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It's Fun and Games for Top Rookie

BURLINGTON -- When Josh Hamilton was 12, his family took him to a baseball game between the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians. He eagerly waited to get an autograph.

“They were standing outside waiting to get an autograph, and [the players] kind of just walked by like ‘We don’t have time for you,’ ” said Linda, Josh’s mother. “I think that’s one thing he has remembered.”

Maybe that’s why six years later, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft makes every effort to accommodate his fans.

More than a month after he was drafted by Tampa Bay, Hamilton, who graduated from Raleigh’s Athens Drive High School in June, still is receiving autograph requests in the mail ranging from postcards to baseball bats -- and he signs all of them.

His consideration for the fans extends to the ballpark as well. For instance, he signed autographs for almost an hour Sunday before his Princeton Devil Rays took on the Burlington Indians at Burlington Athletic Stadium.

“I don’t intend to walk by,” Hamilton said. “They watch the game and they think that much of you to ask for your autograph, you should give it to them.”

That’s just one of the signs that a $3.65-million signing bonus, the largest in baseball history, hasn’t changed the 18-year-old’s perspective on life and the game.

“He loves to play baseball,” Princeton manager Bobby Ramos said. “He probably would’ve played the game for free, but they paid him.”

Hamilton played quite well Sunday night, his first game in North Carolina since he signed and began playing in the rookie-level Appalachian League. He went 2-for-4 in front of 2,135 fans in Princeton’s 4-2 victory. He singled in the third and stole a base. He later doubled with two outs in the eighth and scored on a single to break a 2-2 tie.

While most of his classmates are getting ready to leave home for college this month, Hamilton has been away from home since the middle of June. Familiar faces, however, never have been far away.

His parents rented a house in Princeton, W.Va., for the summer and have been to every game.

His mother said they intend to accompany him to St. Petersburg, Fla., in September when he plays in the instructional league.

“My parents are with me now,” Hamilton said. “They come to all the games, so it’s like I’m not away from home really. It’s been fun. I know sooner or later I’m going to have to break away and be my own self, but right now I think it’s good.”

Still, there are some familiar things even his parents can’t provide.

“On my off days, I go home and get Grandma’s cooking,” Hamilton said. “Last off day, I went home for spaghetti, sweet tea and French bread. They don’t know what sweet tea is [in West Virginia].”

While Hamilton still is getting used to food away from home, he has feasted on pitching around the Appalachian League.

Heading into Sunday’s game, he was hitting a team-high .331 with six homers and 27 RBIs. He ranked in the top five in the league in batting and hits.

“I’ve been hitting with wooden bats for a year and a half, but I’ve never faced live pitching with a wooden bat,” Hamilton said. “I think I like wood more than I like aluminum bats; it’s more natural. It just feels like that’s the way the game should be played, with a wooden bat.”

Ramos, who in his 27 years in professional baseball has coached major-leaguers such as Kenny Lofton and Darryl Kile, said Hamilton could be a star if he stays healthy.

“He’s a five-tool player,” Ramos said. “He can hit, hit for power. He’s a good fielder. He can run and he can throw. He’s got a chance to be special.”

Hamilton said his No.1-pick status hasn’t affected his relationship with other players on the team.

The rest of the team has taken him in as one of the guys.

And that applies both in the clubhouse and at the dinner table. Hamilton set the ground rule early on - he will not pick up the tab every time the players eat out.

“I’m like, ’I’m on the regular minor-league salary. I make just as much as y’all do,’ ” he said

Except most guys in the minor leagues don’t drive a Firebird TransAm.

While Hamilton hasn’t splurged too much since signing -- he still owns only two pairs of shoes -- he did purchase his dream car last Wednesday.

Even that expense, however, served as a reminder that Hamilton was still 18 -- he asked his parents for permission before buying the car.

“That’s my dream car for the past four years,” Hamilton said. “We were driving by and I saw it and I was like, ‘Stop the car!’ ”

Now he’s driving the dream and living the dream.