By now, tales of Billy Hamilton’s feats of feet are told around baseball clubhouses like those Chuck Norris legends that swept the Internet a few years back. There’s the one where the then 21-year-old stole second base without taking a lead off first. Or the time he scored a game-winning run off an infield fly. Then there’s the diving catch near the left-field warning track. It would have been a highlight grab for an outfielder–but Hamilton was playing shortstop.
Asked to pick a favorite of these minor-league exploits, Hamilton, a 23-year-old rookie outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds, singles out that sprint from shortstop to left field, where, like a cleated Clark Kent, he bailed out a teammate who had lost the ball in the spring-training sun. “It was incredible,” Hamilton says from a picnic table at the Reds’ spring-training complex in Goodyear, Ariz. His team windbreaker and warm-up pants look two sizes too big on his 6-ft., 160-lb. (183 cm, 73 kg) frame, and his legs are scissoring under the table as if he’s itching to sprint off. “I don’t talk about myself much. But that was crazy.”
Hamilton may not like to boast, at least to reporters, but there are plenty of people who will do it for him–especially because these days, the game could use a little lightning. Baseball has a strong cultural hold in the U.S.–America’s pastime is not a label easily lost–and Major League Baseball is seeing record revenue. But compared with football, basketball and the X Games sports that have captivated a younger generation, baseball can be slow, plodding, a wee bit boring. The game’s audience, meanwhile, is aging. The arrival of Hamilton, who in 2012 set a new professional record by stealing 155 bases in the minors, in the big leagues could provide a much-needed jolt. Stolen bases bring a dimension to the game–will-he-or-won’t-he suspense, bang-bang calls at the bases, tense standoffs among pitchers, catchers and base runners–that has been missing for too long.
During the go-go 1980s, fleet-footed stars like Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman were considered key components on championship teams. In the 1990s, however, clubs started building smaller, retro-style bandbox ballparks. And players–many with an assist from steroids–started bulking up. The combination of cozier confines and sluggers that resembled Popeye all but chased speed from the game. The wonks in Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ best-selling chronicle of the statistical approach that propelled the Oakland A’s to four straight playoff appearances in the early 2000s, took a dim view of base stealing, and most of the league came to agree. Across Major League Baseball, stolen bases per game dropped 33% from 1983 to 2003, according to Baseball-Reference.com, an authoritative statistics site.
The league eventually cracked down on performance-enhancing drugs, and home runs dropped accordingly: homers per game have fallen 18% since 2000, their steroid-fueled peak. Last season, teams scored the fewest runs per game in more than two decades. Strikeouts, meanwhile, are up. In 2013 players struck out 7.6 times per nine innings, which tied the previous season for the highest whiffing rate in history. All of which means that baseball is in desperate need of offense and the excitement it generates. As teams search for ways to squeeze out runs, stolen bases may make a comeback, and both fans and front offices are itching for a player ready to run wild.
“There are certain players, in different sports, they just create a buzz,” says Delino DeShields, a former big-league speedster who managed Hamilton in the minors. “Nobody wants to go get a popcorn or a hot dog. You might miss something.”
Hamilton is aware of another thing baseball has been missing. According to a USA Today analysis, only 7.7% of players on opening-day rosters last season were African American. In 1975 27% of major leaguers were black. “A bunch of guys see that there’s not a lot of African Americans in the league and their confidence level goes down,” he says. “Why should we try? We should just cut it off.”
Hamilton, who was a three-sport (football, basketball, baseball) star in high school, thinks he can help reverse that trend. When Mississippi State offered him a scholarship to play top-level college football, his mother begged him to steer clear of the sport because of the injury risk. Hamilton listened, and his decision could help funnel other African Americans concerned about football’s safety into baseball. “A real nice ticket for us to get the big leagues,” he says, “is our wheels.”
A Special Friendship
While growing up in rural Taylorsville, Miss. (pop. 1,336), Hamilton honed those wheels early. His single mother, Polly, often worked long shifts as a receptionist at an electrical plant to support Hamilton and his two older sisters. His Little League coaches were concerned that Polly’s schedule would cause Hamilton, already a budding star, to miss practices and games. But Jim Ford, a maintenance purchaser at a chicken-processing plant, had a son, Tanner, who was Hamilton’s age. As the kids’ friendship deepened, Ford started shuttling Hamilton to Little League. Eventually, Hamilton moved in with the family.
Polly says she was fine with this arrangement. “I knew where he was,” she says, “so I didn’t have to worry.” Plus, Hamilton liked sleeping over at the Fords’. “It wasn’t like an adoption,” he says. “I had older sisters, and I’m like, I don’t want to be around girls. I’m trying to go out and have fun, trying to do things that guys do, not be around things my sisters do.”
Hamilton stayed close with his family, who lived near the Fords. “It wasn’t like I went a month without seeing my mom,” he says (though when asked about the setup with the Fords, Hamilton’s sister Jessica responded, “I’d rather not talk about it”).
The story has shades of The Blind Side, another Lewis book turned Oscar-nominated movie, which chronicled the life of NFL lineman Michael Oher. As a teen, Oher moved in with a wealthy white family to escape his nightmarish Memphis neighborhood. But this plot has key differences. Hamilton remained in close contact with his biological family, and he was already friends with Tanner. “I don’t want people to think we did him a favor,” says Tanner. “Like we picked up this little black kid because we felt sorry for him. No, it was more about me wanting my friend to stay with me.” Hamilton calls Jim “Dad” and refers to Tanner as his brother. He was especially close to Jim’s late wife Sheila, who died of lung cancer in 2007. Before her burial, Hamilton and Tanner approached Sheila’s casket together to say their final goodbyes.
The Reds made Hamilton their second-round pick in the 2009 draft out of Taylorsville High, and his five years in the minor leagues have bred outlandish expectations. “He’s the most impactful player I’ve seen in the 40 years I’ve been here,” says Reds Hall of Fame broadcaster Marty Brennaman. (That includes icons like Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and 2010 National League MVP Joey Votto.) In a brief major-league stint last year, Hamilton stole 13 bases on 14 attempts–a titillating sample. But he’s also replacing Shin-Soo Choo, whose .423 on-base percentage ranked second in the National League, behind Votto’s .435, as the Reds’ center fielder and leadoff hitter.
The Reds have made the playoffs three of the past four years but have lost each series. Much is riding on the skinny rookie to reverse that trend. “It seems like we’re putting a lot on this young guy,” says DeShields. “I don’t know if that’s totally fair to him.” Not that the new teammates counting on Hamilton are worried. “Is it fair?” asks Reds pitcher Homer Bailey. “Maybe not. But that’s just the way it is. So deal with it.”
Being baseball’s new hope is heady stuff to put on a rookie who appeared in just 13 major-league games last season as a September call-up. But Hamilton insists he’s ready. The Reds need him on base. Baseball, whose TV audience keeps trending older–the median age for the 2013 World Series viewer was 54.4, according to Nielsen, up 9% from four years ago–needs him to attract a new generation of fans who love the speed they see in the NBA and the NFL. “I don’t let it bother me,” Hamilton says of the pressure. “I know my game is going to take over for all that.”
In his first 16 spring-training games, Hamilton had 15 hits and 13 runs, and stole nine bases without being caught. “It’s gonna be fun,” he says. “I’m not saying I’m crazy. But I have no fear on the bases or on the field … Know how they say, ‘Kids, don’t try this stuff at home?’ It’s the kind of stuff I do in baseball. I don’t mind.”
Neither do we. Time to finally skip the concession stand.
This appears in the April 07, 2014 issue of TIME.