Rick Cleveland

Don’t blink: You’ll miss Mississippi’s Billy Hamilton becoming one of MLB’s best

Cincinnati Reds' Billy Hamilton steals third base against the Chicago Cubs, April 23, in Cincinnati. The Reds won 7-5.
Cincinnati Reds' Billy Hamilton steals third base against the Chicago Cubs, April 23, in Cincinnati. The Reds won 7-5. AP

There’s been no shortage of sports news recently, but the story that intrigued this writer most was under the radar this past weekend – unless you were in Cincinnati. You, as I, might have missed it.

Billy Hamilton of Taylorsville was in the news for stealing the 200th base of his Major League career on Thursday and before the weekend was done he had stolen 203. That’s significant, because he is in only his fourth full season as a Major Leaguer. He is on pace to become one of the sport’s all-time stolen base leaders.

Hamilton was in the news for another reason. He challenged Cincinnati Bengals first round draft choice John Ross to a 40-yard match race for charity. Now that would be fun.

Ross, a wide receiver out of Washington, recently ran a 4.22 40-yard dash, setting the NFL Combine record. Unofficially, that makes him the fastest pro football player on the record. The Bengals then made him the ninth pick of the draft, taking him to Cincinnati where Hamilton reigns as the fastest player in his sport.

Somebody in the Cincinnati media apparently asked Hamilton who was faster, he or Ross. Hamilton, never one to say “no” to an athletic challenge, said essentially “let’s find out.” He suggested a race for charity.

Ross has seemed intrigued, but his coach, Marvin Lewis, was cool on the idea. My money would be on Hamilton, who is surely one of the best all-around athletes to ever come out of the Magnolia State. Hamilton is one of those rare human beings who could make his living in baseball, basketball, football or track and field. You probably could add soccer to that list as well.

Back in 2008-2009, when he was a senior at Taylorsville High, he might have been the best Mississippi high school athlete in football, basketball and baseball. In this age of specialization, when athletes usually concentrate on one sport, Hamilton excelled at all three.

He signed a football scholarship with Mississippi State but opted for professional baseball when the Reds made him the 57th pick of the draft and paid him a $632,000 signing bonus. He has essentially climbed the professional baseball ladder while learning how to play the sport. He didn’t play year-round baseball as a kid because he was also busy playing the other two. His “fall ball” was football.

He signed with the Reds as a right-handed hitting shortstop. He has learned, as a pro, to play centerfield where you can see him most every night making one of the ESPN plays of the day. Also, he has learned to hit from the left side of the plate in order to take more advantage of his blistering speed.

That he has made both adjustments is a testament to his all-around athletic ability. My take: Hamilton could be playing cornerback or wide receiver in the NFL had he chosen that route. He could be playing point guard in the NBA had he chosen hoops. He could be running the sprints in Europe in professional track and field as I type this.

His best sport might have been basketball. These eyes saw him play his last high school hoops games in Mississippi Coliseum when he played for new Ole Miss basketball assistant coach Rahim Lockhart at Taylorsville. Against Coahoma County, Hamilton scored 39 points, passed out nine assists, grabbed six rebounds and had a personal hand in 59 of his team’s 70 points. He was faster while dribbling the basketball than everyone else was without the ball.

I remember asking Lockhart afterward about Hamilton’s future. Said Lockhart: “Baseball’s his first love. Billy just loves to compete and you play more games in baseball.”

Lockhart was right, and it seems Hamilton made the right choice. He makes $2.6 million a year now, and that’s about to go a lot, lot higher. In the meantime, I’d love to see him make some money for charity. In Cincinnati, they should make it happen.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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