Josh Hamilton’s “Homecoming”
I was sitting in front of the big screen last night flipping through the channel selector looking for something to watch about 9 pm last night. There was the usual movies, the movie channels had some interesting things, but nothing that stood out and made me select them. But then I strolled by the ESPN channels and saw a small notation that only said, “Josh Hamilton.” Nothing else , just his name.
Well, if anyone knows me, they will know that Hamilton is someone who has always peaked my interest. From the moment in 1999 when he was selected as a Tampa Bay Devilray with the first selection in the amateur draft, to the moments during Spring Training when I would chat with him in the Rays Namoli field house between practices, Hamilton has always had my attention. So I clicked to ESPN2 hoping it was a real programs and not one of those preselected clips shows that really do not do the guy any justice.
But what I came upon was Rick Reilly’s show “Homecoming”. I had never seen the program before, but after the first 5 minutes, I can tell you I will try and find it again. The program started out with a huge panoramic view of the gym at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, North Carolina. That is the true heart of Hamilton country. The show began with a short monologue before Josh came out to a huge ovation from the crowd of friend, fans, and well wishers to this very special person.
It started with the story about how he was hitting homers at the age of 7 in his local little league games and how his older brother really was the beginnings of his career. Because his brother was older, he pushed Hamilton to play to the level of his team, and Josh delivered, even at such a young age. The show quickly moved and contained a lot of great moments that Hamilton looked genuinely chocked up about sitting on that white stool. there was a great segment about his High School baseball manger and Hamilton’s relationship and how they were as close as brothers, and how Hamilton, or “Hambone” was his best friend.
It quickly got into his selection by the Devilrays, and moved to the fact that it was Hamilton who wanted his parents there with him at all his games, and not the fact that the family just quit work and became his touring company. I did not know the fact that he asked his parents to stop working, and that he would take care of everything since they sacrificed so much for him growing up. I was always under the impression that they were trying to protect the investment, and did not know the personal side of the story. It made me think more about him as a man, and how that gesture was really so sincere and almost unheard of from such a young guy to make at that point in his life.
It quickly got to the accident he was involved in coming back from a Spring Training game down in the Sarasota. He talked about how he saw the dump truck the entire time coming up to the intersection and reached over and pulled his mom to him before the huge truck hit his smaller pickup truck. Hamilton spoke about the fact his parents went back to North Carolina to heal while he was still experiencing back problems and was alone for the first time in his life. The fact that he was without the two guiding points of his life lead to his experimenting and trying new things that would lead him down a rough and dark path over the next few years.
He talked about the first time he went into a parlor for some ink, and how it was one of the places that he felt safe, so he stayed there often during his rehab. Hamilton talked about how the ink on current Ray Carl Crawford got him interested in maybe getting one for himself. Hamilton talked about how a lot of the first tattoos’ had devilish and evil connotations and how some of them featured inkings with “soul-less eyes”. He talked about the night he went and did the three evils that changed his life.
His “friends” at the parlor took him to his first strip club ( 1 ) where he had his first beer ever ( 2 ), and he also later in the night tried cocaine for the first time ( 3 ). From that point it was a fast and furious decline that both the Devilrays and some of his team mates saw in him. He did not talk a lot about it, but I do know of nights in Ybor City where he was the last guy to leave the bar, or parlor after a long night of celebrating his new life. Because he was still rehabbing his back and a few nagging injuries, the drugs and the extra amount of time just sitting around doing nothing pushed him in the wrong direction.
Then came his suspension by the MLB after failing his drug tests. Now some people think it might just have been one test, but it was truly multiple tests that he had failed, and the league stepped in hard and suspended him for the year. As you might imagine, Hamilton spoke about how at that moment it felt like he might never play the game again. His marriage was starting to feel the effects of his activities, and no he was no longer associated with the one thing that kept him busy and clean. At this point in the interview, it kind of made me uneasy, not that I have even hit the kinds of lows or even tried anything remotely like he was talking about.
But he went on about how the drugs slowly snuck into his marriage and how he once stole his wife’s wedding ring and gave it to a drug dealer for some drugs. The positive side of all of this is she went and got the ring back from the dealer. I have to say, this woman is a strong force in his life, and he is very lucky to have her in his life. One of the thing he mentioned at this point was the short season Rays franchise the Hudson Valley Renegades. He talked about how he also gave another dealer his championship ring from that season for drugs and really regretted the move.
At that point Reilly introduced Eben Yager, who before today I only knew as one of my Facebook friends because of a friendship with someone else. He is the current General Manager of the Renegades, and he presented Josh with another championship ring on the stage. Hamilton quickly took off his All Star ring and replaced it with the newly acquired Renegades championship ring. At the end of the show in the last few moments, you saw Hamilton hold up the ring, on his finger to the camera, and you could see the pure joy on his face about the ring.
I then got to the point where Hamilton was down in Clearwater, Florida working for Winning Inning, a local christian-based baseball school and facility working daily and having to earn time in the batting cages. No one knew that he was there at the time besides the staff and students of the academy, and might have been the best thing for him as he was trying to come to grips with his addiction. The Rays did have a small segment in which Hamilton talked about the phone call from Rays General Manager Andrew Friedman telling him about his reinstatement to the team. At that point they moved quickly to the fact that the Rays tried to sneak him trough the Rule 5 Draft, but the Cincinnati Reds pulled off the draft move of getting in front of the Florida Marlins so they could select Hamilton.
It moved quickly to the first at bat in Riverfront Stadium for Hamilton and how on that day he got 3 standing ovations during the game. It was then that his former Reds manager Jerry Narron, and his brother, Coach Johnny Narron were introduced and Johnny spoke about being Josh’s shadow during the season. He spoke on how Hamilton never had any money, credit cards or even checks so the temptation could not come back to him. And that the two of them were just that, shadows of the other on the road that season. Reilly asked Hamilton who was Narron’s shadow to keep him from temptation, and johnny quickly spoke out “Jesus” as the shadow that kept him from taking advantage or keeping things from Hamilton.
Then it spoke of that day in Yankee Stadium during the Home Run Derby and how he had asked Clay Council to throw his batting practice pitches three weeks before the event. There was a great heartfelt segment where the two of them talked about the adventure and Hamilton talked about how his B P was so sweet and perfect for his upper cut swing. It then had an outdoor scene set somewhere in Raleigh at a baseball diamond, and heard that first pitch come off the bat and knew it had found the grass beyond the fence. If you have ever listened to Hamilton hit the ball, I mean really listens to it, it does have a unique sound when it strikes a ball. It might be the type of bat, or it might be the wrist action the last second before impact, but it is a sound you will remember.
After that, the show quickly got to a point where you knew the journey was about to end tonight. The show had come through the horrors and the bottom rung of the ladder and showed his strive to reach the top again both in baseball and in life. Another segment near the end that caught me by surprise was with his wife. It spoke how she went to her pastor asking for help and guidance during Hamilton’s dark moments and got simple advice to just forgive him. It is amazing sometimes how a simple phrase or action can sometime see the solution to life’s problems. She spoke of the promise that she would talk about it once, and never bring it up again.
At the end of the show there was Hamilton exposed to the world. If you were a Devilrays fan back in the early days of his career you found a like-ability and sense of greatness out of this guy and truly wanted him to succeed in baseball and life. I have to say, I am not a family member, or a close friend or ally of Hamilton’s, but the strength and the distance he has come in such a short time is truly a miracle. I have to say I do check out his stats almost daily during the season to see how he is doing in Texas.
The guy will always have a place in my mind from the first time I talked to him, to that last day I spoke with him in the clubhouse before he met the camera outside the Spring Training complex. You see that genuine strength and power now in him that if you ever saw him in 1999 or 2000, you saw in his eyes. He is again on his way to maybe setting numerous records before he is done with his bat. I truly hope that someday we can see him again in a Rays jersey. I know he would get a standing ovation that has never been seen in the Trop. Every time he has come up since he came back up into the major leagues, if I was in the stands, during his first at bat, I stood and clapped for Hamilton.
Some people just strike you personally for different reasons. Josh has stayed in my mind for the raw talent and the enthusiasm he has for the game of baseball. And beyond the past and the future that holds a lot of great moments for Hamilton, the fact that he is smiling and again playing his first love……….baseball is the true reason you got to love the way this guy plays………..Truly.