TAMPA — It’s been nearly four years. Yankees non-roster reliever Ian Hamilton still vividly recalls every last detail of the foul ball that shattered his jaw, knocked out several teeth, required eight surgeries and derailed his surging career for more than three seasons.
The season after Hamilton debuted in the majors with the Chicago White Sox, the hard-throwing righty was on the injured list and rehabbing with Triple-A Charlotte on June 4, 2019.
His summer already had been a series of disasters.
Hamilton was in line to break camp with the White Sox until he experienced shoulder discomfort from a spring training car accident. The setback cost him only a week on the injured list, but the Sox nevertheless optioned him to Triple-A after just one Grapefruit League appearance.
Hamilton pitched poorly for Charlotte, in part because, as he later confessed, he’d been having headaches since the wreck. That led to another injured list stint. And just as he was about to be activated, Hamilton’s luck took yet another bad turn: He broke a pinky toe after slipping out of a hotel room chair.
Two days later, trying to come to grips with the black cloud that had been following him everywhere, Hamilton hit rock bottom.
He was sitting in the first base dugout while his Charlotte Knights faced the Gwinnett Stripers. What happened in the next millisecond remains with Hamilton to this day.
“LOOK OUT!” is what he heard as a foul ball blistered towards the dugout.
Hamilton looked up at the last moment, but the ball was a 100-mph predator, faster than his reflexes.
He remembers the sensation of his face being blown apart, as if someone had stuck dynamite in his mouth.
The ball instantly knocked out three upper front teeth. Hamilton nearly choked before spitting the teeth out in his hand. A trainer sprinted to Hamilton’s aid, applying pressure to the wound with a towel.
It took only moments for the gushing blood to turn the white cloth bright red.
Hamilton was rushed into emergency surgery, where doctors repaired fractures in his face. They removed a bone the size of a silver dollar from the roof of his mouth.
“I remember the whole thing,” Hamilton recently told NJ Advance Media. “It hit me square in the mouth. I looked up and ball was right there. I saw it right before it hit me square in the mouth.
“It knocked me back and three of my front teeth literally exploded into the back of my throat. I coughed them up into my hand, then threw them on the ground. I was totally aware of everything that happened. Lots of pain. The trainer was there next to me squeezing my hand.”
Hamilton managed to crack a smile.
“I must have been half out of it because I kept asking the nurse if my teeth would grow back,” he said.
Hamilton wasn’t out of the woods just yet. He had to sleep in a chair for a week due to headaches that were at times excruciating. He threw up blood. He had seven more surgeries to reconstruct his jaw. He couldn’t eat solid food for more than a year.
Hamilton’s baseball career suffered as well. He didn’t pitch again in 2019, then struggled between 2020-22 with recurring headaches while trying to hook on with different organizations. Between waiver claims and a trade, Hamilton felt like a transient in cleats, jumping from the White Sox to the Mariners to the Phillies to the Twins to the Guardians. All in just three seasons.
The dizzying ride, full of frustration and uncertainty, trace back to that fateful foul ball.
“I didn’t realize how much it would affect me,” Hamilton said. “I couldn’t do any real activity. The constant stress on my head … you feel everything. It was crazy. I had lots of headaches. I couldn’t sleep for very long. Not a great time.”
The Yankees took a low-risk gamble on Hamilton last January, signing him to a minor-league contract. Pitching coach Matt Blake liked Hamilton’s arm from his days as a Cleveland scout. The Yankees thought maybe they could bring the best out of him this year.
They have this spring.
Hamilton instantly impressed the Yankees in his bullpen and live batting practice sessions. He’s been just as successful in each of his Grapefruit League appearances, registering three shutout innings in three appearances, including a scoreless inning with a bloop single and strikeout in the Yankees’ 9-2 win over the Pirates on Monday night.
“I was really excited when we signed him because I know that he’s got a really good arsenal,” Blake said. “So far he’s looked really good. He’s hit the ground running. He’s physically in shape. The arm looks really good. He’s made some adjustments to how he operates. I definitely feel good about the plan that he’s on and his progression so far.”
Hamilton has retired nine of the 10 batters he faced with a mid-to-high 90s fastball and darting changeup that he calls his “cut-change.”
It’s a highly unorthodox weapon that has caught Aaron Boone’s attention.
“That pitch is a problem,” the manager said. “It’s a weird, good pitch.”
“It’s a joke around here,” Blake said. “Is it a changeup? Is it a cutter? Is it a slider? All I know is it’s unique and it’s good.”
Hamilton, 27, has become a legitimate candidate for the the Opening Day roster. Not holding a 40-man roster spot works against him, but Lucas Luetge overcame a similar handicap in 2021. The left-handed journeyman was flawless in spring training and earned a bullpen slot at age 34 after not pitching in the majors for five seasons.
This time around, the Yankees probably had only one bullpen spot open at the start of camp. But Tommy Kahnle’s biceps tendinitis has created a second opening - and hope for Hamilton.
“His innings have been lights out and quick,” Boone said. “He’s pounding the strike zone. He’s definitely opened some eyes.”
It’s easy to root for Hamilton because of his back story.
“Absolutely,” Blake added. “There’s the human side of this that really makes it enjoyable. We’re trying to get these guys to be the best version of themselves and give them the confidence to go out there and do that. Hopefully Ian is one of those guys that continues do well for us and has a chance to break on the roster.”
Born in New Hampshire and raised in Washington state, Hamilton is a quiet, unassuming Yankee who keeps a low profile in the clubhouse. He admits that he’s finally feeling healthy again. He’s confident in his abilities. He’s happy.
The fates have finally given him a break.
“I’ve been through a lot,” Hamilton said. “I didn’t start feeling myself again until around the end of last year. It’s weird. It’s like I went through a rebirth, a cleansing. I’m happy to be here with the Yankees. I’m here trying to prove that I can pitch. That’s about it.”
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