Major Leagues: Hamilton leads All-Star newcomers
By Jay Cohen
NEW YORK ó Josh Hamilton was the top pick in the 1999 draft before an addiction to drugs and alcohol knocked him out of baseball and into working construction. Simply getting back to the major leagues seemed like a long shot.
Playing in the All-Star game was the furthest thing from his mind.
Fast forward to Monday, and the Texas Rangers’ slugger was in a midtown hotel ballroom, surrounded by the best players in the American League.
“It’s like being a little kid in a candy store,” Hamilton said. “You don’t know which way to go and who to say ‘Hey’ to. I’m just very excited.”
Hamilton, who leads the majors with 95 RBIs, is one of 28 first-time All-Stars on the rosters for tonight’s Midsummer Classic, the most since 32 in 2003, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
None has taken a more harrowing road to Yankee Stadium.
He will start in center field and bat third in the American League’s powerful lineup. His story of rehabilitation and redemption makes “The Natural” ó of course, one of Hamilton’s favorite movies ó seem quaint.
“It’s a wonderful story,” said Chicago Cubs manager Lou Piniella, one of the coaches on the NL All-Star staff. “He’s`a good kid who lost his way and re-found it.”
Hamilton is one of four AL players and eight total who are starting their first All-Star game in the final year for Yankee Stadium.
The Los Angeles Angels sent two first-timers from their rotation (Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders), and newcomer Cliff Lee of the Cleveland Indians will start for the American League. Hamilton is one of three newcomers from Texas, with Milton Bradley and Ian Kinsler also making the trip alongside five-time All-Star Michael Young.
“If they were saying, you got an invite to the All-Star game but you’ve got to shine the shoes,” Bradley said, “I’ll be like, I’d be shining shoes but I’d have my foot in the door. Just wanted to be a part of the celebration.”
The National League has five first-time outfielders alone, with Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun and Corey Hart, Chicago’s Kosuke Fukudome and two of the biggest surprises of the first half ó Pittsburgh’s Nate McLouth and Ryan Ludwick of St. Louis.
Two of the newcomers were even traded for each other in the offseason: The Rangers sent Edinson Volquez to Cincinnati for Hamilton.
“There’s an influx of great young talent in the game. Some of them are going to get even better before they drop off,” said Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, himself back in the All-Star game for the first time since 2001.
“I think the days, at least in the National League, of the 38-year-old All-Stars are coming to an end.”
None of the newcomers are younger than 22-year-old Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, who started this season in the minors and won the Internet balloting for the final spot on the AL team. He was planning to go to Las Vegas with some buddies over the break but was happy to change his travel plans.
“I try to look down the road and see myself where I want to be,” Longoria said, “and I mean the All-Star game was definitely not something that I foresaw in my future. Maybe putting up good numbers or having a good season, but txis has definitely exceeded all of my expectations.”
Some of the newcomers did some research to prepare for the All-Star festivities. Braun quizzed Ken Griffey Jr. when the Cincinnati Reds were in Milwaukee over the weekend. Giants closer Brian Wilson said teammates Rich Aurilia and Randy Winn told him he needed a dozen baseballs, a bat and an extra batting practice jersey for the autograph room.
“Done,” Wilson said.
Ludwick traveled to New York with Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols and was planning on following the seven-time All-Star’s every move.
“I’m pretty much holding his hand around this whole deal,” Ludwick said with a grin.