the Oakland A’s in 1982.  

The baseball Gods must have foreseen extinction for the stolen base and like sunshine on a cloudy day, blessed us with a modern day Billy Hamilton. The “new” Hamilton’s gaudy steals numbers are a throwback to the players whose ridiculous speed helped shape baseball throughout the years.

The great base stealers like Billy Hamilton – doesn’t matter which one – can just mash up a game and wreck a pitcher with speedy, controlled chaos. I miss the classic cat and mouse games between pitcher, catcher, runner and coach. Deft base stealers distract hurlers into wild pitches and pressure managers to do things like give up strikes to call pitch outs. The stolen bases’ biggest stage is usually the low-scoring playoffs, when every run counts.  Managers get desperate. Games change quickly. The most non- descript base stealers can have an all-star impact on a game. For example, in the 04’ ALCS, utility  player Dave Roberts clutch  9th-inning  steal helped the Red Sox beat the Yankees, becoming the first team in baseball history to come back from a 3-0 series deficit. Roberts’ base path spunk also helped The Red Sox break an 86-year World Series drought that season.  His crucial and timely swipe is referred to as  “The Steal”. Moments like that haven’t happened nearly enough in recent years. There are a few cats in baseball still running and carrying on tradition. Atlanta’s Michael Bourn has led the NL in steals every year since 2009, swiping 61 twice.  Miami Marlins shortstop Jose Reyes  is always a threat. The three-time stolen base champ  swiped 78 bases in 2007 for  The Mets. Reyes is the only player to swipe more than 75 bases since Marquis Grissom stole 78 for Montreal in 1992.

Rookie sensation Mike Trout of the Angels, is leading the American League in steals and batting average. His rare combination of speed and power has magazines like Sports Illustrated  already putting him in all-time discussions.  His dual talents favor Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, a two-time MVP, who swiped a whopping 689 bases but also slugged 449 doubles and 268 homers in a 22 year career.

It’s rare that you find blazing speed and incredible power in one player. Baseball’s 40-40 club is one of the most prestigious clubs in baseball history with just four guys ever hitting 40 homers and swiping 40 bags in the same season. Jose Canseco was the first in 1988. Then A-Rod, Barry Bonds and Alfonso Soriano did it.

Stolen bases have always been a double-edged sword throughout the history of baseball. The steal can run you out of an inning. Or it can lift you to a stunning win. Old school players like Ty Cobb, who still holds the record for most steals of home with 54,  the “old “Billy Hamilton and  Negro Leagues great Cool Papa Bell, set  the standard for using base stealing as a debilitating offensive weapon. Legend has it; Bell was so fast that he circled the bases once in 12 seconds flat.

The Negro Leagues was the place to be for black ballplayers before Jackie Robinson integrated MLB in 1947. Once the flood gates opened, the influx of fast and gifted base runners,  took the steal to another level.

Robinson’s speed-heavy style inspired a new era of fleet-footed players like Willie Mays, Aparicio and Wills, who broke Cobb’s modern single-season record by swiping 104 bags in 1962.

Despite racial tensions, Robinson’s defiance and tenacity on the base paths was mythical. The way he planted on the balls of his feet, took a huge lead and could advance to any base on a bunt was insane.

Willie Mays wasn’t your typical base stealer. He is regarded by many as the best all-around baseball player in history.  People didn’t just come to the park to see Mays hit dingers, which  he did 660 times,  4th most in MLB history. Fans also came to see Mays sprint the bases and chase down fly balls. The image of a grimacing Mays grinding around the bases with his hat flying off into the wind, are part of baseball lore. 

 St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lou Brock turned it up another notch in the 1970s by breaking Wills record with 118 steals in 1974.  The stolen base was an integral part of baseball by the time Henderson came on the scene and shut the game down. Henderson has no equals, finishing his career with a sick 1406 stolen bases. He’s the only man to ever steal over 1,000 bases, averaging 56 steals per year over his 25 year career. Brock is a distant second to Henderson all-time with 938. Long before Kurt Warner ever threw a ball to Marshall Faulk or Torry Holt, Henderson was the original “greatest show on turf”.   

Then gradually illegal performance enhancing drugs became the stolen bases’ demise. Years later, baseball is still searching for the next great base stealer. In the “new” Billy Hamilton we  have a  solid candidate, and a player who wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous in a steals suppressed era. He is 6-1, 160 pounds and doesn’t hit for power. Speed is his asset.  It’s what elevates him from normal player to lethal weapon status.  

 Most fans love nothing more than  watching  players like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds crush long-standing homerun records, but If the Steroid Era has taught us anything, it’s that style points count in baseball too.  The stolen base, despite its risks, adds nail-biting drama and thrilling unpredictability to the sport.

Similar to a center with a soft jumper in basketball, the ability to steal bases adds luster to a player’s game. Traditionally the stolen base turns high defense- low average players like Ozzie Smith and Otis Nixon, into featured weapons in a lineup. Low power, solid average players like Willie Wilson,

Kenny Lofton and Tim Raines, who stole 808 career bases , became the ultimate table setters.  Whatever they lacked in power they made up for with bunts, walks, infield singles and electric hustle. Once they were on base they knew turning a single into a double or a double into a triple was a strong possibility.

Now that the stolen base is bouncing back, due to stronger testing policies and heavy suspensions being levied on drug cheats, the stage is set for Billy Hamilton – Usain Bolt in cleats – to pioneer the resurgence.

According to Joe Sheehan of S.I.com in 1992 there were, about 1.15 stolen base attempts per team game.  A steal was attempted about 12 percent of the time that a runner reached first base. In 2000, teams were looking to swipe a bag .87 times a game, a drop of nearly 25 percent.  Teams only ran 8.6 % of the time a runner was on first base.  Midway thru the 2011 season, steals rebounded to .94 per team game. Attempts have risen to a rate of nearly 10 percent of the time that a runner reaches first.

Hamilton seems to have the two-step to get this stolen base party started right He has the name and the cyclical flow of history on his side.  Hamilton still has work to do before being crowned the new Sultan of Swipe.  Making the Reds roster next Spring Training would be a good start.  Reds manager Dusty Baker is quoted as saying Hamilton “will be a tremendous force” for the Reds someday. It’s the type of praise usually reserved for young power hitters like Bryce Harper.

Hamilton’s success could also boost base stealing by drawing more young black athletes back to the sport. While base stealing is by no means solely a “black player skill”, 72% of baseball’s stolen base king’s since 1980 have been black.  The exceptions were Quilvio Veras in 95’,  Luis Castillo in 2000 and 02’, Itchiro Suzuki in 2001, Scott Podsednik in 04’, Reyes  from 06’-07’, Willy Taveras in 08’ and Jacoby Ellsbury in 09’.  

It makes sense considering MLB has the lowest percentage of African-American players since the earliest days of sports integration. The African-American population in baseball this season has plummeted to 8.05%, a dramatic decline from 1975, when 27% of rosters were African-American. Rickey Henderson led baseball with 93 steals in 1988. No player has stolen more than 78 bases since. No player has had back –to-back seasons of 60 or more stolen bases since Kenny Lofton did it with 66, 70 and 60 steals from 1992-94.

The stolen base is one of those timeless aspects of baseball that continues to resurface. Bag grabbers like the “old “Billy Hamilton and Cobb became legends  when Rag Time and Blues music ruled.  Guys like Henderson and Brock  glamorized the steal in the 20th century.  Now cats like the "new" Billy Hamilton and Delino DeShields Jr., who swiped 101 bases as an Astros minor leaguer this season, are introducing base stealing at its highest level to the hip-hop dominated 21st century baseball fan.  DeShield’s  Jr. learned his base stealing from his dad  who stole 463 bases in a 13-year MLB career.

The bragadociuos nature of hip-hop makes rappers easily identify with elite home runs kings in baseball. Home run hitters like Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa have been immortalized in numerous hip hop songs. Kanye West and Lil Wayne made a song named “Barry Bonds”.

Hip hop loves the stolen base too. Like rhyming, stealing bases is an art only limited by the ability of its executor. In 2006, current active MLB career steals leader, Juan Pierre received huge props from Jay –Z and Beyonce’ on their smash hit “Déjà Vu”. Jay –Z sets the song’s first verse off in the same way Pierre leads off a game, with purpose, explosion and anticipated funk: 

I used to run base like Juan Pierre/Now I run base hi-hat and a snare”

Pierre wasn’t the first stolen base king to get shine on a classic hip-hop release.  A Tribe Called Quest artist Q-Tip referenced Lou Brock in the 1988 classic cut “Check The Rhyme” off The Low End Theory Album: 

“Okay, if knowledge is the key then just show me the lock/Got the scrawny legs but I move just like Lou Brock/With speed. I'm agile plus I'm worth your while”

If the “new” Billy  Hamilton keeps shattering major league records., he’ll get his share of rap love too.  It’s easy to root for him. He represents a change for the better in baseball. The homerun is no longer the rarest feat in the game. It’s debatable whether it is still the most game-changing feat. The 50-homer season used to be as rare as smoking in restaurants is today.  In the past 15 years we’ve seen players hit 60 homeruns multiple times and even 73 homeruns in a season. The electrifying effect of a stolen base is something we haven’t consistently seen .

Base stealing is a freedom unknown to any other type of baseball play. When they say a player “has the green light”, that means he can steal whenever he wants. Aggressive hitters have to rely on weak pitchers to get off.  Patient hitters rely on tight umpire strike zones to frustrate a pitcher into grooving one. Sluggers make outs more often than contact. Great fielders are at the mercy of the baseball’s bounce. When managers need to get something poppin’, that speedy bench guy becomes the most dangerous weapon on the field. Stolen bases make and break seasons, turn pitchers into goats and give opposing coaches heartburn. Guys like Hamilton, remind you why stolen bases rock. He is the past and future of the stolen base. Like his namesake, the “new” Billy Hamilton should make triple digit steals something young fans can experience and not just read about in a baseball Almanac. He just has to hit the ground running. 

Jr_gamble

J.R. Gamble writes for The Shadow League. He's been covering pro sports as a radio host and journalist since 1996. He's written for The Raleigh News & Observer, Newsday and SLAM Magazine. He has co-hosted Sportsrap Radio with A Tribe Called Quest legend Phife Dawg. Follow him @fanalyst1 & find him on Facebook.

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