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When the American League 2008 All Stars were officially announced, every one in baseball took notice that Josh Hamilton had finally come full circle and achieved the dream of his lifetime. The fact that the event would be a total 180 degree swapping of the horrors and the misguided attempts of Hamilton to finally right the ship and cruise to the ultimate harbor. There have been numerous human interest stories before in connection with the All Star game, but none would even hit the zenith that Hamilton took us during the 2008 State Farm Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium.
From just how far Hamilton had to come was not the issue at hand, but how far he had come, and to where he would take us next. From the day he was selected in 1999 with the First Round overall pick, he has been fighting the demons and the wrath of promise and expectations. When the then Tampa Bay Devilrays took Hamilton, he was considered one of this generations blue-chip, 5-tool players straight out of high school. The sky was the limit then as Hamilton could do just about anything in the outfield and at the plate.
He was a highly decorated high school player, twice being named North Carolina Gatorade High School Player of the Year. Following his senior season, he was named High School Player of the Year by Baseball America and Amateur Player of the Year by USA Baseball. Hamilton played outfield and also pitched during his high school career. As a left-handed high school pitcher, Hamilton sometimes hit 96 MPH. He was touted as a rare talent, who was almost equally skilled as a pitcher and a position player (outfield).
Dan Jennings, then a Tampa Bay scout said “He has every tool we look for in a position player.” His high school coach at Athens Drive, John Thomas said “He’s better at this game than anyone else I’ve seen in high school or college.”
I remember first seeing Josh at the Namoli Complex in St. Petersburg, Florida. Your first focus was on his strong forearms and his professional demeanor. I know from my work involvement with the Spring Training staff that Hamilton was eager and willing to do anything to show his worth to the team at that stage of his career. On the training field facing SE of the center coaching towers,Josh used to routinely put balls into the players’ parking lot during Batting Practice. It became a running joke that the clubhouse staff used to sit out there and shag balls to keep them from hitting the players’ cars
After this successful debut in professional baseball, he spent the 2000 season with the Charleston RiverDogs in the South Atlantic League. Prior to the 2001 season, Hamilton was involved in an accident in his truck coming back from a Spring Training game in Sarasota,Florida. His mother was also injured in the accident, and she went home to North Carolina to be with her husband to recuperate from her injuries. For the first time in his professional career, Hamilton was on his own, without a parental voice to reel him in when he overindulged or misbehaved off the field.
The 2001 season was the first time Hamilton began going to the Ybor City section of Tampa with teammates and became involved in the local bar scene and began experimenting with drugs, after a few months he made his first attempt at rehab. Several former Rays players routinely went to the Tampa entertainment zone to let off steam from the days work and enjoy the nightlife. It was at this time that Josh also began his obsession with tattoo’s and the local parlors in Ybor City. Long nights and missed curfews were only the tip of the iceberg for Hamilton, the demons were getting to his soul and he was about to plunge deep into the abyss.
Hamilton only played 27 games in the 2001 season, split between Charleston ( Class-A ) and the Orlando Rays ( Class -AA ). Hamilton began the 2002 season with the Bakersfield Blaze ( Class -AA ), batting .303 with 9 home runs and 44 RBI in 56 games before his season came to an end due to lingering back and shoulder injuries. At this time he also began experimenting with pain medication and the effects took a huge part out of his game. He had loss the will to play at the highest level by then, just trying to survive another day on pain medications and other drugs of choice.
At the start of the 2003 season, Hamilton started showing up late during the Rays’ Spring Training and was reassigned to the team’s minor league camp as a warning to shape up. Hamilton was not happy about the demotion and left the team and disappeared for several weeks, resurfacing several times, but eventually took the rest of the season off for personal reasons. Hamilton was hoping to return to Spring Training with the Devil Rays in 2004, but he was suspended 30 days and fined for violating the drug policy put in place by MLB.
Because of the length of his suspension, and the terms of the drug policy, Hamilton must have failed two or more drug tests after being put into the program. A ‘failed’ test is a positive result for a drug more severe than marijuana. Hamilton was known to frequent local tattoo parlors and clubs where cocaine and other drugs could be found easily and without problems. Alcohol also became a secondary drug of choice while doing the club scene in Ybor City.
The suspension was increased several times after repeated violations of the terms of the program. From 2002 until 2006, Hamilton did not play any baseball at all. He was starting to hit the downward spiral that would take him into situation he could never imagine in his life. He made several attempts at rehab, and started off the 2005 season with hopes of being reinstated by MLB. During his time away from baseball, Hamilton had escalated to using heroin and shed almost 35 pounds off his frame from the drug use. One time during a brief stay in a drug house in North Carolina, Hamilton let a known drug dealer use his truck to go get more narcotics for the people in the house, but the drug dealer never returned with his truck or the drugs.
Hamilton’s struggles with drugs and alcohol are well documented. He finally got clean after being confronted by his grandmother, Mary Holt. Hamilton says he hasn’t used drugs or alcohol since October 6, 2005. When giving a brief summary of his recovery Hamilton says simply “It’s a God thing.” He does not shy away from telling his story, speaking to community groups and fans at many different functions. He frequently and publicly tells stories of how Christianity has brought him back from the brink and that faith is what keeps him going.
Hamilton finally put down the struggle and the redemption in a book entitled, ” Beyond Belief: Finding The Strength To Come Back”. The book details the events that led up to the derailment. Josh explains how a young man destined for fame and wealth could allow his life to be taken over by drugs and alcohol. But it is also the memoir of a spiritual journey that breaks through pain and heartbreak and leads to the rebirth of his major-league career.
Josh Hamilton makes no excuses and places no blame on anyone other than himself. He takes responsibility for his poor decisions and believes his story can help millions who battle the same demons. “I have been given a platform to tell my story” he says. “I pray every night I am a good messenger.”
His wife Katie sometimes accompanies him on road games and during personal appearances, offering her perspective on his struggles as well. To go along with the provisions of MLB’s drug policy, Hamilton provides urine samples for drug testing at least three times per week. Rangers’ coach Jerry Narron says of the frequent testing: “I think he looks forward to the tests. He knows he’s an addict. He knows he has to be accountable. He looks at those tests as a way to reassure people around him who had faith.” Hamilton approaches the plate at Texas Rangers home games to the song “Saved The Day” by Christian group Phillips, Craig & Dean.
One of the biggest opponents of helping Hamilton get back to the major leagues was Clearwater Baseball Academy owner Ron Silver. After hearing about Hamilton’s desire to return to baseball, Silver offered the use of his facility if Hamilton agreed to work helping area kids and also fine-tuning his swing and follow through after lessons and events.
After several months there, Hamilton attempted to play with an independent minor league team,the Broxton Roxs, but MLB stepped in and disallowed it. After reviewing his case, and hearing from doctors that being around baseball might speed his recovery, Hamilton was allowed to work out with the Devil Rays minor league players starting on June 2, 2006. Throughout this endeavor, the Rays management let Hamilton know that they would do anything possible to ensure his protection and his health while fighting to get back into shape for baseball and beyond.
I remember I had to deliver some Aquafina water and Pepsi products to the Rays Minor League complex the morning Hamilton officially could go back onto the field for the Rays. Hamilton has no idea of the media circus waiting for him outside when I pulled up to the doors. Sitting outside the doors to the practice fields were almost 10 TV cameras’ and crews waiting for Hamilton to emerge to start his MLB career over again. He was inside talking to Tim M, who runs the complex for the Rays when I first saw him. Hamilton looked bigger and stronger than when he was with the Rays before, and had a aura about him now. As he turned and smiled at me, I saw that he also had a renewed vigor and swagger about him. A positive light that truly would guide him through this endeavor.
Josh had found religion was the key to his core. That by believing in the Lord, he had a co-pilot on his journey this time. That he could trust himself and his faith that things would be right this time. He turned, shook my hand after I told him it was glad to see him back again with a smile on his face again and he slowly step towards the door. I warned him of the media storm outside the door, and he just smiled and said, ” I have been waiting for this all my life, I am past the hurricane, this is just a sun-soaked rain shower now.”
By the end of the month, he was allowed to participate in minor league games. He played 15 games with the short-season Hudson Valley Renegades near the end of the 2006 season. In addition to returning to baseball, Hamilton also served as a cautionary tale for his young teammates with the Renegades. Rick Zolzer, the Renegades’ director of special events said of Hamilton: “”He pointed (the other players) in the right direction. He said, Don’t make the mistakes I made.’ He was so good with all of the young kids.”
Hamilton was then selected third overall in the MLB portion of the 2006 Rule 5 Draft by the Chicago Cubs in the off season. The Rays had not placed him on their 40-man roster and left him unprotected to be selected by any of the MLB clubs. The Rays were hoping that with his sorted past and a career in jeopardy, teams would not select him and he would remain with the Rays while reconstructing his career. The Cubs took a gamble on Hamilton, and he was later traded to the Cincinnati Reds for $100,000 ($50,000 for his rights, and $50,000 to cover the cost of the Rule 5 selection). In their coverage of the draft, Chris Kline and John Manuel of Baseball America called Hamilton “the biggest name in the Rule 5 Draft.”
In order to retain the rights to Hamilton, the Reds had to keep him on their Major League 25-man roster for the entire 2007 season. He was one of the Reds’ best hitters in spring training, leaving camp with a .403 batting average. As a result, he won a spot on the Reds’ Opening Day roster; the Reds planned to use him as a fourth outfielder. Hamilton started most of the time in center field after an injury to former-Ray Ryan Freel. He also received starts due to injuries to Chris Denorfia and Norris Hopper.
Hamilton made his long-awaited Major League debut on April 2 against the Chicago Cubs in a pinch-hit appearance,and received a 22-second standing ovation from the Reds’ faithful. He lined out to left fielder Matt Murton, who made a sliding catch. Hamilton stayed in the game to play left field. As he was waiting to bat, Cubs catcher Michael Barrett said “‘You deserve it, Josh. Take it all in, brother. I’m happy for you.”
He made his first start on April 10 against the Arizona Diamondbacks, batting lead off. In that game, he recorded his first Major League hit, a home run off Édgar González. The next night, he hit another. Hamilton was named the National League Rookie of the Month for April. On May 22, the Reds placed Hamilton on the 15-day DL with gastroenteritis; they activated him on June 5 after he batted .333 (8-for-24) with four home runs and six RBI in a six-game Minor League rehabilitation assignment. Hamilton went back on the DL on July 12 with a sprained wrist.
Among all NL rookies, Hamilton placed second behind the Brewers’ Ryan Braun in slugging percentage (.554), and fourth in home runs (19); behind Braun, Arizona’s Chris Young, and the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki. He was shut out in the voting for the Rookie of the Year, which was won by Braun.
On December 21, 2007, the Reds traded Hamilton to the Texas Rangers for Edinson Volquez and Danny Herrera.
In 2008, Hamilton locked up the Rangers starting center fielder job with a stellar spring training in which he batted .556 and drove in 13 RBIs in 14 games. His spring training performance proceeded to follow into the regular season. Hamilton, usually slotted third in the Texas batting order, appears to be finally fulfilling his great potential. Hamilton led all Major League players in RBI for the month of April. He was named American League Player of the Month after hitting .330 with 32 RBI during the month. Hamilton then went on to win player of the month for the second straight month in May, becoming the first American League player in baseball history to be awarded Player of the Month for the first two months of the season.
Hamilton was featured on the cover of the June 2, 2008 issue of Sports Illustrated, in a story chronicling his comeback. On July 9, 2008 Josh Hamilton hit the first walk-off home run of his career against Angels’ closer, Francisco Rodriguez. Fans selected Hamilton as one of the starting outfielders for the American League at the 2008 MLB All Star Game at Yankee Stadium. He finished first in voting among the outfielders to clinch his spot. He will be one of seven first-time starters in the game.
Along with Kosuke Fukudome, Geovany Soto,Ryan Braun,and the Rays’ Evan Longoria, he will be one of four who made their MLB debut 2007 or 2008. He was selected to participate in the 2008 State Farm Home Run Derby the evening before the game. Hamilton selected 71-year old Clay Counsil to throw to him during the Derby. Counsil was a local volunteer who threw batting practice for him as an American Legion player in Cary, NC. Counsil threw picture perfect pitches for Hamilton to hit that night in Yankee Stadium. At one point it was rumored he had thrown over 90 pitches before Josh had finished his First Round.
In the first round of the event Hamilton hit 28 home runs, to break the single round record of 24 set by Bobby Abreu in 2005. Several of those homers were to the only place in Yankee Stadium where a ball could be hit out of the complex, deep right center field next to the upper decks. Hamilton, who had 28 homers after the first round, came out and took only a small amount of pitches to extend his total to 32, before retiring for the final round. Hamilton ended up hitting the most total home runs in the contest with 35, but lost in the final round to Justin Morneau, as the scores were reset. His record setting first round included 13 straight home runs at one point, and three that went further than 500 feet. His longest home run was 518 feet.
In 2006, when Hamilton was trying to get back into baseball, he had a dream where he participated in a Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium, but he could not remember how many home runs he had hit. After the Derby Hamilton said: “This, was like living the dream out, because like I’ve said, I didn’t know the ending to that dream.” The next night, Josh started in center field for the American League, and went 1-3 on the night and was greeted by a huge cheer from the mostly Yankee crowd on his first at-bat.
Hamilton has been an inspiration to both young and old to rise to this level of achievement in such a short frame of time. The season is still young, and Hamilton is currently leading Major League Baseball in RBI’s with 95. He is currently hitting .310 for the year and is ranked 18th in the MLB, and 9th in the AL. Hamilton also has 21 homers at the break to rank 12th in the MLB and 3rd in the AL, two behind the leader.
Hamilton has a chance to made a bid for the Triple Crown this season. He was also touted as a early favorite for the AL MVP award. But in the end, the only category that Hamilton lead in the American League was the RBI crown with 130 RBI’s on the year. He ended up with a .304 batting average, good enough for 11th in the Al. He also ended up hitting 32 home runs to tie for 8th in the AL in that category. Some say the pressure of carrying the Rangers and the long season put Hamilton behind the 8-ball early in the second half of the season.
In the AL MVP race, he ended up coming in 7th place, and was the last participant to top 100 points in the race, he ended up with 113 points in the MVP voting.
We have a lot of great baseball to play, and Josh still has some unfinished business to attend to in the upcoming seasons. He has so much promise in 1999 when he signed with the Rays, and so much time was lost and will never be retained again. But with determination and a will to succeed, we all will see Hamilton rise from the ashes and become the man and player we always knew he would be in baseball.
We should all be grateful this fantastic athlete found the courage and commitment to raise himself above life’s struggles and tragedies. He is a perfect example of mind over matter, and that the power of your own will can defeat any and all demons if you just believe. And with that, I think I will hit the TIVO again and watch the State Farm Home Run Derby all over again tonight.