For this former cub reporter, Darryl Hamilton's smile helped break the ice

NEW YORK --- Darryl Hamilton nearly always greeted me the same way. His smile would start slowly, curling into an amused look, as if he had just heard the funniest joke of his life.

It made you feel welcomed, as if you were seeing an old high school buddy at a 20-year reunion.

I never really thought about Hamilton’s smile before the tragic news of his death, but, looking back, it was pure joy. Darryl seemed to love life and loved sharing that with anyone and everyone he was in contact with.

He didn’t love me, or what he thought I represented, when we first met. He was a New York Met, at the end of a very solid career. I was the beat guy for the New York Post, a tabloid that is not shy about its headlines and its aggressive coverage. Darryl, having played in Milwaukee, Colorado and San Francisco, was not used to the back pages that routinely treat a player’s mistake like Armageddon.

At 25, with a face that still got me carded, I was the representative of the paper in the clubhouse, so it was easy to imagine why Darryl might believe I was the problem.

I can’t remember exactly what set Darryl off, but we had a run-in during what turned out to be a very memorable 2000 Mets season. In short, he did not like the coverage. In my hazy memory, it was either something rather mundane that got him going, or he was accusing me of taking Bobby Valentine's side in one of their confrontations. Maybe both.

Anyway, Darryl and I ended up going outside the clubhouse to the dugout to discuss it fully. I heard him out, and then I explained my side. I listened -- and he listened.

We left, as is often the case with these type of player-reporter confrontations, with a new, improved relationship.

From then on, he seemed to enjoy the Post’s coverage, and I always looked forward to speaking with him. When we had a particularly juicy story -- often about the dysfunctional relationship between Valentine and general manager Steve Phillips -- he would often greet me when the clubhouse doors opened with a finger wagging, and then his face would erupt in that joyous smile. It seemed like the guy from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was starting to understand and enjoy the Big Apple.

Darryl had a bad toe that was the demise of his 13-year career. It cost him playing time, and he felt Valentine wasn't giving him a fair shake with outfielders such as Benny Agbayani, Jay Payton and Timo Perez also on the roster. Valentine and Hamilton had their public differences, sparring at the end of Darryl's solid career (he was a .291 hitter), which ended a little earlier than he wanted.

Over the years, when Hamilton worked in the disciplinary offices for Major League Baseball and did some radio or TV, I would often see him around stadiums. Sometimes I would chide him about his relationship with Bobby V. or something else about our Mets days together.

That big smile would run across Darryl's face. His right index finger would start wagging at me, then he would laugh, a charming laugh, and hand me a business card for his restaurant in Houston.

Who knows what led to the tragic events Sunday. I can speak only to the Darryl I knew. For me, he left behind a legacy with that smile, that joyous smile. I'll never forget it.