Indians' Nick Hamilton overcoming obstacles

The son of Indians voice Tom Hamilton is an Indian, and an inspiring story, in his own right.

BY Tony Lastoria

Nick Hamilton is a remarkable young man.

Hamilton, 23, did not come from a major college baseball program. He was not a high profile player in last year’s MLB Draft. He is also not blessed with the natural tools that so many people around the game focus on when evaluating players. But the thing he has above all else is an amazing heart and a competitive spirit to never give up and accept no for an answer.

There are a lot of players like that scattered throughout the minor leagues. While every team has 20-30 legit prospects, there are another 150 or so players fighting to be noticed and to be taken more seriously.  Most minor leaguers have enjoyed success throughout their life and do not really experience failure and adversity for the first time until they get to the minors.

But what makes Hamilton so different than most any minor league player is he has been battling the odds since he was barely old enough to walk because of a severe hearing loss condition that affected him before he even knew how to remember.

At the age of three Hamilton began to show signs of rapid hearing loss, a rare condition that eventually leads to a complete hearing loss. Through the help of experimental surgery, doctors were able to save what little hearing he had left. The hearing loss was stopped, but it left him with but a small fraction of his hearing.

“I started losing my hearing when I was three, and I have about 15% of my hearing left,” Hamilton recalled.  “It is classified as a severe to moderate hearing loss. I lost it and stopped losing it since I was about three and a half as that is when my surgery was performed. I don’t hear perfectly and there are some minor inconveniences, but I wear hearing aids that for the most part have allowed me to have a normal life.  I have my parents and I have God to thank for that.”

Hamilton has since undergone several years of speech therapy and has learned the art of lip reading.  The hearing aids serve as a microphone in his ear to help pick up and amplify sound, and is something he is just used to as he does not remember a time when he did not have them.

“It is why he is an amazing young man and why in my mind he has just never been one to be told what he can’t do,” his father and Voice of the Indians Tom Hamilton said.  “We were told by doctors when he was age three he would be deaf and dumb and there was nothing we could do about it, and that we needed to probably resign ourselves to getting him into a school where they would teach sign language and that would be how he would have to communicate the rest of his life. We were fortunate enough that he had some experimental surgeries done that saved what little hearing he had left.”

Nick has adjusted his life well to the hearing loss as he was a successful student at Avon High School and at Kent State University.  Aside from some minor inconveniences with his hearing aids shorting out or sounds being muffled because of sweat that pours into his ears while he is playing, he has adjusted well to the hearing loss on the baseball side of things.  He may not be able to properly hear the crack of the bat and players around him calling out directions, but thankfully baseball is a game mostly played on feel and not so much on what is heard.

“The beauty of baseball is everything is focused on the ball,” Nick said.  “I have never really had any problems playing baseball.  I played high school basketball and you can watch the ball all you want but you need to know where your man is and how the play is setting up and everything. You need a little of that in baseball, but as long as you can see the ball you are okay.”

Many people are amazed by how far Nick has come given his limitations because of his hearing, but his father is no longer surprised.

“I think after you have been told that your child is going to be deaf and dumb, and he is able to overcome that, then you are always going to believe that if he overcame that he can overcome any obstacle in life,” Tom said.  “I think that is the way he has really attacked life. He is a very positive kid and has always been one of those kids that does not allow other people to limit what he can do.”

A dream becomes reality

On June 6th last year, in the 36th round of the 2012 MLB Draft, Nick’s dream of playing professional baseball became a reality when the Cleveland Indians – his hometown team – selected him.

A whirlwind of emotions followed throughout the Hamilton family. Not only was Nick a diehard Indians fan having grown up a fan of all those great teams in the 90s, but he was also very involved with the team thanks to his father who is the play-by-play radio broadcaster for the team and known as the “Voice of the Indians”.

“It was really a dream come true, especially with it being the Indians,” Nick beamed.  “That’s of course the dream, to get drafted, and just get the opportunity of chasing your dream of playing in the Major Leagues. Just to be able to do it with the Indians as a hometown guy and someone who grew up watching them it is even more special for me.”

Because he played for Kent State the last four springs, Nick had never been to spring training in Goodyear, Arizona. But little did he know that his last spring training trip to Winter Haven during his junior year in high school would eventually lead to him returning several years later and as a player.

“I always went to spring training in Winter Haven, but this is a much different environment here in Goodyear and the difference is amazing,” Nick said.  “I would be here for a week and then have to go back to school, so this is nice to be here the whole time. It has been a lot of fun and really been a real honor to be able to put on that Chief Wahoo and be able to wear the Indians across my chest. I can honestly say it has been a dream come true in that regard.”

Tom Hamilton has been around the minor league fields this spring to try and catch Nick in a game whenever possible.  He is taking advantage of such a unique opportunity to have his son so close by and seeing him play; an opportunity that will not exist when the season starts next week.

“It has been a lot of fun,” Nick said.  “[My dad] has been able to come every once in a while. He has a lot of work to do in spring training, and I understand that, but it has been a lot of fun having him here and being able to share this experience with him. I really can’t ask for anything better and he has been very supportive.”

A lot of Nick’s new Indians’ teammates are not aware that his father is the radio broadcaster for the Indians. Having not grown up as Indians fans many have probably never heard some of Tom Hamilton’s catch phrases such as “Ballgame!” or “A swing and a drive!” so the inside jokes with teammates are not as prevalent as they were with his Kent State teammates.

Nonetheless, you can bet at some point they will catch on and give him a good ribbing and use some of his father’s famous phrases when Nick does something special at the plate or in the field.

“I think most of them do know, at least the ones that I played with last year because he was at a game once during an off day,” Nick said.  “Hardly anyone here is from northeast Ohio, so most guys have never heard my dad speak before. At Kent it was definitely a lot of fun and guys had a good time with it.”

A proud father

Tom Hamilton joined the Indians broadcast booth in 1990 and the 2013 season will mark his 24th season broadcasting Indians games on the radio.  His son Nick was born just before his first season covering the Indians, so in a way, the Indians and the Hamilton family have grown up together.

Tom has called some memorable Indians games over the years as a broadcaster and been a part of seven postseasons including two World Series’, but nothing compares to the excitement he felt on draft day last year when he learned his son had been drafted by a Major League Baseball team, and that the team was the Indians.

“It really is surreal,” Tom said.  “We have been very blessed and fortunate that the Indians thought enough of him to draft him. That is the organization he has known his whole life and been a fan of, so it truly was a dream come true, as it was for us.  As a parent you just want your child to be happy and to play ball at whatever level they are capable of playing at and enjoy those experiences. For him to be drafted by the Indians is sometimes beyond words.”

Due to his commitment with having to broadcast Indians games almost every day from spring training in March until the end of the regular season in the beginning of October, Tom Hamilton did not have a lot of time to see his son Nick play over the years. But when time allowed it he made every effort to see Nick play.

Every year Kent State would travel south in mid-February to play games in warmer climates, which usually allowed Tom the chance to see Nick play the first couple of weekends of the season before spring training game duties beckoned.  After that he would try to schedule a weekend during spring training to go see Nick, and then during the season he would make stops when time allowed it. In the end, he would see eight to ten games a season.

Last year while Kent State made its magical ride to Omaha, the Indians were phenomenal in allowing Tom to take off more time than usual so he could go to all of the tournament games from Regionals to Super-Regionals to the College World Series in Omaha.

It was an amazing experience that Tom was able to share with his son. Not only did his son’s team make it to the College World Series, but he was also drafted during that tourney run. It is a year that will be hard to be topped in the Hamilton household, one that not even an Indians World Series title could beat.

“To be honest, even the Indians winning a World Series would not even come close to what we experienced last year with Nick,” Tom said.  “I think any parent would understand that. Winning the World Series for the Indians would be a sensational moment – but that is my job and who I work for. But nothing tops what your children do. I don’t care whether your children are in athletics or dance recitals or on a stage in a play. That’s what parents live for is those moments to watch your children. Nothing with Nick could ever top the experience that he had last year.”

These days Tom is trying to balance out how much to be around Nick. As a parent he wants to be at every game this spring, but he knows that he has a job to do with the Indians and that it means stepping back a little – as hard as that may be.

“I am still trying to feel my way around that one,” Tom chuckled.  “I have been careful how much I go and watch him. He is down here and has a job to do. It is so much different than it was going on spring trips the last few years wherever Kent state was going I tried to get to as many of those spring trips as I could. Now all of a sudden it is spring training and a job. You have to be careful as a parent as he is not your little boy anymore and he is out there with other young men and they are all trying to make a living at this. I’d love to go and watch him every second of every day, but that wouldn’t be good for him, nor do good for me either as I still get too nervous.”

As to whether Tom will check in on Nick throughout the season, well, that depends on a lot of things like where Nick is playing and what city Tom is in at the time.

“I am able to get a few games off every summer to use as I want, but I always try to use it to try and see the kids in whatever activity they are in,” Tom said.  “Usually the girls aren’t doing too much in the summer, so those days off usually revolve around our other son Brad – who is a ball player in high school – and Nick’s schedule. It depends on where he is at, but on an off day I am sure going to try and get to see him. I know in the summer I am limited to how much I am going to be able to see him, that’s why I am so grateful to the Indians last year that they allowed me to miss 14 games to watch Kent State throughout the NCAA Regionals, Super-Regionals and the College World Series. That is something that we will never forget and we are eternally grateful to the Indians that I was able to see it and not miss any action. I know this summer it won’t be quite the same.”

Don’t give up, never give up

With a few days left before spring training breaks, it is still uncertain at the moment at to where Nick will be assigned this season. He has a shot to open at Low-A Lake County or even High-A Carolina, though may remain in extended spring training to get ready for short season league ball which starts up in mid-June at Single-A Mahoning Valley.

Nick’s focus is not on where he will play this season, but just on improving and controlling what he can control.

“Right now my focus is being really consistent with my swing,” Nick said.  “I have been able to work with a couple of coaches since I have down here and really just refine things. By working every day on certain parts of your swing it should allow me to be more consistent, square more balls up, and drive the ball more. Defensively, whether it is the outfield or the infield, it is always about footwork.”

Nick plays both first base and third base, and is versatile enough where he can move around the diamond to other positions as well. He is also a switch-hitter and has shown an ability to consistently put the bat on the ball.

While a player will always look to improve their limitations, the expectations from Nick’s father and the rest of the family are quite simple: enjoy the journey, play hard, and let the rest take care of itself.

“We have really tried to preach to all of our kids that you really just have to enjoy the journey,” Tom said.  “I think that is what that Kent State team did a year ago. At no point did they ever focus on Omaha. They just really enjoyed the journey and reveled in the moment, and that is what you have to do now when you are in the minor leagues. You cannot get caught up in what you are doing, what a guy ahead of you is doing, and what a guy below you is doing, because you will drive yourself crazy. You just have to go and play hard every day, let things play out, and you will make it as far as you can.”

Baseball is a game of overcoming obstacles and a game that can eat away at you mentally if you let it. Nick has overcome obstacles all of his life with his hearing loss, and in a way, it may help him be more prepared in overcoming the flood of obstacles that he and several of his 2012 Draft mates will stumble upon at some time or another this season and seasons to come.

“There are an awful lot of guys in the Major Leagues that were told they were never going to be good enough to get to that level, but they believed in themselves, they believed in a dream, and they weren’t going to let that dream die,” Tom said.  “That’s the beauty of sports as we see it happen every day. I heard Jim Valvano say it in one of his great speeches, and I firmly believe it: ‘Everyday ordinary people do extraordinary things in every walk of life’. I think that is the way you have to attack life, and I think that’s the way Nick has.”

As his first full season as a professional ballplayer gets set to begin, Nick is ready to take that same approach of attacking life and bring it between the white lines.

“I’m ready to get the season going,” Nick said.  “I am pumped and thankful for the opportunity. Hopefully I can just put my head down, keep working, and chase my dream of playing in Cleveland someday.”

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