Commentary

Hamilton's power display defies explanation

Updated: July 15, 2008, 3:44 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Even before Monday night, the Legend of Josh Hamilton was already an onrushing storybook train, building speed on its way to a Cineplex near you.

But that was before he brought his little magic show to Yankee Stadium, a place where legends are born. And another one sure was born Monday, in a Home Run Derby that won't be soon forgotten by anyone who witnessed it.

Except how are we going to describe what just happened here? Seriously. In a few months, when that Yankee Stadium wrecking ball is swinging and we start spinning the incomprehensible tale of Josh Hamilton, how will we explain this one?

How will we explain a man who didn't even require an actual baseball game to carve his indelible place in Yankee Stadium lore?

How will we explain this night of unforgettable Home Run Derby sorcery, when the gentleman who was already the best story in sports sent 35 baseballs flying into the night, off black seats and billboards and into the hands of upper-deck occupants he could barely see, let alone reward with a souvenir?

Even more than that, how will we explain that this was Hamilton's night even though, technically speaking, somebody else won?

That somebody else was Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, by the way. We'd probably better mention that now before we forget -- because it'll be, oh, about 20 minutes before everyone else forgets. The record will show he won because he outhomered Hamilton in the anticlimactic final round, five homers to three. So we guess he won't be giving back that trophy.
[+] EnlargeJustin Morneau
Scott Rovak/US PresswireJustin Morneau was holding the championship trophy in the end, edging out Josh Hamilton in the final round, five to three.

But this was one of those strange evenings when even the winner didn't feel like he'd won -- possibly because the guy he beat hit 13 more home runs than he did (35-22).

"He was the one who put on the show tonight," Morneau said afterward, at his gracious best. "I think everyone will remember Josh Hamilton's 28 home runs more than they'll remember I won the thing."

Hey, ya think?

They'll remember because Hamilton launched those 28 home runs in one unforgettable round of rocket launchery.

Asked to describe it afterward, Hamilton replied: "Obviously, I've never experienced a groove like that before."

To which we could only offer this observation: Sheez, has anybody?

Nobody had ever hit 28 home runs in one round of Derby-dom before. Heck, only one man (Bobby Abreu, with his 24 bombs in Round 1 in 2005) had ever come within 10. For that matter, Abreu was the only player in Derby history who had ever hit at least 28 homers in one night, let alone one round.

But even the number 28 doesn't do Hamilton's exhibition justice. No, this was about more than the numbers. This was about the experience.

"I don't know what number he got to before you realized what you were watching," the White Sox's Carlos Quentin said. "I think it was somewhere around 20. But then you realized. Just to see how far the balls were going, over and over, you realized it was something special."

"It was amazing, all the way from home run No. 1 to home run No. 28," said Hamilton's teammate in Texas, Ian Kinsler. "It seemed like it was never going to stop."

That, in fact, was exactly what it seemed like. Baseballs kept disappearing. The bedlam in the seats kept getting louder and louder. The major league baseball players watching it kept shaking their heads, pretty much in awe of what they were seeing. And they weren't the only ones, because this is what Hamilton did -- in just that one round:

[+] EnlargeJosh Hamilton
Scott Rovak/US PresswireJosh Hamilton hit more home runs in the first round of the Derby (28) than he has through the first half of the season (21).
He hit a home run on 13 swings in a row. And 16 of 17. And 20 of 22. And 22 of 25.

He missiled five balls into the upper deck, one of them nearly to the top of the upper deck. He pounded another off the facing of the mezzanine. And two more into the seemingly unreachable black seats in center, where the fan who ran it down promptly got arrested and hauled off to visit the nearest proper authorities.

Asked later if he found himself playing to the crowd during that run, Hamilton laughed: "No, I was playing to that guy getting arrested out in center field."

But mostly, he battered the right-field bleachers with one mortar after another. He hit four home runs that nearly cleared those bleachers -- and one that bonked off the bottom of the distant Bank of America sign, 502 feet from where he was standing, sending 53,716 witnesses into complete apoplexy.

"He hit that sign," Kinsler said, "and that ball just disappeared. And it was like it was gone forever. I kept looking at that sign, and I was thinking, 'There's not a chance I could probably hit that thing from second base.'"

But incredibly, that wasn't even Hamilton's longest home run of that round. There was also a towering 504-footer that plopped into the last row of the bleachers, even farther out toward center field. And there was a 518-foot Mars mission that landed so high up in the third deck, you felt like it might have thumped off the top of the Empire State Building if he'd hit it in Manhattan.

Even Hamilton had a special feeling for that shot, because it was the closest he came to fulfilling his pre-Derby prediction that he might be able to hit the first fair ball in history ever to completely leave Yankee Stadium.

"You know that little opening [in right field], right there where you can see the subway?" he'd chuckled beforehand. "Watch out."

And then, whaddaya know, he just about pulled it off.

"Man," he moaned afterward, "if the balls had been juiced, it would have happened, too. I wanted to hit that subway out there."

Right. Either that or the Triborough Bridge.

By the time he'd finished this astonishing exhibition, it didn't seem there was much reason to hold the final two rounds. After all, how was anybody supposed to top that? Babe Ruth himself might not have been able to top that.
[+] EnlargeClay Council
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonJosh Hamilton's pitches came courtesy of rubber-armed 71-year-old Claybon Counsil, who threw BP fastballs just as he's done for years.

"We were all sitting there saying to each other, 'How do you follow that?'" Morneau mused later. "I mean, [Lance] Berkman went out there, and he was hitting balls, blasting balls in the upper deck. And everyone in the stands, it almost seemed like they were bored -- after watching [Hamilton] hitting the ball out of the stadium."

But that wasn't the only problem for the rest of the field. For those other seven guys, an even thornier issue was this: How could they ever top the larger-than-life saga that is Josh Hamilton?

With every move this man makes, every run he drives in, every baseball he mashes to some far-off sector of another stadium, you keep trying to convince yourself this is all happening. In real life. To a man who was so far down, so far out, so hopelessly buried in the jaws of drug addition, it's a miracle he's even alive right now.

And then, the next thing you know, there he is on this stage, doing this beneath the eyeballs of America, in a ballpark that represents a living, breathing home run museum. Accompanied by his own 71-year-old personal pitcher named Claybon Counsil, summoned from North Carolina for this occasion, as Josh Hamilton's reward for all those BP fastballs Counsil has been serving up to anyone interested for the past three decades.

Friends, you can't make this stuff up.

But hold on. There's more. There's also Hamilton's dream. It's a famous dream now, a dream he had back in the winter of 2006. But it was a dream that made no sense at the time, because he had it at a time when he was still suspended from baseball for drug abuse, back when he was, therefore, about as far away from this place as a bunch of aliens from Neptune.

He'd dreamed that night that he was taking part in a Home Run Derby -- in Yankee Stadium. Of course. It was a dream that couldn't possibly come true. And then it did.

Whoa. Did it ever.

In the dream, though, he never saw himself actually swinging the bat. He remembers only being interviewed afterward on ESPN, and describing how he'd gotten to this miraculous point, through the power and the grace of God.

But now, here he was, 2½ long years later, and he got to find out how it all turned out. How beautiful was that?

I got a chance, when I was in the middle of that [home run] streak, to look up and see my mom and dad and family and everybody, just absolutely laughing and cheering. And I mean, that's priceless.

-- Josh Hamilton

"This," he said, "was like living the dream out, because like I've said, I didn't know the ending to that dream."

Now, though -- now he knows. Now we all know. We saw a man have an evening in Yankee Stadium that told a story that ought to restore our faith in mankind.

So who cares if Josh Hamilton didn't "win" this derby? What he did win was bigger and better than any trophy.

"More than anything else," he said, "I'm glad my family got to see this. Whether I'd hit 50 or hit none, I'm sure this is hard for people to believe, but I wouldn't have been disappointed if I didn't hit any.

"I got a chance, when I was in the middle of that streak, to look up and see my mom and dad and family and everybody, just absolutely laughing and cheering. And I mean, that's priceless."

Ah, but this was no MasterCard commercial, friends. This was the beauty of life itself.

There was a time not very long ago when none of them thought that moment, that joy, could possibly have happened to them. And then it did. On a heart-pumping Home Run Derby Monday inside the baseball temple that is Yankee Stadium.

So the record may show that Josh Hamilton didn't win this derby. But life will tell us -- and him -- otherwise.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com