Hall gets the call|[06/29/08]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 29, 2008

Port Gibson native gets promotion to Double-A Montgomery

As J.T. Hall launched home run after home run into the Florida sky two weeks ago, with his family cheering him on and teammates jokingly toweling him off to cool him down, it was easy to believe it was one of the best days of the young hitter’s career.

Not long after, it’s safe to call this June the best month.

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Hall, a 24-year-old Port Gibson native, started the summer by being named to the Florida State League All-Star team and winning the game’s home run derby. A few days later he was promoted to the Montgomery Biscuits, the Double-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays. It was a long-awaited call-up for the former 41st-round draft pick who has toiled in Class A ball for all but four games of his pro career.

“I’m handling it good so far. It’s a great experience,” Hall said. “I feel like I’m going to be here a while. I think the front office saw all the hard work I’ve put in and gave me a shot.”

For a while, it looked like Hall might be just another in the long line of late-round picks that never escapes the obscure confines of places like Princeton, W. Va. Hall played there in 2004, for the rookie-league affiliate of the Rays, and hit just .193 in 41 games. His 2005 season wasn’t much better, as he hit just .232 for Hudson Valley of the New York-Penn League.

Hall perservered, though, and was finally rewarded the next year.

Continuing his slow rise up the ranks, Hall went to Southwest Michigan and blossomed into a prospect. He had eight home runs, 30 doubles and 62 RBIs and was selected the team’s Player of the Year. More importantly, he earned a late-season call-up to Triple-A. His stay only lasted four games – most of the Durham Bulls’ top players were September call-ups to the majors and they needed help filling out a roster for the final few games – but it taught Hall a couple of valuable lessons. First, that the Rays were beginning to notice him; and second, just how much he still had to do to get to Durham or Tampa.

“Going from low A to Durham in 2006 let me know how much hard work I have to do,” Hall said.

Hall took another step up the ladder in 2007, to high-A ball in Vero Beach, Fla. After belting 11 homers in 103 games last season, Hall turned into an all-star. He was batting .291 with 13 doubles, five homers and 28 RBIs when he was selected to play in the Florida State League all-star game earlier this month. His performance in the all-star game itself – 0-for-4, with two strikeouts as the designated hitter for the East All-Stars – was nothing to write home about. What he did beforehand, though, was something he didn’t have to tell the folks in Port Gibson about.

Hall hit 11 home runs – five in the first round, six in the second – to win the all-star game’s home run derby. As he blasted pitch after pitch into the seats at Brevard County’s Space Coast Stadium, his teammates jokingly waved towels in front of him and brought cups of water to the plate to cool him down. And, in a nice touch, eight family members from Port Gibson were on hand to witness his power display.

“That was real exciting. He had been calling us and telling us he was going to be in the all-star game. I really didn’t know he was going to be in the home run derby,” said Hall’s mother, Wilma, who drove from Mississippi to Florida with the rest of the family. “Once he started hitting them everybody was yelling and cheering for him. They heard my voice and joined in.”

Hall’s performance won him a stack of prizes, but the biggest came a little later. Last Monday, Montgomery promoted him to Double-A and it didn’t take long for Hall to show he belonged, either.

Hall hit safely in his first three games in Double-A, going 4-for-12 with one RBI and two runs scored. He had an RBI single in his first at-bat, helping the Biscuits to a 6-3 winover Mobile, and helped trigger the eventual game-winning rally with a key single in an 8-2 win over Mobile on Thursday.

“I’m just trying to be patient and slow the game down. It just seems like from last year to this year I’m seeing more spin on the ball and it’s coming in a lot slower,” Hall said. “Up here the pitchers have better control and locate their pitches better. If I just keep doing what I’m doing, I think I’ll do well.”

While Hall is blossoming into a late-round gem for the Rays, his success could end up forcing him to leave the only organization he’s ever known. The big league Rays are in a pennant race for the first time in the franchise’s 10-year history and may look to make a trade before the July 31 deadline. Hall has been used primarily as a designated hitter this season, but the Rays are stacked with young talent in the outfield, his normal position in the field. That could make Hall an attractive throw-in for another team if the Rays make a move to bolster their lineup before the deadline.

For now, however, Hall said he wasn’t thinking about that. He’s enjoying the ride – and trying to keep it going – too much to worry about it.

“I try not to think about that. I try to help the team, and if something like that happens, it happens,” he said. “If a trade happens I have no choice but to accept it. I just try to come out and play each day.”