Billy Hamilton is the only cat in MLB who can outrun a baseball. Most catchers have missiles, but when matched against the lethal legs of the Cincinnati Reds rookie outfielder, even the greatest catchers in the game consider stolen bases an unavoidable cost of doing business with “The Mississippi Marauder.”
The NL Central race has been close all year with the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Reds, hunting playoff spots. At this point, every contending team is looking for an edge, so Hamilton, the record-holder for stolen bases in a minor league season (155), got the call up from Triple-A last Monday.
The pressures of a heated pennant race couldn’t slow Hamilton, who hit the ground blazing. The “Mississippi Marauder” swiped his first MLB bag the next night when he pinch ran and stole second on the Cardinal’s Yadier Molina, one of the best backstops on the planet. Then Hamilton capped the thrills by scoring on a double, which ended up being the lone run in a crucial 1-0 Reds win.
In Saturday’s game he was still schooling cats. Hamilton pinch-ran again, stole second and scored on a hit to center. In his first five games Hamilton has just two at bats, but has scored three runs and stole four bags.
If he gets the playing time, Hamilton can Debo those recent numbers, however, like Coleman, Hamilton is a switch-hitting outfielder with a light stick. Hamilton batted just .256 in 123 games for Louisville this season, but he led the International League with 75 steals. Coleman never batted above .300 in a single season during his 13-year career, but he could slap the ball around and get on base enough to make life hell for pitchers.
As far as the Reds are concerned, the hitting will come, but in the meantime Dusty Baker’s squad has a three-game lead to overcome in the next 15 games. After salvaging the last game of a three-game series with the lowly Chicago Cubs last night, winning the division is an uphill battle that can surely use the pressure Hamilton’s legs puts on opposing pitchers. Chi-Town skipper Dale Sveum didn’t get a heavy dose of “Billy ball,” this week, but he knows it’s coming.
“One thing you learn about speed like that, the more you try to stop it, the more bad pitches you throw,’’ Sveum told the suntimes.com. ‘‘You don’t really stop that kind of speed. Otherwise people would have stopped it.”
In the case of Hamilton, Sveum said you can’t allow yourself to get caught up in something “that has a 99 percent chance to happen anyway.”
You’d have to think Sveum was being facetious, because he’s never been one to concede anything on the diamond, but Hamilton, who steals 5 out of every six bases he wants to grab, is basically good money when he takes off. Everybody knows it.
The stolen base as a weapon of mass destruction on the base paths is in its MLB re-entry stage and so far Hamilton, the anointed torch-bearer, has been everything the scouts predicted. Many have touted “Billy the Slid” as the fastest guy to ever do it. That’s saying a lot considering the swiftness of past lightning legs like Jackie Robinson, Otis Nixon, Maury Wills, Rickey Henderson and Willie Mays.
The swipe against Molina was classic because the 20,000 plus people in attendance knew he was going to steal—and it still wasn’t even close. This wasn’t some part-time catcher, he was toying with, but it doesn’t matter. So when skipper Dusty Baker put him in the game, Hamilton knew it was on like a street fight after open bar at the club.
"(Baker) said, 'I need you to get to second base,'" Hamilton said. "I was like, 'OK, I got you… That's my job, stealing in important situations.”
From the look of things, we can assume the catcher’s job is helplessly watching him do it.