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PHOENIX – Billy Hamilton says it’s like he never left.
Certainly, though, the White Sox and their fans noticed the disappearance of one of Hamilton’s main contributions to the team that ran away with the AL Central crown in 2021, the lack of energy and fun among the defining features of the 2022 club, which finished .500 and missed the playoffs.
But Hamilton is back in White Sox camp this spring, here on a minor league deal with hopes of winning a roster spot as a fourth outfielder.
Already, the vibes have returned.
“I got another chance,” Hamilton told CHGO last week. “This is, in 2021, where I felt great. Me getting an opportunity to come back here was a big thing for me. They called in the offseason and said, ‘We want to get you back here and see what you can do.’ That really gave me life.
“It was like I never left, and that’s the main thing about it, every last one of these guys are like brothers to me. I think I was excited the night before I got here. ‘I’m excited for tomorrow to get here like I’ve never seen these guys before. I’m ready to get here.’ I couldn’t sleep the night before. I got here, and everybody was like we’ve been together the whole time. Everybody was excited. I was excited.”
The story is the same as it ever was for Hamilton, whose incredible speed and solid defense have taken him to a host of teams over his decade-long big league career. He’s appeared in major league games with seven different clubs since leaving the Reds after the 2018 season. But perhaps more than those on-field skills, his clubhouse presence was an obvious benefit to the White Sox in 2021.
That’s been the case wherever he’s been, including a 2019 stop with the Royals, where new White Sox manager Pedro Grifol was part of the coaching staff.
“He’s a high-energy guy. He loves the game. He loves baseball, in general,” Grifol told CHGO on Sunday. “He loves to be around the guys. And nothing really fazes him, which is good. He’s always got a smile on his face.
“He’s a guy that I think is really important for all of us, myself included. He keeps things loose. Sometimes I can forget about the fun part a little bit. It’s important for me to see somebody with a smile on their face and having fun, it kind of checks me a little bit. That’s Billy.”
It remains to be seen whether Grifol and the other White Sox decision-makers will include Hamilton in their plans for the upcoming season. The roster is pretty crowded but would figure to have a spot for a defensive-minded reserve outfielder.
If Andrew Benintendi, Luis Robert Jr. and Oscar Colás soak up the starting jobs out there and Gavin Sheets fills a role as a power bat off the bench, Hamilton could find a niche as someone who can spell the starters, provide late-game defense and of course utilize his speed as a weapon to win close games – something especially valuable given the new rules about how many times a pitcher can throw over to first base.
But there are other veteran outfielders in camp on minor league deals who fit a similar description, even without Hamilton’s all-time elite speed. Jake Marisnick and Victor Reyes are part of White Sox camp, not to mention the uber-versatile Leury García, who can play the outfield in addition to three of the four positions on the infield.
Hamilton, though, has a different mindset. It was with the White Sox in 2021 where his relationship with Tim Anderson led to an attitude adjustment that gave him more confidence at the plate. Now, it’s not about trying to win the last spot on the 26-man roster, it’s about trying to be the best Billy Hamilton he can be.
“I’ve known that for the last two or three years, pretty much the same vibe from every team with me coming in, be a fourth outfielder, coming in and running bases, coming in late,” he said. “But I’ve got to keep my thought and main work ethic on being great. I don’t want to come in here knowing, ‘OK, I’m going for a fourth-outfielder spot.’
“No, I’m going for a spot to be myself and just get better, not just coming in here lackadaisical and relaxed because I already know my role. No, I’m coming in every day to bring all the vibes, bring all the energy, try to get better.”
Even with that blazing speed, that superior base-running ability and what he can do in the outfield – how could anyone forget that jaw-dropping catch in Minnesota? – there’s nothing more valuable that Hamilton can bring than vibes and energy. The White Sox looked drained of all the fun they had in 2020 and 2021 throughout last season, and while plenty of that can be chalked up to the on-field results, having some sort of rallying force in the clubhouse can be a huge plus in warding off a similar fate in 2023.
Will it be enough to land Hamilton a roster spot? We’ll see.
But Billy is back. And it’s like he never left.
“I feel like the vibe’s going to be good going into spring training,” he said. “As of right now, I think everything’s going to be great for us.”
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