LOUISVILLE, KY. – Triple-A baseball is an interesting mix. It’s one tantalizing step away from the big leagues. It’s also one long step back from the big leagues.
Yet if a player is going to be successful at the highest level of the minors his approach can’t be any different no matter what his career perspective might be.
This is where one will find the likes of Billy Hamilton, the top prospect in the Reds’ organization, and Corky Miller, a catcher who epitomizes every Hollywood vision of the grizzled baseball veteran. It’s hard not see Crash Davis in Miller, who has played 199 games in the major leagues, 136 of them with the Reds over six seasons, in a 16-year professional career that began when the Reds signed him as non-drafted free agent in 1998 out of the University of Nevada. Hamilton is the name every Reds fan knows, mostly because they’re curious about when the 22-year-old is going to be called up to Cincinnati. They’ll worry about whether he’s ready or not later.
“I try not to let it bother me or let it affect my game,” said Hamilton this week before the Bats hosted Columbus at Louisville Slugger Field. “I just come out and work hard and better myself without worrying about what everybody is talking about or when you’re going to come up.
“The team’s job is to know when I’ll be ready to be there so it’s not for me to be rushing to be there. That’s their job to deal with, to know when I’ll be ready. It’s my job to play every day and as long as I play my game and go about that they’ll know when to bring me up.”
Hamilton has been named the Sheldon “Chief” Bender Award winner the last two seasons as the Reds’ minor league player of the year. His claim to fame is his speed. He stole 258 bases the last two seasons, including a professional single-season record of 155 last year while splitting time at Single-A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola as a shortstop.
The Reds moved Hamilton to center field during the Arizona Fall League and he got a lot of work at his new position with the help of Eric Davis, the Reds’ Hall of Fame centerfielder who is now a special assistant to general manager Walt Jocketty.
Through Thursday night, following a 4-1 win at Toledo that improved the Bats’ record to 5-3, Hamilton was batting .296 with an on-base percentage of .345 and six stolen bases in seven attempts. He had eight hits in his first 16 at-bats of the season but is hitless in his last 11 at-bats, with two walks, over the last three games.
It’s all part of the process.
“The thing that Billy needs to work on is his left-handed swing. He’s working at it, putting in his time every day,” said Bats manager Jim Riggleman, who managed Hamilton at Pensacola last season. “The key is getting on base. If he gets on base he causes havoc for the other club and gets some fastballs for our hitters behind him.
“With all due respect to Triple-A, most players who are successful at Double-A can handle Triple-A.”
While Hamilton has just finished his first week in Triple-A, Miller is again getting the loudest cheers when he comes to the plate for home games. The 37-year-old wasn’t sure he was going to come back for another season after last year when he played in 89 games and hit .235 but decided if the Reds wanted him back and he was going to have an opportunity to play, Louisville is where he wanted to be. The Bats became affiliated with the Reds in 2000. Miller’s first season in Louisville was 2001.
The Bats have already had a “Corky Miller bobblehead” night this season.
“This is the first one I’ve been to. I had one in Billings and one in Chattanooga but this is the first one that I was at. I got a lot tweets, a lot of texts about it. It was pretty exciting,” said Miller. “(Louisville)’s always been a nice place to play. The fans are great. The town, you can do whatever you want. The river is there, the downtown has changed so much since I started so it’s been a good place to play.”
No one has played more seasons as a Louisville Bat than the nine that Miller has now been in uniform. He is 65 games shy of Billy Lyons’ record of 544 games played for the franchise, needs 42 hits to surpass Aaron Holbert’s franchise record of 471 and seven doubles to overtake Kevin Barker’s mark of 97 career two-baggers with Louisville.
He’s proven he’s not hanging around just to pick up a paycheck. He’d love to make another trip to the majors – he hasn’t played in the big leagues since 2010 – but understands his role with the Bats could be just as important in helping the younger guys like Hamilton, infielder Henry Rodriguez or pitcher Tony Cingrani be ready when their time comes.
“Everybody is pretty responsible for himself but for the younger guys if they buy into it and they want to learn and they want to try to excel and they accept that this is just a stopping point they should be able to talk to some of the guys like myself, Mike (Hessman) or even Mark Prior if you’re a pitcher, or just watch us,” said Miller. “For guys like me, watching the young guys and the hunger that they’ve got – not saying that I don’t – but you can see that out there that they’re going out and having a good time. If you mix well, that’s what good teams are made of.
“Last year we had a pretty young team and only a couple of older guys that all they thought about was getting out of here. I think what we’ve got here are guys that are going to play, that want to win and we can set examples for the young kids and the young kids can just excel.”