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Tampa Bay Rays' pick of Josh Hamilton over Josh Beckett is looking smarter 10 years later

ST. PETERSBURG

Josh Beckett or Josh Hamilton?

Once, it was the only question that mattered in Tampa Bay. Two phenomenal talents, and one chance for the Devil Rays to get it right. Should they draft the smart-aleck pitcher from Texas, or the gee-whiz outfielder from North Carolina?

Ten years later, it is obvious Tampa Bay put its faith in the wrong player.

But 10 years from now, will that still be true?

On the outside, he was noncommittal. Secretly, general manager Chuck LaMar was leaning toward Beckett.

This was early in the process, long before a decision would have to be made. LaMar wanted to keep it to himself because he did not want anyone else in the organization to be influenced by what the boss was thinking.

But Beckett had grown up in the Houston suburb of Spring, Texas, not far from where LaMar's career had begun. So a familiarity was there. Maybe even an affection. LaMar still knew a lot of the locals, and they assured him the right-hander was another Kerry Wood. Maybe even better. They were saying he was a first-round talent by the time his high school sophomore season had ended. Not a future first-rounder. Right then. As a sophomore. He was that good.

"Going into that draft, I think Beckett was the guy everyone was looking at for the No. 1 pick," said R.J. Harrison, then a national scout and now the Rays' scouting director. "It was going to be the job of someone else to knock him off the top of the hill.

"And Josh Hamilton basically did."

•••

The kid was milk and cookies. Like he had stepped off the screen of a 1950s sitcom.

Josh Hamilton was a Sir and Ma'am kind of student. Big grin, big hands and, my goodness, big talent. He could hit, he could run, he could throw. If he had never picked up a bat, Hamilton would have been a first-round pick as a pitcher.

As it was, by the time summer rolled around in 1999, people were talking about Hamilton as a generational type of talent. As good as Alex Rodriguez in 1993 or Ken Griffey in '87. And, on top of it all, he was a mother's dream.

"This kid was not only a baseball player in every sense but he carried himself extremely well," said LaMar, now an assistant GM with the Phillies. "When you're making this kind of investment, you do the background check. And it showed he was anything but a problem. There was no hint you would ever have a problem with him."

Beckett, on the other hand, was different. Not a bad kid, just different.

He was cocky to the point of arrogant. He had no trouble explaining how good he was, and was not shy about tossing his name around with Roger Clemens or Nolan Ryan or any other hard-throwing Texan.

For years, the word around the Rays' offices was that owner Vince Naimoli was turned off by Beckett's attitude during a home visit. The teenager slouched on the couch and acted as if he would be doing the Rays a favor by allowing them to make him a millionaire.

LaMar insists that account is not true. Nevertheless, a decision had been made.

On this day, 10 years ago, LaMar visited the Hamilton home in Raleigh. It was the eve of the draft, and he told them he would be calling 10 a.m. the next day and asking Josh if he wanted to be a Tampa Bay Devil Ray.

•••

You probably know the rest.

Beckett was the second pick of the draft and was in the big leagues two years later. At 23, he won the clinching game of the 2003 World Series for the Marlins. Four years later, he won another World Series with the Red Sox.

As for Hamilton, his career nearly ended before it began. He hurt his back in an auto accident in the spring of 2001 and later developed a cocaine addiction. He eventually missed three full seasons to suspensions and drug abuse. He was plucked off the Rays' roster by the Reds in the winter of 2006 and didn't reach the big leagues until nearly eight years after he was drafted.

But the thing is, their stories are not over.

Beckett has fought his share of minor injuries and has not been a dominant pitcher for a couple of seasons. Hamilton, meanwhile, emerged last year as one of the most exciting players in the big leagues.

"I took a lot of heat for a long time because Josh Beckett turned out to be what we all thought he would be," LaMar said. "People ask me if I feel vindicated now that Josh Hamilton is an All-Star. Not at all. I just feel truly happy for Josh and his family.

"You spend a lot of time on the road in this business. A lot of time away from your family in hotels and airports, just hoping to get a chance to see a player like Josh Hamilton. To see him on a baseball field at 18 could literally take your breath away. His talent was staggering, and I'm glad the world is getting a chance to see that now."

Josh Beckett or Josh Hamilton? For the past 10 years, the answer should have been Beckett. For the next 10 years, I'm not so sure.

Tampa Bay Rays' pick of Josh Hamilton over Josh Beckett is looking smarter 10 years later 05/31/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 2, 2009 1:58pm]

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