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Hamilton Is a Bronx Bomber, Until the Very End

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

NEW YORK, July 14 -- America discovered a new folk hero Monday night in the runner-up of the Home Run Derby.

Although Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton lost to Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, 5-3, in the final round of the derby, his first-round heroics stole the show, as the combination of his prodigious power -- which was nearly lost to the world forever several years ago -- and his irresistible story of redemption had fans and fellow players at Yankee Stadium on their feet for much of his performance.

In a tediously paced, made-for-television confection that -- at 2 hours 30 minutes, including interminable commercial breaks -- took longer than the 1966 All-Star Game (that is, the actual game itself), Hamilton, 27, provided the only electric moments, bashing 500-foot bombs into the Bronx night, until all of a sudden his power was cut off.

"With the crowd getting up like that, that was all worth it right there," Hamilton said of his first-round performance. Asked whether he tired at the end, he said, "You don't feel tired, but obviously you're a little tired."

Hamilton's first-round heroics included a handful of towering drives measured at more than 500 feet. Some of them disappeared into the white frieze that rims the stadium beyond the outfield walls or the white advertising signs just below, leading to some confusion over whether Hamilton's shots cleared the stadium -- they did not -- which is something that had never been done in Yankee Stadium history, to anyone's knowledge.

Nonetheless, the performance had the sellout crowd chanting his last name and his fellow all-stars standing around with mouths agape or dancing around in delight. The 28 homers he hit in the round were not only an all-time, single-round record -- breaking Bobby Abreu's mark of 24, set in 2005 -- but also represented more homers than the next three highest totals in the round combined.

It left his hand-picked pitcher -- 71-year-old Clay Council, Hamilton's former high school coach in Raleigh, N.C. -- with an arm that was, as he told ESPN's sideline reporter, "wore out."

Hamilton, the No. 1 overall draft pick by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1999, lost 3 1/2 years of his career to his addictions to crack cocaine and other drugs, resulting in a series of suspensions, drug-rehab programs and aborted comebacks. After becoming a devout Christian, he put his life back together beginning in 2006 and in 2007 debuted as a rookie for the Cincinnati Reds.

Traded to the Rangers over the winter, he leads the majors with 95 RBI and was voted into the AL's starting lineup.

During Monday afternoon's media availability, Hamilton spoke openly and extensively about his past drug use and Christianity. At one point, he related a dream he said he had in 2006 in which he was participating in a Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium.

"I never saw myself hitting in the dream in the derby, but it was at Yankee Stadium and it was in a Home Run Derby," he said. "I saw all the guys sitting around and then I was at the plate walking towards them, and actually a lady came up and interviewed me."

Closing the Deal?

Despite momentum building behind a media-driven campaign to allow Mariano Rivera, the Yankees' legendary closer, to start the final all-star game at Yankee Stadium, American League Manager Terry Francona -- of the rival Boston Red Sox, it must be said -- nixed the idea. Meantime, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon questioned whether it made sense to allow Rivera to close the game either.

"If I was managing the team, I would close," Papelbon said Monday. Pressed further, he said, "I think we've both earned that right -- us, because of winning the World Series and having the opportunity to have our manager here making those decisions, and him, because of who he is and what he's done and blah, blah, blah."

Francona, while shooting down the notion of allowing Rivera to start -- that honor instead will go to Cleveland's Cliff Lee -- was noncommittal about whom he would use to pitch the ninth inning in a save situation.

Saunders Shows Up

Los Angeles Angels lefty Joe Saunders, a product of West Springfield High, was the last all-star to arrive in New York, missing Monday's media availability and much of the workout before arriving in the AL clubhouse in time for the Home Run Derby.

Saunders, 12-5 with a 3.07 ERA in his breakout season, had left the Angels over the weekend to be with his wife, Shanel, who late Saturday night gave birth to their daughter, Matea. Saunders was to have flown to New York on a redeye flight late Sunday night, but his flight out of California was canceled, forcing him to re-book on a Monday morning flight.

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