Wright man for the job

Dec. 14, 2007

by Mike Payne usabaseball.com

Jeremy Hamilton opened the door and saw the Team USA coaches gathered in the room, grim faces on each and every one of them and nobody saying a word.

USA Head Coach Mike Weathers was up front, and with him were assistants Bill Kinneberg (Utah), Mark Scalf (UNC Wilmington) and USA National Team General Manager Eric Campbell. Over to the side was coach Rob Cooper -- one of the 2007 Team USA assistant coaches, who also happens to be Hamilton's coach at Wright State. Cooper wouldn't even make eye contact with his best player.

Jeremy Hamilton
•  2007 USA Baseball National Team
•  2007 First-Team All-Horizon League Selection
•  2007 Horizon League All-Tournament Team
•  2006 Horizon League All-Tournament Team
•  2006 Horizon League All-Newcomer Team
Did you know?
•  Jeremy is an avid bowler, and earned three letters in bowling in high school, finishing 17th in the 2005 Ohio State Tournament while throwing 20 consecutive 200-plus games
•  He worried about egos when he joined Team USA, but was pleasantly surprised at the low key nature of his teammates. "I thought I was going to have to deal with a bunch of egos," he says. "But everyone got along really well, and very quickly. I just couldn't have been in a better situation."
•  Broke his own single-season school record for putouts last season with 529
•  His 62 RBI and six triples both led all Horizon League hitters in 2007
For Cooper, it was the "Ultimate Honor"
Rob Cooper remembers some of the great USA Baseball teams and players from the past: Ty Griffin's home run in the Pan Am Games, Jim Abbott dealing in the 1988 Olympics, Tino Martinez, the 1984 Olympic Team in Los Angeles.
"I just remember thinking how much better could it ever get than representing your country?" he says. Cooper's dream never materialized as an active player -- "I was never a good enough player for that to happen," he says -- but when USA Baseball National Team General Manager Eric Campbell and 2007 National Team Coach Mike Weathers asked Cooper to come aboard as a coach, "that was really amazing."
"I remember Coach Weathers telling me that when I heard the National Anthem with this uniform on, it would sound different," Cooper says.
On the Fourth of July, Team USA defeated Japan in front of a spirited sellout crowd at Durham Athletic Park. Cooper's family members -- including his two young children -- were in attendance. "The place is packed, we win, we're wearing the camo jerseys and there are fireworks," Cooper says. "Whooo ... that goes down as my greatest memory in baseball.
"For me to wear that USA uniform is for me, far and away, the ultimate honor."

"I remember thinking, 'Oh, this is not good,'" says Hamilton.

Tryouts for a few remaining positions on Team USA were over, and the coaches had the unfortunate responsibility of telling the players gathered outside of the room that they would not be added to the team. Their dreams of wearing the red, white and blue were over ... at least for that season.

"We were up in New England staying in a dorm," Hamilton recalls. "They had the player meetings in the cafeteria. There were big glass doors, and there were all these players that had been invited to tryout sitting out there wondering who was going to make it. There was a lot of talk of who would and who wouldn't. It was quite an experience sitting there waiting, wondering if I was going home or not." Finally, Weathers spoke. He told Hamilton that he thought he was a great kid, but that sometimes in life there are hard decisions to be made. And they had to make one then and there.

The silence was deafening, until Weathers perked up and told him, "You're in."

Weathers' protracted "act somber" joke elicited laughter throughout the room, much of it the relieved variety from Hamilton who just seconds before had been sitting there thinking about travel plans home. But then Weathers got serious.

"Do you promise to keep doing the things you've been doing and just keep being who you are?" Weathers asked. Hamilton assured the coaching staff nothing would change.

"Mike Weathers told me that you've always got to have a player on the team that understands what it means to wear the USA uniform," Cooper says. "Not that the other guys didn't, but Mike said, 'We've got to have this guy.'"

Weathers, head coach at Long Beach State, understands talent and understands intangibles. More importantly, he knows every team needs both. In Hamilton, he saw a ballplayer with a great deal of talent and a "team first" mentality.

Hamilton proved that right away when he quickly agreed to play the outfield for Team USA - never mind that he's an outstanding first baseman at Wright State and had only played the outfield a couple times early in his high school career. But Team USA already had two first basemen - sluggers Justin Smoak of South Carolina and Brett Wallace of Arizona State. Hamilton went right to work to learn the angles of the corners and to see how the ball came off the bat, taking extra fungo before games. "I thought it was going to be a huge adjustment," Hamilton says. "But it really wasn't. I thought I played okay for someone who hadn't ever played out there at this level."

"For him to join a team that already had two first basemen and be willing to go to the outfield ... well, that shows you his unselfishness, and shows why the other coaches felt he needed to be on the team," Cooper says.

If it sounds like Cooper is a huge Hamilton fan, he is. Not only were Hamilton's 64 RBI at Wright State last season the fifth-best single-season output in school history, but Jeremy has helped raise the level of recognition for the school and given Cooper a player he can point to with pride during the recruiting process. And that's all a little funny to the coach, too. After all, he was the only school interested in Hamilton while the youngster was playing at Princeton High School in Cincinnati. Cooper recalls turning the corner by a field in which Hamilton was playing.

"I had kind of come late to the game, and as I'm walking down the right-field line I see Jeremy at the plate," he says. "The first pitch he sees he hits a home run, and he's got this fluid swing. I remember thinking, 'That's a great swing.'

"As I watched him, I saw the way he plays -- he plays like a little kid. And guys wanted to be around him. Right then I knew I really liked him."

Cooper approached the Hamilton family thinking he would be competing with other big programs to sign Hamilton.

"I'm talking to them and I find out no one is recruiting him -- no one," Cooper says, still with a hint of surprise even today. "It was just us; I started wondering if I was missing something that everyone else saw."

Turns out he wasn't. Cooper attended another game to see if he came away as impressed with Hamilton as he was the first time. He was, and Wright State made Hamilton - fresh out of his junior year of high school -- an official offer. The kid accepted, and the rest is Wright State history.

In Hamilton's first two years at Wright State, the Raiders have posted two 30-win seasons. Cooper knows that Hamilton could be lost to the MLB First-Year Player Draft next June, but Hamilton himself doesn't allow himself to think much beyond the Raiders' first game of the season next spring. "My expectation is just playing," Hamilton says. "It can be hard not thinking about the draft, but I've got to be able to separate it and keep it in the back of my mind. What I do today is not going to affect my draft status."

Watching Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez go about his business last summer during the Team USA season left an impression on Jeremy. "Here's a guy who's a big name, favored to go No. 1 overall in the draft next year, and I learned so much just watching him ... the hard work and the mind-set he would take to the field day in and day out," Hamilton says.

Cooper saw Hamilton fit right in with the likes of Alvarez, Wallace and Smoak.

"Being around some really good talent really reaffirmed his belief in himself," the coach says. "Guys like Pedro Alvarez and Justin Smoak, you read their names in Baseball America and hear their names on TV. For Jeremy, it was an opportunity to see that he does belong in that elite group. He went toe-to-toe with them and did well. Now he walks more confident, believes even more in his ability, and now has a chance to play for awhile."

For Cooper, the USA experience provided something every coach desires, but rarely admits to: validation. "I learned that other top programs around the country are doing things like we're doing them at Wright State," Cooper says. "It gave me the confidence to know that we're doing things right and we're coaching kids the right way in our program."

In this off-season, Hamilton goes to class, works at his game and -- every day -- thinks about his USA experience, particularly when Team USA beat Japan on the Fourth of July in North Carolina and an overflow crowd at Durham Athletic Park was yelling "USA! USA!"

"My greatest thrill in baseball," he says without hesitation. "My parents were there, my grandparents were there, we were wearing the camo jerseys, and we had just won ... it was just unbelievable." During the off-season, he received a letter from two fans who asked if he would sign a couple of photos they had taken during one game. "My first fan letter!" he says, and then unabashedly tells a visitor, "It's hanging up in my room right now."

There are likely to be many more. The kid that Rob Cooper saw homer as a high school player, whom no other colleges seemed interested in, is poised to take the biggest step of his career should he be drafted by a major league club. He laughs, almost as if he can't believe what's happened in the last year.

Someone mentions that even if he's not drafted, or if he doesn't sign, he would be eligible for Team USA again.

"That's right," Hamilton says. "I would be, wouldn't I? "I would welcome that possibility."

So would USA Baseball. After all, every team needs a player who understands - and appreciates - what it means to wear the uniform.