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07-12-2008, 06:37 AM
Clay Council, an American Legion volunteer coach, used to pitch batting practice to Josh Hamilton. Now he'll pitch to him at Yankee Stadium.

Hamilton delivers on promise
71-year-old Clay Council will pitch to the All-Star during MLB's Home Run Derby

ARLINGTON, Texas - Years ago, Josh Hamilton made a promise to Clay Council. They never shook hands or signed a contract. It was just the word of one baseball player to another.

Hamilton, an Athens Drive student at the time, told Council, an American Legion volunteer coach who tossed batting practice, that if he ever reached Major League Baseball's Home Run Derby he would take him along to pitch.

Three weeks ago, Council's phone rang in his Cary home. On the other end was Hamilton, the former Athens Drive High School phenom and now major league All-Star for the Texas Rangers.

"That's the first guy I thought about," Hamilton said on Thursday after batting practice before a game against the Los Angeles Angels at Rangers Ballpark.

Hamilton added, "He's done so much for so many kids and probably hasn't got a lot of thank yous for it. This is a big thank you."

Hamilton, voted this season to his first Major League Baseball All-Star Game, called Council to remind him of the promises they made to each other years ago.

"Are you as good as your word?" Hamilton asked.

"Yeah, man," Council answered.

And so 71-year-old Clay Council will travel from the Triangle to New York on Sunday to toss pitches to the Raleigh-born Hamilton during Monday night's Major League Baseball Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium.

"That's the plan," Council said on Wednesday. "Unless I get cold feet. I'm 71 years old. Anything can happen. You don't plan too far in advance when you're 71."

Council said Hamilton, who bats left-handed, has never had trouble hitting him, so he was a logical choice.

"Throwing to him throughout the years, he's always hit me so hard," Council said. "I would tease him, 'If you ever have a tryout or get to the Home Run Derby, you better let me throw because you wear me out.' "

There's no reason to believe Council will not put the ball on the money at the Derby. He's delivered strikes to countless young players throughout the Triangle for nearly 40 years as a volunteer coach for Cary High School and Cary American Legion teams.

The 1955 Apex High graduate has had an affinity for baseball since he played American Legion ball in Raleigh as a teenager. He would go on to play three years of rookie professional ball and two years in the Army before returning to his Morrisville hometown and joining the coaching ranks.

For years he worked with Eastern Air Lines and two years ago retired as an employee at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. He has always coached baseball, enjoying the opportunity to offer teenagers praise and guidance. He is still a volunteer coach and holds BP for anybody who wants to hit.

He first pitched to Hamilton when the future All-Star was 13 years old. The youngster tagged along with his brother, Jason, to practice with the Cary American Legion team. He took batting practice, and everyone noticed his enormous talent.

Hamilton, who would play on an American Legion team in Fuquay-Varina, never played for Council, though occasionally he joined the coach for batting practice.

Hamilton took cuts off Council maybe 25 times over the years, and the running joke -- as he mashed balls over the fence -- was always about going to the Derby.

It's taken Hamilton some time and effort to make good on his promise. There have been some major setbacks for the former No. 1 selection in the 1999 baseball draft. A three-and-a-half-year battle with alcohol and drug addiction, combined with injuries, nearly derailed his dreams of major league stardom.

Since then, he's faced his problems. He's owned up to his mistakes. He's relied on his faith and support from family and friends.

This is just Hamilton's second year in the majors. The 27-year-old was traded to the Rangers by the Cincinnati Reds in the offseason. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound outfielder is leading the majors with 93 RBIs.

During the offseason, Hamilton faced Council in the batter's box for a few practice swings. It was fitting that he invited his old friend to serve them up during the Home Run Derby.

"To be able to have him there with me and have him pitch to me means the world," Hamilton said. "There are so many people like Clay that give and give and give and never expect anything in return."

Council never expected this kind of gratitude. Not even when Hamilton joked about the possibility.

He's returning to Yankee Stadium for the second time in his life. If this trip yields half the excitement of the last, it will be worth setting the DVR.

The last time he visited New York he somehow struck upon some World Series tickets.

"You won't believe this," Council said. "But the game I saw was Don Larsen pitch a [perfect game] in 1956. ... The Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers."

How do you top that?

Well, you get invited to throw pitches at the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game before millions of televised viewers.

You get invited to the All-Star Game held at Yankee Stadium during its final season.

"I don't know which will be the greatest thrill," he said. "I believe Monday night will be."

He can imagine himself out on the mound where the Babe once ruled. He'll certainly carry nerves onto the field. Perhaps sweaty palms. But his arm will be loose.

"Can you imagine an old country boy in Yankee Stadium?" Council said. "What do you say? Eat your heart out, Gomer Pyle."

edward.robinson@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4781

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07-12-2008, 06:46 AM
Great story and thanks for posting!

07-12-2008, 07:54 AM
Like your title says Pretty cool