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Teammates see a star in Hamilton, eventually

Rays' phenom needs time but has shown striking ability, attitude to match.

There are moments when Josh Hamilton looks ready. Like Tuesday afternoon, when he drove in the winning run with an eighth-inning single. Like the way he gracefully runs down balls in the outfield and fires them to the infield. The way he pounds the ball in batting practice. The way he handles himself and carries himself throughout the day.

Even with a .227 average, Hamilton has drawn some of the most impressive reviews this spring of all players in all camps.

But the reality is that he still is only 19, has fewer than 700 minor-league at-bats, has not played even a full season at the low Class A level.

Sometime soon, maybe in the next few days, Rays officials are likely to make the most logical and conservative decision, reassigning Hamilton to the minor leagues, probably to open the season with Double-A Orlando.

"Some guys worry about it about every day, if I'll still be here tomorrow. The main thing I learned is to have fun and whatever happens, happens," Hamilton said. "If I'm going down, I'm going down. If I'm not, I'm not. There's no extra pressure, I feel like I can (play here). Then again, it's not my decision. I guess it's what they feel I can do."

The decision, manager Larry Rothschild said, will be based on a compilation of factors. "It's the whole thing," Rothschild said. "If he's physically ready, not strength-wise or anything else, but just to make the adjustments, whether he's seen enough pitches in his minor-league career or if he just has that special knack to do it. Mentally, it's not a matter of how good, how much he's in the right frame of mind and keeps himself going, but can he get through the tough times when you're under the microscope in the major leagues?"

Such intangibles are hard to gauge in present time and even more difficult to predict, which makes reassigning Hamilton a safer move than taking a chance that early failure could damage his long-term success.

Hamilton said he thought he might have been cut last week and is prepared for the possibility any day. But when, or if, he goes, he will do so with a salve. "If I go down," he said, "I'll be back at some point."

That doesn't seem to be much of a question.

Despite his modest numbers, Hamilton has made an impressive impression on teammates, who like what they've seen on and off the field. He might need a little work handling major-league breaking balls and knowing how to respond when pitchers exploit his weaknesses, but there is no doubt about the legitimacy of his potential.

"The real deal," Greg Vaughn said. "He's got everything. He can do it all."

"He has all the tools," Fred McGriff said. "He can run. He has an excellent arm, the best I've seen in a while. He has power and he's a good hitter.

"He has a chance to be a real good player if he keeps his head on straight. He's young and everybody's telling him he's great and he's going to be this and that. If he keeps from believing all the hype and keeps going about his business and trying to improve, he has a chance to play in this league a long time."

As impressive as Hamilton has been in the outfield and, occasionally, at the plate, it is what he does during practice, in the clubhouse and on the buses that stands out.

"You wouldn't think by looking at him he's 19 years old," said Ben Grieve, who, as the No. 2 pick in the 1994 draft, can relate to Hamilton's situation. "He looks like a veteran, the way he acts and carries himself. It's pretty amazing, not coming from a baseball family and coming from out in the country a little bit, to be able to act like that. Most guys aren't as mature at that age no matter who you are."

"The thing that separates him from a lot of people is that you could never tell he was the No. 1 pick in the country and the No. 1 prospect in baseball," Vaughn said. "He's so level-headed. He's just another guy trying to fit in. He doesn't walk around with an ego like a lot of these young guys, like they're doing the game a favor when they haven't done anything and half of them don't even make it. He doesn't come in here with his high school yearbook talking about how great he was.

"He just goes out, asks questions, and plays hard."

About the only thing Hamilton needs, most agree, is experience.

"He just needs to play," Vaughn said. "He either has to play every day or he needs to go to the minors."

Hamilton has had just 22 at-bats this spring, fewer than you get in a good week. Though he probably has done better than his numbers show (5-for-22), he hasn't dominated the way he needed to to win a starting job.

"I know in spring training you're not playing every day, but it's tough to get in there and succeed every time you get in there," he said. "I think the question all along has been my offense and how I'd handle failure. You have to play every day to handle that. It's just like anything else. Last season in July I think I hit .167 (while finishing at .302 overall). It's part of the game. You adjust to it."

Time to grow

With 1{ seasons in the minors, Josh Hamilton is looking to jump to the big leagues. Here is a look at how much time other highly touted prospects who were drafted out of high school spent on the farm:

Name Games ABs Avg. HRs RBI

Ben Grieve 464 1,723 .308 63 345

Ken Griffey 130 465 .318 27 92

Josh Hamilton 168 699 .306 23 116

Derek Jeter 448 1,756 .306 16 213

Alex Rodriguez 170 645 .327 36 129

_ Source: Times research

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