OKLAHOMA CITY — After Christina Hamilton reached the top step of a dugout on a mission to retrieve a glove, ESPN photographer Scott Clarke had a question about the Louisiana-Lafayette ace.
On a balmy field, the Ragin’ Cajuns slogged through preproduction duties for the network’s broadcast of the Women’s College World Series. Over the past five minutes, Hamilton and Clarke popped off barbed one-liners at each other.
And Hamilton was just taking her turn posing Wednesday.
“Why is she being so mean?” Clarke asked Cajuns catcher Lexie Elkins.
“That’s actually nice,” Elkins replied.
On the sport’s biggest stage, the face of UL-Lafayette (49-8-1) is an enigma: A blonde, telegenic junior who wears Ray-Bans without the lenses, the kind that would make Rick Vaughn proud and social media melt down.
But Hamilton, who takes the ball in the Cajuns opener against Kentucky (49-17) at 6 p.m. Thursday, wants to duck any glare. She is still a kid from Vernon Parish. Until a year ago, she didn’t have an Instagram account. A week ago, a spokesman had to explain to the junior what it meant for her trend on Twitter.
“Nobody can ever tell you that a bunch of people are going to want to talk to you and want to know about everything,” Hamilton said. “I still think it would be strange.”
Now, the hands orchestrating the sports broadcasting giant see her as a compelling character.
“We’re certainly going to hype it up,” ESPN coordinating producer Meg Arnowitz said. “She does have that quality. She does have that prowess.”
Yet Hamilton never figured she’d be a character at all. Or that anyone toting a camera or recorder would want to pick her brain. Three months ago, she was behind Jordan Wallace, a junior who went 32-9 last season.
But Wallace battled control issues early in the year. In the third game of the year, Hamilton helped the Cajuns avert a sweep against North Carolina with six innings of no-hit ball during an extra-inning win. And by Sun Belt Conference play, she had supplanted Wallace.
“I started off thinking, ‘I’m a spare tire for Jordan,’ ” Hamilton said. “It just kept going.”
The reality is, few fans pay attention to the quirks of a pitcher buried in the rotation, particularly one that missed the 2012 season with a knee injury and made just 18 appearances last season.
Local radio stations don’t hand out replica frames to fans lined up outside Lamson Park, which happened ahead of the super regional opener against Arizona. Sports blogs don’t make tongue-in-cheek references. And scores of college guys don’t propose marriage in less than 140 characters.
“She doesn’t care,” second baseman Natalie Fernandez said. “She doesn’t know what it is.”
On Sunday, a couple of teammates started a Twitter account for her, but sophomore Taylor Meaux oversees its content. Her younger brother keeps track of her mentions, and so do a couple of her boyfriend’s buddies. Facebook is about as far as she’s willing to go.
“I got into it right after MySpace died,” Hamilton said. “It’s not good for you. All you do is stalk people.”
For one, Hamilton is content existing off the grid. She grew up in Pitkin, a spot on the map of barely 600 people, and later moved to Rosepine — a town of barely 1,800. Cable beamed in through a huge saucer dish in the backyard, and Hamilton was thrilled at small luxuries.
“I could go to Sonic,” Hamilton said, “and be back in 15 minutes.”
The irony is, Hamilton’s persona is genuinely organic in a time when crafting one and preening for attention in a viral culture is increasingly a norm.
What about the glasses? It’s simple. Hamilton was pitching with her club team at a tournament in New Jersey. A lens popped out. So, she poked its twin out, too. Next came a dare in the dugout.
“You won’t wear them on the field,” the teammate said.
“I’m goofy as all get out,” she said. “I’ll wear them.”
Presto. Since high school, she’s added a pair of white frames to the collection. Yet Hamilton swears there’s no deeper meaning to her attire. Instead, everyone is trying to look to deeply into a simple gag.
“People always ask if there is,” Hamilton said. “Coach Mike (Lotief) thinks I have this different attitude and swagger when I wear them. I just think they’re hilarious.”
And it about sums up Hamilton, who in a world filled with loud dugout cheers, home plate celebrations and extroverted personalities, speaks softly and with a dry and cutting wit.
Lotief said it’s a sign the sport can be infused with individuality in a team context. It doesn’t supress those quirks. Instead, it manages to weave them into its fabric and appeal.
“She’s not a low-key kid,” Lotief said. “She’s fiery. She’s gritty. She’s gutty. She’s goofy. She’s crazy. Once all of these pitchers get in the circle and they get into competition, it’s different. That different part of your personality has to come out.”
The tricky part for Arnowitz’s and her staff is coaxing that out for mass consumption. For over three hours Tuesday, her directors, play-by-play analysts and cadre of softball experts zero in on how to extract that material.
On Wednesday, while her teammates napped on aluminum stands, Hamilton, Lotief and left fielder Shelbi Redfearn talked with the crew. Analyst Jessica Mendoza prodded Hamilton into telling the creation myth of specs.
“She’s a little bit of a dichotomy for us,” Arnowitz said. “We know that personality is in there. That’s our quest: How do we get that personality? She’s keeping it from us, because she’s a little uncomfortable. How do you get her comfortable?”
On Wednesday, Clarke tried by tapping into Hamilton’s sarcasm. After she returned with glove in hand, he asked where she’d been. In between, she perched her glove on her head, faked dealing a pitch from her hand into Clarke’s stomach and needled the pitcher about how he had sympathy for her boyfriend.
“I don’t have any sympathy,” Hamilton said.
For Clarke, Hamilton’s personality can appeal to some, but may not be entirely universal.
“You could just tell you could give her crap, and she’d give it right back,” Clarke said. “People either get that, or they don’t.”
At the WCWS, Hamilton faces the greatest of ironies: The more she wins, the more attention will be drawn and the greater the possibility that she goes viral. Yet she can see an escape route. Or at least a temporary respite.
Going on four years in Lafayette, she’s househunting in Henderson, a 17-mile drive east and near Lake Bigeaux. So maybe when this is all over, Hamilton can slip back into anonymity.
Granted, finding her may be easier than ever before.
“It’s funny,” she said. “Now, I’m trying to get away from everything again.”
Follow Matthew Harris on Twitter: @MHarrisAdvocate.
Copyright © 2015, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved