Plan B doesn’t stand for baseball
Ex-Oregon State catcher Cole Hamilton’s life journey is fascinating
In 2021, North Salem graduate Cole Hamilton was on top of the world at Oregon State University. He was the starting catcher for the Beaver baseball team, and appeared to be on track to play professional baseball. But one bizarre play sudden changed his fortunes, but not necessarily for the worse. It is a story worth exploring—a journey akin to Lord of the Rings, minus the Hobbits. Don’t worry—this writer has no plans to channel J.R.R. Tolkein in terms of detail. But the story still must start at the beginning.
Cole Hamilton is one of three baseball-playing brothers who came through the North Salem Viking baseball program nurtured at the time by Coach Chris Lee. He is the same coach who has guided the fortunes of outstanding players such as Rocky Gale, Brett Evert, Erik Ammon, and long-time major leaguer Jed Lowrie among others. Cole is a polite, hardworking young man who would make any parent proud. I am equally proud to say that I had him in one of my English classes as a student.
When Cole graduated from North Salem in 2016, Oregon State was a dream that he didn’t pursue. Western Oregon had made promises, and in 2017 he was ready to play for the Division II Wolves. At 5 feet 9 inches tall, he is far from an imposing physical specimen—but he had a rocket arm that made people pay attention and he was determined. But when the game and academics clashed in Monmouth, Cole decided to hang it up. He was destined for the medical field—at the time looking at nursing for his future career. So he reluctantly quit the game he loved.
Cole stayed at Western Oregon, finishing fall term. As he made his way through winter term, Hamilton developed a bad case of strep throat. He managed to complete winter term, but came down with strep five times in six months. He was forced to quit school outright in the spring of 2018, and started working at an assisted living facility to make ends meet.
While working in the care facility, Cole saw his cousin playing baseball at the College of Idaho, and the itch to play returned. He contacted former South Salem standout Andy Jenkins—who was coaching at the time under Pat Casey at Oregon State. Jenkins said he had no walk-on opportunities at Oregon State, but directed Hamilton to Linn-Benton Community College. He met Coach Ryan Gibson—who warned that Cole that he was one of four catchers looking to make the roster. But Hamilton became the starter in Albany, and was part of a regional powerhouse that finished 42-4 in 2018. His fortunes had turned.
That summer, Cole played for the Corvallis Knights in the wood bat West Coast League, where he hit .351 for the league champions and was named to the all-star team. And while he was sitting on a bus during a road trip to Canada, a teammate told Hamilton that he had been drafted in the 23rd round by the Washington Nationals. He even got a phone call from the Nationals scout, offering to drive to Canada to pick him up, drive him to his apartment and gather his things before signing a contract.
Before he could even think about it, Cole got a call from Oregon State’s soon-to-be interim coach Pat Bailey, who told Hamilton the Beavers wanted him in Corvallis.
“My attitude was Oregon State or bust,” admits Cole.
Hamilton turned down the draft offer, and returned to Linn-Benton to play in 2019. In the fall of that school year, he took an obligatory tour of OSU, and then signed a letter of intent to play for the Beavs.
“I was saying just put the paper in front of me,” chuckles Cole. “I was ready to sign before the visit.”
And everything looked rosy for the kid from North Salem High.
The situation looked even more promising when Linn Benton’s head coach moved to OSU to become part of their coaching staff. Cole was ready to play the 2019 season and have some fun before shifting over to OSU’s Coleman Field.
It’s ironically funny how circumstances can change again—and they did in Cole’s case. In preparing for his last year at Linn-Benton, Hamilton developed elbow issues. It started innocently enough as a tug in the elbow. But when he was scrimmaging in front of major league scouts weeks later, Cole made a throw to second and suddenly felt three clicks and a pop that traveled all the way through his fingers. He tore a ligament and required Tommy John surgery.
“I went down three weeks before the start of the season,” recalls Cole. “I played no games in 2019.”
Still, the situation wasn’t hopeless. Coach Bailey told Hamilton he was still coming to OSU, and contacted the team’s surgeon on his behalf. What followed was 10 ½ months of rehab. Cole was cleared to play a month before opening day of 2020. New head coach Mitch Canham had Troy Clauch starting two days behind the dish, and Cole starting on Sundays—as it should be according, to Hamilton. But the season came to an abrupt end in mid-March. The team was suddenly yanked from an airline flight from Portland to the University of Arizona in Tucson. The season had been suspended due to the Covid pandemic. The team was shuttled back to Corvallis, and the next day, the NCAA announced the entire seasons was canceled. Another setback—for every player.
Cole finished classes that spring at OSU, then went home to work with a personal trainer. The team returned in the fall under strict medical precautions, but still got to work out. 2021 looked to be a watershed year.
And it was a fantastic start. Coach Canham had Cole and Clauch splitting time almost evenly through the first 20-plus games of the season. But Cole was told that he would end up as the starter, and after another handful of games, that is exactly what transpired.
Everything again was looking rosy for Cole Hamilton. That is, until a freak play on March 24th in Corvallis during a rainy game against Santa Clara changed everything. The pitch thrown by Jack Washburn was a slider, which frequently will skip off the ground and require a backhanded snag by the catcher. In this case, the ball hit the wet plate and skipped at an odd angle, went behind the glove and hit Hamilton’s bare hand, striking the trapezium bone—located in the wrist below the thumb—cracking the bone.
Initial x-rays showed nothing, and Cole kept playing—but he found that his thumb wasn’t wrapping around the ball properly-and that he couldn’t swing a bat. A follow-up scan confirmed the injury, and Hamilton was forced to splint his hand and wait for it to heal. He missed the post season, where the Beavers lost in the NCAA Dallas Regional.
Despite the huge setback, the Washington Nationals were still interested in Cole. Although they failed to draft him again, he was offered a maximum free agent contact, and Hamilton jumped at it. He signed his contract in July of 2021 and prepared to fly to minor league training camp in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Cole still could not throw or bat or lift weights. He was struggling with a rehab process that was now approaching six months.
“I started to lose my passion for the game,” admits Cole. “It was wearing on me, and I felt more like a team manager because of my frustration with my slow progress.”
Nationals coaches and physicians told Hamilton he needed another two to three months of rehab, but agreed to let him start throwing slowly.
But Cole’s impatience showed. He had only played about 15 games in the last three years, and he wanted to throw hard NOW—which he did, to the frustration of his trainers.
‘I knew I was throwing too hard,” said Cole. “I knew at this point I was going to retire, and I had told teammates.”
After one last throwing session with a teammate at the Nationals complex, Cole picked up his bag, went into the office, and announced he was ready to retire and go home. No amount of arguing was going to change his mind.
“I said my good byes to the coaching staff, and got a golf cart escort to the parking lot.”
Cole had talked about going into real estate, but initially ended up flying home from Florida to Oregon in August. He then drove to Arizona after purchasing his grandfather’s truck, taking along $2500 in cash he had accumulated.
He arrived in Phoenix to follow up on real estate brokerages his uncle had lined up for him, and to find an apartment. He also pursued some part time employment.
“I put my resume’ out there, looking to become a waiter,” confesses Hamilton.
And he did work in a restaurant or two. He also became a welder for a time.
He returned home to Oregon just before Christmas. After celebrating the holidays with his family, he headed back to Phoenix to look not only at real estate, but to explore his options in the medical world.
With a passion for medicine still in his heart, Cole seriously pondered going to nursing school at Johns Hopkins to become an RN or nurse practitioner. Instead, Cole began doing some medicine-related work.
Cole’s job involved working as many as 60 to 70 hours a week, splitting time between the Emergency Department at Phoenix’s St. Joseph’s Hospital and positions at a family medicine clinic and another regional hospital.
One of Cole’s medical supervisors—a highly respected internist—has encouraged him to pursue an outright medical degree and become a doctor instead of becoming a nurse. And Cole has taken steps to make that happen.
With a bachelor’s degree from Oregon State under his arm, Hamilton is making plans to go to medical school. He has 30 credits of science related coursework to finish, and then he will enroll in medical school at the University of Louisville. A long, five-year commitment. But Cole is not dissuaded from this new adventure.
“It’s a testament to not putting all your eggs in one basket,” preaches Cole. “I have a back-up plan.”
That plan involves becoming an orthopedic surgeon, to in his words, “give back to athletes who have gone through situations similar to those I have lived through.”
Cole remains doggedly determined.
It’s a new adventure. Cole Hamilton has set aside his catcher’s glove and replaced it with a scalpel.
Mask up, Cole—and good luck.