It was a decade ago that Josh Beckett and Josh Hamilton gained reputations as diamond gods, prep stars who left scouts’ mouths agape with their seemingly limitless talent. The two Joshes were clearly the class of the 1999 draft, and the only question was who would go first and who would go second.
The two became celebrities while still in high school, Beckett as the flame-throwing Texas right-hander, Hamilton as a five-tool stud from North Carolina who seemed to channel Babe Ruth with his dominance as both a slugging outfielder and pitcher. Both chased the same ring of top dog in the 1999 draft.
The two did not meet at that time, but they were aware of each other, perhaps even a bit suspicious.
“Obviously, I knew how talented he was,” remembered Beckett.
Their feelings now?
“We hate each other.”
Hamilton offered that statement with a wink and a laugh at the All-Star game, an environment that is fascinating in part to see which players from different teams gravitate towards one another. And in St. Louis, it would be hard to find a pairing more interesting than Beckett and Hamilton.
The two chatted at some length during the festivities. Beckett allowed Hamilton to try on his World Series ring. Though they have traveled drastically different paths to stardom, there is something natural in the interaction of the two, thanks to a shared point of origin.
It has now been a decade since greatness was declared inevitable for the duo as they prepared to turn pro. In the intervening years, there were times when that standard seemed distant and even impossible for one or both, yet somehow, finally, the two have grown into being exactly what the baseball world expected of them as teenagers.
They hold each other in high esteem, and have a host of personal connections. They are represented by the same agency (Moye Sports Associates), have the same financial advisors and have similar off-field interests.
“We actually have a lot of things in common,” said Beckett. “We both like the outdoors. He’s a little bit of a ‘neck, and I’m a little bit of a ‘neck. We definitely have some similarities.”
“He seems like a great, down-to-earth kind of guy, country boy, like I am in a lot of ways,” agreed Hamilton. “We seem to be getting along pretty good.”
In some ways, of course, their friendship is entirely unsurprising. Who else could understand the very strange lives into which the duo was thrust – the piles of talent and fame and money that both have had to deal since high school?
Certainly, in 1999, they were in a class by themselves. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays picked first in the draft that year, and their scouting director, Dan Jennings, faced what seemed more like a delight than a dilemma.
“We knew were were picking Josh, we just didn’t know which Josh,” Jennings, now a Marlins Assistant G.M., said in a phone interview.
The Tampa Bay scouting staff had many, many looks at both players, with Jennings alone having three to four looks at each. Jennings suggests that Hamilton was the second-best position players he’s ever scouted, just a touch behind Alex Rodriguez, a margin that may have reflected more on Rodriguez’ position (shortstop, instead of outfield) than on ability.
Beckett, meanwhile, was right at the top of the pile among high-school pitchers whom Jennings had seen. Jennings, in fact, recalls only one other prep pitcher who made a similar impression. That was Matt White, a pitcher who went to the Giants with the seventh pick of the 1996 draft, exploited a loophole to become a free agent, claimed a $10.2 million haul, then “never pitched a drop in the majors because of injuries.”
“That goes to show you that there are no guarantees,” said Jennings.
Nonetheless, Tampa Bay felt great about its draft prospects, describing it as a “win-win” scenario: a middle-of-the-order hitter, or a top-of-the-rotation pitcher.
Two days before the draft, Jennings met with Devil Rays owner Vince Namoli, G.M. Chuck LaMar and members of his scouting staff. Everyone in the group offered his reasons why one player or the other should be taken.
“We felt like Beckett was going to be a number one starter at the top of a rotation and we certainly valued that. We also felt like Hamilton would be a three- or four-hole hitter who could be a centerfielder who could see 30-plus and 100-plus,” said Jennings. “As a group we weighed the value of the everyday guy weighed a little bit more than a guy at the top end of the rotation.
“Every fifth day I’d rather have Beckett, but those other four I’d rather have Hamilton,” he continued. “That’s kind of how it ended up. Everyday production, where we were as an organization, was what we needed more as opposed to a guy at the top of the rotation.”
The Rays informed Hamilton the day before the draft that he would go No. 1. He seemed capable of a rapid ascent to the majors, putting up great numbers in Rookie Level ball after signing, and flashing across-the-board tools in 2000. Hamilton was named to the All-Star Futures game that year, as was Beckett.
“The first time we met was at the Futures Game. I borrowed his sunglasses,” recalled Hamilton. “It was awkward, because of everything I’d heard about him. I heard he was cocky, arrogant, all that stuff. You can’t help but form an opinion about what people say.”
There was an irony in that, since Beckett came with the label of cockiness and arrogance, while Hamilton was viewed as a squeaky-clean All-American. Yet it was Beckett who showed a singularity of purpose in his baseball career, his mind always focused on attaining greatness (so long as injuries did not get in the way).
It was Hamilton who was viewed as the golden boy, the perfect personality to go along with that perfect swing that sent rockets soaring miles from high plate. And so it was startling when Hamilton, starting in 2001, became an addict whose career was derailed completely by his chemical dependency.
“All of the things that happened with Hamilton afterwards certainly were a shock to us because the times when were around him he was absolutely the All-American kid,” said Jennings. “When you look at risk with some of these guys, the dollars you pay them, potential of injury, the potential of straying off the path like Hamilton did. There are so many things that you talk about in a draft room. And there’s no crystal ball.”
It would be difficult to say which was more difficult to foresee: the fact that Hamilton disappeared from the game, or the fact that after his four years on the sidelines, he returned not merely as a functional player but as an All-Star.
Beckett, who was taken second overall by Florida in the 1999 draft, took less time to flash his own brilliance, albeit in short flashes for the first several years of his career. Though he dealt with years of trips to the disabled list, Beckett put his signature on the world of Major League Baseball in winning World Series MVP honors in 2003 – in the process, ironically, getting a ring for Jennings, who had moved to the Marlins by that time.
But on the way to that ring, and the next one that he claimed as a member of the Sox in 2007, Beckett remained interested in how his former rival for draft supremacy was doing.
“I have a lot of respect for him,” said Beckett. “We have the same people in our lives. I’ve always kept up with everything that’s gone on with him.”
Now, that task has become much easier. For the first time, the former mega-prospects faced each other last September 5 in a game between the Rangers and Red Sox. Hamilton fanned in the first inning, then lined a single off of Beckett in his second at-bat.
The confrontations reaffirmed what Hamilton suspected.
“He’s a great pitcher. He’s got great stuff,” said Hamilton. “He’s been special to watch.”
For Jennings and the rest of the baseball world, such a statement now holds equally true of both players. Beckett, who starts for Boston in Texas on Tuesday night, is now the ace of a Red Sox team that has visions of once again riding his right shoulder to another championship. Hamilton is a middle-of-the-order hitter for the Rangers with supernatural strength that became staggeringly evident in 2008, during a ridiculous Home Run Derby display at the All-Star Game.
The path has been long and treacherous, and at times, the end was not in sight for either player. But now, 10 years after their professional debuts, they have somehow managed to find themselves exactly where everyone thought they would be when they were high-school seniors.
“It’s been great for me because I’ve been around both kids and to be able to see what they’ve done,” said Jennings, “and to look back 10 years from then and be able to say, ‘Wow, those were two guys who turned out exactly the way it we thought that they would.’”