CLEVELAND –Tom Hamilton has gone through this Cleveland Indians season almost like a player.
He’s nearly blown a head gasket broadcasting the Indians nine walkoff wins. He’s played hurt.
And he’s been involved in a wee bit of controversy.
Through it all Hamilton remains part of the team. He’s the recognizable voice of the Indians, and the friendliest, most upbeat guy imaginable, a guy whose excitement about broadcasting baseball is as genuine as his emotions while he announces.
“I feel like I won the lottery every day I come to the ballpark,” Hamilton said in a recent interview.
Hamilton is in his 24th season as the Indians radio play-by-play voice. He started with Herb Score, lived through the excitement of the ‘90s and the down years that followed and is on board for a year of revival, now teamed with co-good guy Jim Rosenhaus.
“He’s one of the iconic voices,” team president Mark Shapiro said. “You can’t hear his voice and not think of the Cleveland Indians. If you grew up here in the recent generations of Indians baseball, his home run calls, his conjuring of the image of the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, those are catch-phrases that elicit an emotional bond with the Indians and baseball.”
It’s when the Indians win that Hamilton can best be heard, and when they win in dramatic fashion his voice and signature calls bellow through radios from Amherst to Ashtabula. Web sites this season took to pairing Hamilton’s exuberance with the dour words of Hawk Harrelson when the Indians beat the White Sox twice on walkoff home runs. In the 2007 playoffs, the Indians were in extra innings in Boston when Franklin Gutierrez hit a three-run home run over the Green Monster. From the press box the only sound audible in the early morning hours was “It’s a drive …. A-waaaay back.”
“If you’re not spontaneous, if it’s not natural, it’ll come across scripted, rehearsed, phony,” he said. “I don’t ever want anyone to think that.”
And to those who say he gets too excited over a long fly ball or a home run, it’s him. He’s not about to change after this many successful years. As he said, he’s employed by the Indians but the fans are his boss.
“I’m excited to do a Major League baseball game,” he said. “Am I more excited for the Indians? Yeah, but if it’s a no-hitter for the other guy I’m excited about that. Because you’re seeing something you may never see again or have never seen before.”
“For him to bring that energy and enthusiasm night in and out is special,” Shapiro said. “The more you listen the more you know on a fly ball to be cautious, but if you listen enough you know whether its gonna be close or way out.”
Hamilton’s evening usually ends near or after midnight, but his work day begins at 8 a.m. when he starts poring through the daily paper and internet to garner as much information as he can about the Indians, the team they’re playing and the team they’ll play next. He’ll read for three hours, all the while taking notes and compiling an index card on each player with non-statistical information.
By 2 p.m. he’s on his way to the park from his home in Avon Lake. In the hours before the game he spends as much time as he can talking to players on both teams to find details to use in the broadcast. One season he told of a player with a shoulder injury so painful he couldn’t even lift his hand to brush his teeth, details he feels are key to fans understanding. Every game each player gets a new card with three or four tidbits he finds interesting.
“What you hope is you never need any of it,” Hamilton said. “Because the game is so good that you don’t need any fill.”
Coaches and managers help him with vital background, though not everything is reportable on air. After his pregame duties are done, which include a regular interview with Terry Francona, it’s up to the booth where he fills out his scoresheet in his own style.
“Red are scoring plays, red is a left-hand hitter, red is first name and blue is last name,” he said. “Everybody has their own idiosyncrasies. That comes from years in the minors. You know how that is. You look at anybody else’s scoresheet and say, ‘What the hell?’ You look at your own and you understand.”
Hamilton feels his calls have to be credible, so he calls what he sees. He’s not afraid to criticize — — he still can’t get over umpire Angel Hernadez missing an Oakland home run on replay — because he calls what his eyes tell him.
“Once you lose credibility then the audience no longer believes in you and the audience no longer has time for you,” he said.
He became a minor story earlier this season when he reacted angrily to Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman buzzing a 100 mph fastball near Nick Swisher’s head. At one point Hamilton said the best thing would be for the Indians to line one off Chapman’s temple and that in the next game Joey Votto should not dig in.
The Cincinnati media asked him about it the next day.
“I probably would have rephrased it,” he said when asked if he’d handle it different. “Wouldn’t have said hit the ball off his temple, I would have simply said hit a bullet right back up the middle. But I never heard one thing from the Indians. Nothing from my bosses. The Cincinnati people made a way bigger deal out of it.
“I talked to (Reds manager) Dusty (Baker) about it. I talked to Tito about it. They were like, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s nothing.’ It’s what happens when it’s live and you’re emotional.”
Hamilton missed a week this season to knee surgery, but came back at less than 100 percent and hobbled through the next couple weeks, often standing to do his job. It’s a testament to Hamilton’s professionalism and character that he earns the trust of almost every player, coach, manager and front office type. He said working with Francona spoils him, but he also got along great with Albert Belle and Eddie Murray — neither friends of the daily media.
“Albert was terrific to talk to and deal with,” Hamilton said. “Eddie Murray is one of my all-time favorites. I think Eddie Murray is the smartest player I’ve ever been around. Jason Giambi I cannot get over. I wish I had been with Jason Giambi his entire career. There isn’t anybody who is more enjoyable or more willing to discuss things than Jason. I sure hope this isn’t his only year here.
“Gosh, I hate to mention anyone because there’s so many and I don’t want to leave someone out.”
Baseball is a demanding sport with its six weeks away from home for spring training, its 162 game and its road trips that sometimes seem endless. Hamilton laments missing some family events — but thanks the Indians profusely for giving him two weeks to see his son play for Kent State in the NCAA baseball tournament last season. “People have no idea what that meant to us as a family,” he said.
They were happy to do it. Because they appreciate his work, and they appreciate that Hamilton loves his job. Every second of it.
“I am so blessed and the good Lord has been so very good to us,” he said. “For me to have this kind of a job, to do something you can’t wait to do every day … I feel like I don’t ever want to get a real job again. That’s how fortunate I feel I’ve been.”