What I Saw In Arizona. Part One: Billy Hamilton

I have never seen a faster baseball player than Billy Hamilton.

This is not a statement constructed out of great insight. But it is one that requires attendance, and it mainlines into a conversation I had with the former National League outfielder and coach Gary Varsho the day after Hamilton led me to my conclusion.

Varsho, now an Advance Scout with the Angels, was noting – more in sadness than in anger – the diminution of the Advance Scout in this age of video and digital file-sharing and 24/7 television. He noted that nearly everything of value he can tell his employers about the team they will next face is the stuff they don’t show in the broadcasts, or cut out of the videos. Or worse: it’s stuff they can’t show. Varsho cited the example of a prominent MLB catcher who falls into ruts of repetitive pitch-calling. You have to experience it, complete with the trips to the mound, the foul balls, the repetitiveness, that three days of in-person baseball drags you through. The guy just won’t follow a curveball with two consecutive fastballs. Just won’t.

And this is where Hamilton comes in. I’ve seen the television coverage and the videos (though you have to admit, slo-mo might depict a beautiful running form, but you can’t tell if the guy has the speed of Billy Hamilton or George Hamilton). But the context of being there is the magic wand.

The Angels’ facility at Diablo Stadium in Tempe is perpendicular to a fast-moving highway just beyond the right field fence. Almost inevitably, your attention occasionally drifts from the field to the ceaseless droning of thousands of cars and trucks all going around 65 for three hours. But when you manage to balance the two you suddenly have an unexpected bonus: you have an idea of how fast the players are running compared not to each other but compared to highway traffic.

I don’t mean it literally of course. But the constant motion is actually an excellent optical framework, and, bluntly, it makes some of the guys I saw that day like Zack Cozart and Mike Trout look kind of slow (I’m not insulting somebody by saying they look slower than a BMW doing 65, am I? Nor saying they look slower than a rookie with the Reds?).

Billy Hamilton did not look slow. He hit a grounder moderately hard toward Mark Trumbo of the Angels at first base, and that’s when it happened. Hamilton took one step out of the batters’ box and he was not merely at his full speed, but he looked competitive with the cars moving side-to-side in the distance. This extraordinary acceleration was also evident to Trumbo. His fear could be smelled in the press box. One bobble and he’s dead, one hesitation and the routine out becomes a close play.

For whatever reason, Trumbo hesitated. He couldn’t accelerate as Hamilton did and wound up frantically shoveling the ball to his pitcher for a 3-1 putout by a step. And Hamilton was running just as fast in that last step as he was in his second one out of the box. He looked like he could survive – at least in the slow lane – with the cars on the freeway.

I have not only never seen anybody faster, but I’ve never seen anything like it.

Last Saturday I would see the Reds’ bench coach – my friend, the former great Giants shortstop – Chris Speier. I asked him if he’d ever seen anybody definitively faster than Hamilton. He could think of no one. “Especially in terms of his acceleration. By the second step,” he began. I interrupted him and told him the freeway story. “Exactly,” he said with a laugh.

Speier warns there are all kinds of rough edges here. Hamilton is clearly not an intuitive shortstop and will doubtless never see anything other than emergency service there again. But his instincts in the outfield are good and developing quickly. Speier is more worried about the deleterious ancillary effects of Hamilton’s speed. “He still thinks he can position the bunt at the very last second, or swing at the very last second.” In other words, Hamilton thinks he handles the bat with the same accelerative ability that his legs provide. He can’t.

But of course we can only see that in person. Which is why we have bench coaches – and why we need more Advance Scouts. And why there are still things in baseball that have to be seen to be believed.

Like Billy Hamilton’s speed.


  1. Pingback: What I Saw In Arizona. Part One: Billy Hamilton - Unofficial Network
  2. Mary Caruso

    I find that one of the greatest assets a person could possess is the capacity of observation. There is so much that is missed in this day of video and sound bites, when there is a wealth of information just below the surface. One must actually react as if they were the recorder and create a talent of memorization of an event, or situation. The real talent comes in when they have to recall it. A lot has to do with details and surroundings, the local, the environment. This takes some time and presence. With modern technology, we still can’t obtain that ‘in the moment’ feel. It is too two dimensional even in HD. You’re still looking at a flat screen which tries to emulate a 3-D environment. You are also limited to the view of the camera man or recorder. What is focused on is sort of blinder vision where a scout can pick up a lot more than the camera’s eye.
    Until the media can figure out how to emulate the smells of hot dogs, popcorn and peanuts (I always relate to food) and the feel, as in this instance for example, the sensation of grass beneath one’s feet, it will always be in the two dimensional realm and not the whole. This sites the importance of actually being there.
    That’s why I look forward to your posts as you relay other facets that the media has often not even considered. I appreciate you taking me along for the ride, you do it so well. I look forward to the continuing posts of your adventure in Arizona.

  3. ShoeBeDoBeDo

    It was so nice to have you out West with us, Keith!

    For most, that highway would have been merely a distraction. Interesting how you use your surroundings/environment to provide context for what you’re observing is going on on the field.

    I too love it when you take us along on your travels. Have you ever thought about doing a TV show that combines sports and travel? Like a travelogue for sports enthusiasts. Sounds like a lot of fun to me. 🙂

  4. T. Rasul Murray

    Your absence from the political relhm is a real loss. Unfortunately, your exemplary prose style, as informative and insightful as it is, is not sufficient to overcome my lifelong disinterest in sports. Your political commentary can influence the future of the country. Sports commentary can never impact our future as citizens of the country and the world. Please find an outlet for your important contributions th the public discourse.

  5. SamYanksGiantsMets

    Is Billy Hamilton faster than Dee Gordon of the Dodgers? When he hits a ground ball up the middle the ball hits him in the back as he’s sliding into second base. If you’re judging running skills vs. traffic, how does Jose Molina measure up? Maybe measure his speed according to the cars parked in the parking lot!

  6. SamYanksGiantsMets

    I really like Chris Hayes– though he’s no Keith– so it’s too bad he’s replacing Ed right before the baseball season starts because, with MLB Extra Innings, I won’t be watching MSNBC much until November. I always felt bad when I had to miss “Countdown” for seven months, but one must prioritize. Maybe Michael “Big Head” Kay, the announcer on YES, will point out Keith in the stands at Yankee Stadium like he sometimes does (Billo and Donald T Rump, T is for Tool) are always there. April 1st can’t get here fast enough! I don’t do this spring training [stuff]– I gotta work.

    • Emerson Burkett

      No need to wait until April 1st; I watched a Spring Training Game Tues. between Giants and Padres and it was really Fun. Really did not care about the Score; all about Player and Manager interviews, watching Baseball and listening to Kruk and Kuip announcing and play by play, once again.

  7. walt kovacs

    fyi, and even though you dont read these comments, the team that you hate, the giants, still use advance scouts

    • Emerson Burkett

      GO GIANTS!!! Could not resist. I agree KO does not read these comments; if he did maybe he would do something about the TROLLS AND BLOG HOGS.

  8. Emerson Burkett

    Further, the TROLLS AND BLOG HOGS are driving everyone else away from this blog; guess that is their point. The actual on-topic comments have been dwindling to nothing, driven off by the ocean of Drivel and BS.

  9. Pingback: MLB Opening Day and Keith’s predictions | Countdown with Keith Olbermann - Unofficial Fanblog

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