The Rose and Thorns of Josh Hamilton’s Baseball Life

The whispers must be the worst part.

Of course, an addict experiences far more troubling and damaging things than the nasty buzz of disapproving tongues. Lives are often jeopardized, essential relationships ruined, and prison a possibility. However, no matter what an addict does to move past the addiction, to finally understand that the only choice left is to fight to separate from the drugs or follow the addiction to the grave; no matter how much an addict repairs the damage the addiction has caused or how much time has passed since the worst of it, the whispers remain – an unshakeable legacy of past sins.

More difficult still is to be a public figure carrying such a legacy.

Just ask Josh Hamiltion.

Hamilton, a five-time All Star and 2010 American League MVP, is one of Major League Baseball’s biggest stars. He is also a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. And the whispers have followed him every step of the way throughout his big league career.

Of course, the hard truth is that it is impossible to separate Hamilton’s tumultuous battle with addiction from his similarly dizzying baseball career. The two have become intertwined over the years like a great big rose atop a gnarled stem studded with thorns jagged enough to rip most anything to pieces.

But before that bittersweet dichotomy controlled his universe, he was an unwrinkled sheet of athletic potential – crisp, clean, and awaiting definition.

In 1999, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays made Hamilton, an 18-year-old high school outfielder from North Carolina, the first overall selection in that year’s Major League amateur draft. Nicknamed “Hammer,” he could throw a ball nearly 100 miles per hour but swung the bat with such natural fury that his future as a hitter easily trumped his considerable pitching promise.

A year later, he confirmed the choice by displaying such enviable power and speed at Tampa’s minor league affiliate in Charleston that USA Today named him The Minor League Player of the Year for 2000.

In 2001, Hamilton was primed to become the game’s next big thing, a 20-year-old phenom who hit prodigious home runs with as much ease as he tore around the bases. However, fate and Hamilton’s own demons intervened, sweeping his considerable promise wildly off-course.

On the way to their Spring Training home in Sarasota, Hamilton and his parents were blindsided by a dump truck that sped through a red light and roared into the their SUV. Although Hamilton escaped major injury, he hurt his back seriously enough to limit his playing time that season to just 43 games.

As it turned out, being away from the baseball diamond was the one of the worst things that could have happened to him that year. Still flush with the bonus money he received from his lofty draft status and untethered from the discipline of the game while he nursed his injured back, Hamilton was seduced – slowly, at first – by the thin, dark fingers of illicit indulgence.

He chased the very first drink of alcohol he’d ever had in his life with a line of cocaine. The ensuing dalliance led to guilt, which in turn, led to a stint in rehab – the first of eight such attempts he would eventually try. But the more playing time he missed the easier it was for him to retreat into the haze of cocaine and booze.

By 2003, he had surrendered his baseball future for the bottle and the baggy. His drinking and coke binging had grown to such opulence that there was little room for much else, let alone the painstaking training regimen of a professional athlete. So, after failing a drug test given by Major League Baseball, he simply refused to take any more of them and was suspended from the league indefinitely.

By most measures, his story – at least his story as a public figure – should have ended there, a failed phenom who allowed the visceral temptation of the shadows to hasten his self-destruction.

But it didn’t.

Instead, he fell even further – disintegrating into rampant crack cocaine abuse – before he was saved, by his grandmother and his faith. Late in 2005, Hamilton showed up at his grandmother Mary’s house, financially broke and spiritually broken. And she took him in, demanding only that he not break her heart anymore.

With a newfound respect for religion and the tough love of family, Hamilton slowly made his way back from the edge of the abyss. Although baseball was hardly on his immediate radar, his natural ability for the game had survived his recklessness. While he tried to repair the more important and personal things he’d managed to disassemble, he still dreamt of a return to the sport one day because he knew he still had the instincts and reflexes of a ballplayer. The drugs hadn’t taken that.

After more than a year of sobriety, endless hours of retraining his body to play again, and a successful trial in the low minors, he was reinstated by Major League Baseball in 2007. Tampa understandably no longer had the stomach to take any more chances on him and traded him to the Cincinnati Reds.

At the age of 26, eight years after he was chosen as the first pick in all of baseball, Josh Hamilton finally made his big league debut and quickly showed why so many had such buoyant hopes for him years before. In 90 games with the Reds, he hit .292 with 19 home runs and played defensive with the easy, loping strides that had impressed all of those scouts before his life went haywire.

Hamilton was finally back on the baseball map, but the whispers of his drug-addicted past lingered. Perhaps wanting to take advantage of his newfound value and not wanting to risk losing him to a relapse, Cincinnati traded Hamilton to the Texas Rangers for a pair of promising young pitchers – without any baggage from their pasts.

With the Rangers, Hamilton was spectacular. In 2008, his first year with the club, he made the All-Star team. And as part of the All-Star Game festivities at New York’s Yankee Stadium – one of the great cathedrals of the game – Hamilton launched 35 home runs in the Home Run Derby contest, a record for the event. For the year, he hit .304 and led the American League in RBI’s with 139.

However, he missed 62 games in 2009 with an assortment of injuries. Worse still, it was revealed that he had briefly relapsed with alcohol earlier in the year, publicly binging at an Arizona bar one night. There were anonymous rumblings that another descent could be waiting to happen. After all, addicts are forever just a bad moment or two away from giving away all of the progress they have made.

Instead, Hamilton thrived in 2010. He led the league in batting with a .359 average, hit 32 homers, won the American League MVP, and carried the Rangers to their first World Series appearance in franchise history. The rumors of his demise, it turned out, were greatly exaggerated.

The following season, he again played a key role in leading Texas back into the World Series but missed another 41 games during the regular season due to injury. This time, the whispers hinted at his fragility. Perhaps, the past drug and alcohol abuse had taken such a physical toll that he would always be vulnerable to his body breaking down during the long season.

However, he seemed to answer his murmuring critics again by playing in 148 games in 2012 and swatting 43 home runs for the Rangers, who made the post season for the third year in a row. Yet, Hamilton’s thorny past haunted him when news of another alcohol-related evening of relapse during the season went public.

So, despite, a batting crown, a league MVP award, five straight All-Star appearances, and key roles on three playoff teams, Hamilton became a free agent after the 2012 season and is not expected to receive an offer from the Rangers.

Ordinarily, a player of Hamilton’s ability, accomplishments, and age – he turned 31 in May – would be welcomed back by his current team, in the form of a long-term, big money contract. However, Hamilton and his baseball journey are not in the least bit ordinary.

So, as speculation swirls as to where Josh Hamilton will wind up for the upcoming season, discrete mention of his “off the field” issues invariably play a significant part in the discussion.

Those whispers do, indeed, remain – no matter how long or how far an addict has come from a troubled past.